The term ‘propaganda’ doesn’t have a good reputation, and hasn’t for awhile. It is for this reason that Edward Bernays renamed the practice ‘public relations,’ and began developing the techniques for swaying attitudes and opinions. This may sound sinister, but actually Bernays saw that there are two ways to engage in the practice of mass communication, and so invented another term to draw the distinction. For Bernays, ‘propaganda’ is a morally thick concept, but ‘public relations’ is a thin one.

Consider how if someone tells you that they killed someone, it doesn’t yet imply that they’ve done anything wrong. You might ask them, “was it in self-defense?” and if it was, then they’re off in the eyes of the moral law. But if someone confesses that they murdered someone, there is no question about it… they’ve committed a heinous act. Killing doesn’t imply wrongdoing, but murder necessarily does. ‘Murder,’ then, is a morally thick concept, and ‘killing’ is morally thin.

For Bernays, there are two forms of mass communication. One is anti-social and problematic, and one is not anti-social, and so not necessarily wrong. The former is known as ‘propaganda,’ and the latter ‘public relations.’

Bernays once sold cigarettes to women during a period of discrimination against them by creating an ad campaign depicting smokes as “torches of freedom.” In this way, Bernays got women to feel a sense of liberation when they inhaled deeply on their Lucky Strike. This was before it was known that cigarettes were harmful to one’s health, and so at this point we can say that Bernays was just doing public relations – bringing people together in a shared, warm sentiment toward a common object.

However, suppose that Bernays had — at the same time — decided to spread messages that cigarettes are dangerous to all men in the country, such that when they see anyone puffing away, they get angry. Now, when men see women smoking they will grow irate, and when women smoke they will feel a sense of freedom. In this way, the men will be angry when women feel a sense of freedom, and so the two groups will begin to fight. Propaganda, then, engenders conflict between people, and so is anti-social.

The Related Public is a public relations platform for Philosophy, and seeks to bind people together in shared sentiments toward the artform. To this end, it features writing that showcases all the admirable, wonderful, and inspiring aspects of philosophical work, in part by remaining unconstrained by all those institutional barriers that make academic writing so dry, inaccessible, and narrow.

If you follow along and appreciate what you read — whether it is upsetting, moving, or calming — then you are part of a related public. You are part of a group of people who are bound in gratitude for philosophical thinking.

For Felicia Chacon and William B. Tippens