Freethought and Official Propaganda

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Bertrand Russell
Earl Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)
Graham Wallas
Prof. Graham Wallas (1858 – 1932)
1922 Bertrand Russell
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at South Place Institute 24 March 1922. Chaired by Professor Graham Wallis and presented by Earl Bertrand Russell.

Freedom of thought and of the individual are both under threat, though in ways different from those of the past. Free thought can be defined in the narrow sense, as freedom from the dogmas of religion; and, in the broader sense, as freedom from all forms of constricting control.

These controls are numerous e.g. legal penalties, but the main ones are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. Economic penalties mean preventing a person from earning a living. Distortion of evidence means publicising as widely as possibly, the arguments on one side of a controversy, while obscuring those on the other side. The absence of such penalties would mean a situation in which there was free competition among beliefs, all having equal opportunity to state their respective cases . Though this situation can never be fully achieved, it can be approximated to much more closely than at present.

No viewpoint can be completely correct, hence the aim should be to increase the degree of truth it contains by overcoming bias, and by willingness to refuse and amend it. This is the genuinely scientific approach, to be distinguished from the dogmatic and aggressive approach usually adopted by religion and politics. If the scientific temper and the spirit of rational doubt prevailed, most of the evils of the modern world would be cured.

Irrationality is widespread in the world for a number of reasons. These include:

  1. The effects of bad education
  2. Propaganda
  3. Economic Pressure.

On 1) because in most countries, elementary education is in the hands of the state, misinformation is disseminated to produce jingoistic and uncritical attitudes in pupils. Even when correct information is given, the intention is not to produce critical habits of mind and independent thought.

On 2) Underdevelopment of the critical faculty in the general population enables politicians to influence people through propaganda, which derives from the techniques of advertising. In democracies, public opinion can be created or manipulated by propaganda. Also, the machinery of propaganda is chiefly in the hands of the rich and powerful, whose viewpoint consequently crowd out those influential.

On 3) The most brutal form of economic pressure is found in Soviet Russia, where dissenters are starved to death. But other pressures, though less crude, are found in capitalist society. E.g, in America, where corporate monopolies are so powerful that they can deny a person both employment and freedom of expression. This kind of power did not exist in early industrialism, when there was genuinely free completion and therefore a much larger number of employers. One of the results of monopoly power is that jobs go, not to the deserving, but to those with the approved mind-set.

Though the evils of world are due just as much to moral defects as to a lack of intellectual training, the latter problem can be more easily tackled, through an improved educational system. Such a system, in which the power of the state would be limited, could produce a genuinely enlightened public opinion, one which insisted that the economic status quo, be it capitalist or socialist, exercised no intellectual control over employees.

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