It’s not deception. It’s permission.

It’s not deception. It’s permission. March 20, 2024

Peter Pomerantsev has a new book out about Sefton Delmer. Who and who?

Let’s start with the second one. Sefton Delmer was the head of Britain’s Political Warfare Executive, “He ran propaganda operations for the British against the Hitler regime.”

That’s from Terry Gross’ summary of Pomerantsev’s book on Delmer from her interview with him last week on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”  The stories and examples of Delmer’s efforts to undermine Nazi Germany are fascinating, but to me the most interesting part of the conversation is where Pomerantsev describes Delmer’s philosophy of propaganda:

… That propaganda or communication is not about persuasion. It’s about allowing people to do what they wanted to do in the first place. … It’s not about changing people’s minds. It’s about finding the thing that they really want to do … and give them an excuse to do it.

Effective propaganda, in other words, is not disinformation or misinformation. It does not deceive. It simply gives permission.

Pomerantsev expands on this later in the interview, when the topic shifts from Sefton Delmer’s efforts during World War II to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda today during his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine:

GROSS: How effective do you think the propaganda that Ukrainians are Nazis and that Zelenskyy is a Nazi, how effective do you think that’s been in Russia?

POMERANTSEV: Well, going back to Sefton Delmer, and here I really agree with him, Delmer would say that, you know, propaganda just makes naked. It makes possible what was there already. And what is this propaganda doing? It’s allowing Russians to say — who don’t want to feel any responsibility — well, look. They’re all Nazis. I mean, we’re not responsible for this war. I mean, they — it’s all their fault. People, you know, a lot of people don’t want to think that, you know, they’re the bad ones. So it gives you an excuse to avoid responsibility. A lot of propaganda is about avoiding your sense of personal responsibility.

Secondly, it can enable sadism for those who desire that sadism. I mean, once you’ve called them Nazis, it’s a bit like calling, you know, well, it’s a bit like saying that they’re not — dehumanizing them, actually. So you’re using the language of calling somebody a Nazi to do what the Nazis did, which is dehumanize others. And once you’ve said that, for those who are sadistically inclined, and that might be more people than we are comfortable in admitting, you can go and do horrible, horrible things to them.

This is precisely the same dynamic as what I describe here as “Satanic baby-killerism.” The aim is not to deceive others into accepting the preposterous notion that millions of their neighbors are baby-killers and death incarnate or to deceive them into thinking that the Jewish man elected president of Ukraine is secretly a Nazi. Those others know this is false, but they want to be able to act the way they could act if it were true. The lie that gives them such permission does not need to be plausible, only flattering enough to be popular.

Permission, not deception. At least, not deception in the way we usually think of it, as a trick that dupes the otherwise unwilling. It’s more like what I’ve previously described as an invitation to participate in deception — a communal self-deception that allows volunteer participants to support one another by acting as a kind of tie-breaker in the stalemate that individual attempts at self-deception produce.

“The self-deceiver does not believe what he says or he would not be a deceiver,” Philip Leon wrote. “He does believe what he says or he would not be deceived. He both believes and does not believe.”

That seems paradoxical, but it’s not really as fancy as all that. How is the self-deceiver both the object and the subject of deception? He’s not. Because the same “self” that “does not believe” because he is fully aware of his attempt to deceive is the self who claims to be deceived and thus claims “he does believe.”

So it’s not actually the case that “The self-deceiver … both believes and does not believe,” but rather that the self-deceiver does not believe, but pretends to.

The primary audience for this pretense of belief is not others, but the self-deceiver himself. It is thus a second round of attempted self-deception. It fails for the same reason the first round failed and, thus, requires a third attempt, and a fourth, etc.

Self-deception is like moving a king-sized mattress. It’s possible to do it all by yourself if you’re very determined to do it. But it’s a lot easier if you get others involved.

The desire for this self-deception, as Pomerantsev says, is “to avoid responsibility.” And thus it is also to avoid the complicity — the guilt — that comes from having refused all responsibility. No one wants to accept that they’re on the wrong side, the side of unfairness and injustice, of cruelty and harm. No one is happy about being forced to ask themselves “Are we the baddies?” Nor are they happy about the undeniable sense that the question has only come up because you’ve begun to suspect the answer. And rather than face having to consider an honest answer to that question, most people will desperately reach for any pretext to change the subject and avoid thinking about it.

The problem with avoiding thinking about something, of course, is that you’re the one doing the avoiding and thus you cannot do it wholly unawares. So, again, it’s easier to do this in groups. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “If others will only accept what the self cannot quite accept, the self as deceiver is given an ally against the self as deceived.” (That’s from The Nature and Destiny of Man, which is also where that Philip Leon quote with the similarly patriarchal language is from.)



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