‘Propaganda’: When words aid and abet killing

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many of us were brought up on that old schoolyard defense against insults. However, time and again, the answer to the question “Do Words Kill?” is a qualified yes.

If you haven’t been to see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, time is getting short. The exhibit runs through this Sunday, June 1, and these thoughts are prompted by that fact and last weekend’s  gains by wildly anti-Semitic forces in the European Union.

I’ve been processing what I heard while attending “Do Words Kill? Hate Speech, Propaganda, and Incitement to Genocide” on May 7 at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix with about 100 other people and here are some highlights gleaned from the panel of experts on hand – Steve Luckert, curator of the traveling “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”; Mike Abramowitz, director of the USHMM’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide; Elizabeth “Barry” White, of the center; and Len Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post and now an educator at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School.

The whole topic of dangerous speech is difficult for Americans, who are used to First Amendment protections and so “they’re entitled to their opinion” is often used to brush off lies and hatred.

The occasion for the program was the exhibit upstairs at the library, which is open till June 1, that looked at the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in enabling the genocide against Jews and methodical murder of other targeted groups, as well.

“The Holocaust started with propaganda,” said Abramowitz, the moderator of the discussion. Talking about why the Holocaust museum put the exhibit on the road and about the efforts of the USHMM’s National Institute for Holocaust Education, he said, “Young people are our most important audience” and that the exhibit and discussion where intended to help develop critical thinking skills in an era when “denial is so prevalent.”

Asked how we recognize what makes speech dangerous, White said that it’s a contextual judgment, involving the speaker, the audience, the speech itself and the social-historical context.

Luckert talked about the way the Nazi propaganda machine created “an alluring vision of a national community” while defining “groups of people who did not belong.”

Such propaganda “transforms those groups from citizens to pariahs” and by dehumanizing and blaming those groups for various ills provides a government or other organized group to offer a “solution” like Hitler’s: “Let the state take care of it.”

Downie pointed out the difficulty surrounding simple press coverage of issues and how words create impressions that may not be accurate or factual. “When do you call someone a terrorist or a militant?” he asked. Journalists face similar questions about including race as an element of reporting, he said.

Abramowitz interjected that while the Rwandan genocide was brewing, local radio commentators were calling the Tutsis (the victims of the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu majority) “cockroaches” on the air.

Luckert compared and contrasted the German society of the Nazis and the Rwandan society surrounding the genocide of the Tutsis. While Germany was highly literate and Rwanda was mostly illiterate, radio played a role in fomenting both genocides, presenting the propaganda in ways that were entertaining and appealed to young people.

“By the time the killing started, the damage had already been done,” White said.

“We are in a dangerous time right now,” Downie said. “We need to call people out on lies.”

White talked about how good faith efforts can reduce ethnic violence, citing Kenya, which had a history of violence surrounding elections. In 2007, ethnic violence erupted in Kenya over the disputed results, including false rumors spread via cellphone and texting that incited violence. The violence prompted a national effort to cool the temperature of dangerous speech surrounding the nation’s politics and in the 2013 election, “There was no outbreak of mass violence … Kenyans understood the risk and were committed to avoid another outbreak.”

There was no ultimate conclusion, but the panelists made it clear that we should all be skeptical of messages we hear and counter falsehoods when we can.

The program and exhibition are made possible in part by Amy and Andrew Cohn, the Rosenbluth Family Foundation, and Barry and Barbara Zemel.

The exhibition was underwritten in part by grants from Katharine M. and Leo S. Ullman and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, with additional support from the Lester Robbins and Sheila Johnson Robbins Traveling and Special Exhibitions Fund, established in 1990.

— Salvatore Caputo

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