Essay on Hannah Arendt’s Opinion on the Use of Propaganda

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In today’s world, the idea of totalitarianism and the mechanisms by which it is achieved seemed to many a bygone concept of 20th-century regimes that have been long since dismantled. However, a new wave of totalitarian movements has been steadily rising from the ashes, and I believe it’s important to examine what makes them dangerous. They utilize many of the tools such as propaganda and militarism that allowed the Nazi party of Germany and the Communist party of the USSR to violently seize power. Hannah Arendt’s opinion on the use of propaganda and its effects are similar to another of the great political authors of the 20th century, George Orwell, who wrote the historically inspired dystopian-future novel 1984. However, the similarities between the author's position end when it comes to the role of logic in totalitarian regimes.

But first, we must bring to attention the role of propaganda in totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt elaborates on this form of propaganda in this quote:

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“they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible, and nothing was true... The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”(pg.382)

This strategy was well utilized by the propaganda ministers of Nazi Germany to great effect. For it functioned to dominate one’s subordinates, who would have to cast aside all integrity to repeat falsehoods and thus would be bound to their leader by shame and complicity. Take for example the public condemnation of the Jews, simultaneously they were portrayed as masterminds pulling the strings behind closed curtains, while also portrayed as sub-human vermin, depending on which version best fitted the circumstances. Arendt concluded that being made to repeat an avalanche of egregious falsehoods renders the population powerless to resist, which can be seen in this quote

“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end---is being destroyed.” - Arendt “Truth and politics” pg.257

This can be aptly contrasted against George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. George Orwell predicted a quasi-communist totalitarian government in which the citizens dedicate their entire lives to work for the party, in a never-ending cycle of war and bloodshed with citizens brainwashed to become puppets for the party.

A core concept of the dystopian universe is the idea of “doublethink”. By which party weakens the independence and strength of individuals’ minds and forces them to live in a constant state of propaganda-induced fear, the Party can force its subjects to accept anything it decrees, even if it is entirely illogical. For instance, Orwell succinctly describes this very situation in book part 2, chapter 9:

“The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink” Part 2: Chapter 9

Where Arendt and Orwell’s interpretations vary, however, is the role of logic in totalitarianism. To Orwell, the loss of sensitivity to contradictions is the ultimate result of a regime, which he sees as being full of contradictions. For if one does not notice contradictions in history, they feel no need to change it. Orwell admits that the regime would like some consistency because firstly, it avoids writing down the oral rules of society in order to hide their intrinsic contradictions, such as doublespeak and crime stop.

And secondly, because it continuously reviews the historical evidence, according to what the party wants people to believe at a specific moment in the past it requires the ability to expunge data that may be conflicting. But as previously stated, the party relies on the unspoken rule of doublethink, which hides the most glaring contradictions and thus avoids anything being changed in society.

Arendt’s focus on the principle of non-contradiction, to Orwell, is only a minor part of the support of regimes. Instead, he suggests that insensitivity towards the contradiction blocks possible mechanisms that have, historically, been born revolution. Thusly, for Orwell, the role of logic is not the development of the idea. Take the following for instance:

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”

Arendt on the other hand, suggests the fear of contradiction keeps people within the tunnel of totalitarianism: when one accepts an initial idea, then they must develop logically all of its consequences and are unable to escape from them. To sum up Arendt’s position, totalitarian regime shares with tyranny the absence of law and reliance on terror, but then it has, as its own peculiarity, a reference to 'iron logic'. As evidence of this, Arendt points out the following statement:

Furthermore, 'the ‘ice-cold reasoning’ and the ‘mighty tentacle’ of dialectics which ‘seizes you in a vise’ appears like a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon.' P.478

Arendt identifies logic with the necessary development of an idea and identifies the idea of freedom with the ability to start, She believes, therefore, that tyranny bears the germ of its own destruction, for Every man is a beginning, and thus a potential importer of freedom and novelty.

And now I ask you dear listener, which interpretation do you believe is more accurate? Is it Orwell’s notion of a loss of sensitivity towards the contradictions of the population? Or Arendt’s idea of the fear of contradictions that allow totalitarian governments to thrive?

The final chapter of Hannah Arendt‘s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism can be used as a good guide to schematize the construction of a totalitarian government as it was described in Orwell’s novel 1984. Namely, Arendt points out three steps that a state performs in order to obtain the murder of the juridical, moral, and spontaneous person, and we find the same ones in Orwell. Still, in spite of this similarity, Hannah Arendt and George Orwell have very different opinions, if we consider their views about the role of logic in totalitarianism. For Orwell, the loss of sensitivity to the contradictions is the culmination of the totalitarian regime, which he sees strewn with them: if you do not notice contradictions in history, then do not feel compelled to change it. On the contrary, for Arendt it is the fear of contradiction that keeps people within the tunnel of totalitarianism: when you accept an initial idea (for instance: “history is a class struggle”), then you have to develop logically all its consequences and you are no more allowed to escape from them. In this paper, we will consider the authors’ reasons in detail and try to take stock of them

It was not easy. It needed great powers of reasoning and improvisation. The arithmetical problems raised, for instance, by such a statement as ‘two and two make five’ were beyond his intellectual grasp. It needed also a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence and as difficult to attain.

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