Sunday, August 25, 2019

Dorothy Sayers: On Susceptibility to Propaganda and Advertisement

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) is probably best-remembered as the author of the (fabulously good) Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels and stories. But she also received first-class honors modern languages and medieval literature from Oxford in 1915, before women were officially awarded degrees, and later in life also published books of poetry, theology, and a well-regarded translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. In 1948, she wrote an essay titled "The Lost Tools of Learning" (available various places on the web). A quick taste:
"Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart? ...
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of `subjects'; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished.
This complaint from Sayers strikes me as having an uncomfortable amount of truth. Yes, it may underestimate the extent to which people have always been susceptible to a propaganda rooted in emotion-laden words. But it seems to me as if the targeting and sophistication of propaganda is increasing. Conversely, it is not clear to me that people have over time become correspondingly better at dealing with these issues, and it is not clear to me that those who have higher levels of formal education are better at dealing with them, either.

The solution offered by Sayers in her essay is magnificently irrelevant: as student of medieval literature, she recommends a return to the principles of the Trivium and the Quadrivium in classical education. I suspect Sayers of recommending for others what would have worked well for her--but she was quite far from being a typical student or person.