On 4th September, the Trump administration issued a directive to federal agencies to terminate any contracts that permit and fund diversity training. The letter says that anything that connects to critical race theory, white privilege or “any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil,” is no longer permissible as it is anti-American propaganda.
The question we think worth considering is: what is propaganda? What’s the difference between information, fact, opinion, ideology and propaganda? And lastly, when is education propaganda?
For something to become propaganda, there has to be a power differential in favour of the perspective deemed propagandistic.
If two friends are having a conversation and one person says they like chips and another says they like rice, neither could reasonably claim the other was engaging in propaganda. These would be opinions rooted in an individual’s perspective, informed by little wider context nor having a material impact on any other person.
If the state however makes a claim, given the power it has to put forth its perspective, the many channels it can use (state education, laws, policy), as well as the potential alignment it may find with other media outlets who can reinforce its claims with significant ease- that arguably is propaganda.
What’s also interesting in this letter is that at times ‘training’ and ‘propaganda’ are used interchangeably.
We think that training certainly can be propagandistic. Again, we might look to where there exists a power differential at play in what is taught and what is not. Education backed by the state, perhaps? Is education we receive in schools neutral? Or might it possibly include ideas that further existing unequal power dynamics which individuals from certain groups or the state itself may benefit from? Why are we not taught about the British empire’s gulags in Kenya in the main in U.K. schools? Is the absence of that knowledge a mass training in service of the idea of a benevolent British empire?
A key question we think it’s important to ask here is: who benefits from keeping the status quo when certain education or training is impermissible? And finally: how does this impact communities experiencing oppression? Once we’ve asked these questions, only then are we ready to understand what the meaning of propaganda is.