The Gaslit Cave: Chained to a Television Screen
BY ANDREI BABITSKY
It was Plato who invented propaganda and gave it so much credibility. In Republic, he imagined it as a force for good. He wanted the wise guardian rulers to produce noble lies that would benefit the country. He expected the gullible masses to believe the message and work tirelessly for the common good. He was convinced that, absent the nudging, the masses themselves would never think of worthy values.
As recently as a hundred years ago propaganda was not considered a bad word. Both Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson would find it useful. And although they had very different aims in mind, they shared similar platonic assumptions, starting with this one: there is a subject and an object to propaganda. There is someone smart on the transmitting end and someone in need of enlightenment on the brainwashing machine’s receiving end. Many believe that propaganda is a powerful tool helping the rulers achieve their goals without recourse to violence. There is a silver lining to this thinking: give the suppressed access to a VPN and they will reclaim their critical thinking.
In the olden days, propaganda may have worked that way. Even some high-brow intellectuals sincerely believed the Bolsheviks or the fascists. A hundred years ago there were millions of people in the Soviet Union and in other totalitarian states who were willing to work and even suffer for the lies they were being told. But not anymore.
Bingewatching the News
Plato’s allegory of the cave may be helpful in thinking about propaganda. As prisoners of the cave cannot perceive real objects of the world, they are reduced to interpreting the dancing shadows on a makeshift screen built for them by their jailers. To prisoners, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” Only if they are released from their cave and finally see the real world in all its shapes and colors will they understand how things really look. To the author of the Republic, Plato’s dialogue in which the allegory appears, the ability to use one’s intellectual powers and reasoning to understand the true workings of the world is akin to a release from prison.
The parable of the cave keeps coming up in Russian conversations. We just don’t refer to the cave but use Russia’s state-run television as the simile. Millions of Russians seem to be glued to their TV screens. The TV set is the proverbial screen that shows distorted representations of real things. Every waking hour spent in front of that screen diminishes humans’ ability to critically analyze incoming information, makes viewers unwilling to and incapable of forming their own judgments. I hear the word “brainwashed” a lot. Many of my friends are convinced that a destruction of state-run television would release all Russians from their intellectual coma. As in the cave parable, the first steps in the sunlit world would be difficult, but the eyes would adjust and everyone would be able to see the world as it was.
I cannot relate to this picture. I’m trying to imagine what I would think and feel if I were, since my childhood, chained to a wall in a dark cave, unable to move my legs and turn my head. Would I be able to analyze what I see? I don’t think so. I am sure I would entertain one single thought every waking hour: what is this chain that is holding me? Can I be released from this painful confinement? What am I expected to do so the people who put me in chains won’t hurt me further?
It is widely believed that the medium is the message. For many people around the world, the chains around their necks are the message. Nobody is expected to make sound judgments about world politics when they are chained or when they feel they are chained. A first-world media analyst would dismiss those chains as fakes made of cheap plastic; just break them open and walk free. But people would disagree. In Russia, for a good part of the past hundred years, the chains proved to be quite real and robust.
Traitors and Their Grandfathers
A friend of mine, a brilliant journalist now in emigration, was recently working on a piece about (mostly) young Russians unable to discuss the war with their elderly relatives. She gathered dozens of sad stories. “My grandmother just repeats the state TV talking points.” “I keep sending my grandfather first-person accounts of the sufferings of the Ukrainian people and he dismisses them as Western propaganda.” “They call me a traitor.” It turns out, thousands of people in Russia just cannot talk to their families anymore. Many of them blame propaganda, which brainwashes the gullible people, floods the media with torrents of lies, and erases distinctions between facts, opinions, and fictions.
One might imagine the familial frictions happened overnight, but in fact they didn’t. Usually, mutual misunderstandings like these persist for years. It’s just that the war made them unbearable. Like the rest of us, I have such elderly relatives and colleagues too, people who always prefer to stay on the safe side of the state propaganda, who uncritically repeat whatever strange ideas are broadcast on TV, and, most important, who avoid political discussions whenever they can. And though it saddened me at times, it never really surprised me. Because they know about propaganda much more than their condescending critics do.
Whenever a young friend of mine talks to his or her grandparents, it is safe to surmise that the grandparents were born in the 1940s or 1950s. They were brought up in families that protected themselves and their kids by NOT talking politics at home. It was not just a precaution, it was a moral imperative of sorts. Everybody knew that many had lost their freedom or their life for breaking this simple rule. The freedom—or professional possibilities—of a child were obviously worth more than an angry diatribe against the state. It used to be that way; it was learned that way. Even if nowadays the times have changed, it still takes time to believe it. And by the way, have they changed, the times? I first met my journalist friend in an avtozak, that is, a police van we were all put into after being detained at a rally. There were a dozen of us in the van, exactly one-half of all the people who attended the rally. So the older relatives are somewhat justified in their belief that whatever it takes to dissuade their offspring from politics is the right thing to do. Not just right, but superfluous: they trade the expression of whatever opinions they may have for the perceived benefit of the safety of their loved ones.
The act of taking a critical stand may endanger the taker. Everyone in Russia knows that to know the truth and do nothing is hard, while to know the truth and do something about it is punishable. You cannot attend a rally, you cannot start an NGO, you cannot, as of late, scribble “no war” on an ad poster in an elevator. (A friend of mine was recently detained for this crime while walking her dog—the police held the dog at gunpoint.) One of the most common consequences of not being able to react are the bouts of depression one experiences when a Navalny is poisoned or a Mariupol is bombed flat and one feels unable to do anything about it. Pretty much every active protester I know lost dozens of working days over the last couple of years to depression, whether medicated or not.
None of this makes falling for propaganda commendable, but perhaps it does make it somewhat understandable. Propaganda works because the Russian government uses unconventional chemical weapons to kill political opponents (Navalny), because pretty much every independent politician is either exiled or imprisoned, because close to 100 percent of protesters at peaceful rallies are detained.
It is the violence, not the propaganda, that is working. These are the chains in the cave, and as long as the chains are strong, many people will be happy to watch the deceptive shadows on the walls. It is gaslighting on a monumental scale, rather than propaganda or any other reputable rhetorical device. Plato was right: it’s hard to be a philosopher while chained to a wall.
There is a special effect of propaganda, of course: it seems that Russian rulers believe their own lies. Plato would be surprised; I am not. After all, Russian political elites and the state TV audience share the same knowledge, which is still true: violence and scare tactics work. Putin thought he would scare Ukraine into submission in a week. Let us not forget, though, that the whole world believed the same thing right up to the point where it turned out that for some inexplicable reason, Ukrainians were not scared. So it is not Putin who believes his own lies, it is the people of Ukraine who saw a lie in his “truth.”
So long as there are people chained to a wall in a cave, propaganda contains more truth than anyone is willing to admit: the truth of the frailty of the people chained to a wall in a cave. That is why one cannot undo Putin by smartly fighting propaganda, but it is possible to undo propaganda by fighting Putin. The only thing that actually persuades people to ignore propaganda is personal courage, either within the country (Navalny) or outside it (in Ukraine). Nothing else works in the cave.
Of course, we can imagine real, rhetorically sophisticated, and effective propaganda—just not in Putin’s Russia. And we cannot logically deduce that Russian propaganda works until we are able to subtract the fear from the resulting equation. Are people brainwashed, scared, or both? I think the fear is enough of an explanation. If you believe otherwise, please, try to brainwash a Russian into wearing a mask during quarantine or converting his savings into the national currency. Propaganda has been telling us for years that the dollar is about to crash and that masks work. But as nobody has served jail time for debating these points, propaganda failed—spectacularly.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more