Propaganda and Indoctrination

Noam Chomsky

ZNet, December 10, 2000

DB: Lets talk about a theme that we return to periodically, and that is propaganda and indoctrination. As a teacher, how do you get people to think for themselves? Can you in fact impart tools that will enable that?

I think you learn by doing. I’m a Deweyite from way back, from childhood experience and reading. You learn by doing, and you figure out how to do things by watching other people do them. Thats the way you learn to be a good carpenter, for example, and the way you learn to be a good physicist. Nobody can train you on how to do physics. You don’t teach methodology courses in the natural sciences. You may in the social sciences. In any field that has significant intellectual content, you dont teach methodology. You just watch people doing it and participate with them in doing it. So a typical, say, graduate seminar in a science course would be just people working together, not all that different from an artisan picking up a craft and working with someone who’s supposedly good at it. I think the same is true of these things. I don’t try to persuade people, at least not consciously. Maybe I do. If so, its a mistake. The right way to do things is not to try to persuade people you’re right but to challenge them to think it through for themselves. There’s nothing in human affairs of which we can speak with very great confidence, even in the hard natural sciences that’s largely true. In complicated areas, like human affairs, we don’t have an extremely high level of confidence, and often a very low level. In the case of human affairs, international affairs, family relations, whatever it may be, you can compile evidence and you can put things together and look at them from a certain way. The right approach, putting aside what one or another person does, is simply to encourage people to do that. The way you do it is by trying to do it yourself, and in particular trying to show, although its not all that difficult, the chasm that separates standard versions of what goes on in the world from what the evidence of the senses and peoples inquiries will show them as soon as they start to look at it. A common response that I get, even on things like chat networks, is, I cant believe anything you’re saying. Its totally in conflict with what I’ve learned and always believed, and I dont have time to look up all those footnotes. How do I know what you’re saying is true? That’s a plausible reaction. I tell people its the right reaction. You shouldn’t believe what I say is true. The footnotes are there, so you can find out if you feel like it, but if you don’t want to bother, nothing can be done. Nobody is going to pour truth into your brain. Its something you have to find out for yourself.

DB: Another comment I hear in talking about this issue is that people say, Im no Noam Chomsky. I dont have his resources. I work at Logan Airport from 9 to 5. I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I don’t have the access and the ability. Does it take special brains?

It doesn’t take special brains, but it takes special privilege. Those people are right. You have to have special privilege, which we have. Its unfair, but we’ve got it. To have the resources, training, time, the control over your own life. Maybe I work a hundred hours a week, but its a hundred I choose. Thats a rare luxury. Only a tiny sector of the population can enjoy that, let alone the resources and the training. Its extremely hard to do it by yourself. However, we shouldn’t exaggerate. Many of the people who do this best are people who lack privilege, for one thing because they have several advantages. Not having undergone a good education, not being subjected to the huge flow of indoctrination, of which an education largely is, and also not having participated by taking part in the system of indoctrination and control, so that you internalize it. By indoctrination I mean from kindergarten up through professional life. Not being part of that, you’re somewhat more free. So there are advantages also to being outside of the system of privilege and domination. But its true that the person who’s working fifty hours a week to put food on the table does not have the luxury we do. That’s why people get together. That’s what unions were about, for workers education, which often came out of the unions in the workers movement. These were ways for people to get together to encourage one another, to learn from one another, to find out about the world. Over quite a range, in fact: literature, history, science, mathematics. Some of the great books on science and mathematics for the public (for the millions) were written by left-oriented specialists, and such topics found their way into workers education, often union-based, sometimes offshoots. There’s things you can do in groups you cant do by yourself. In fact, that’s true of the most advanced sciences. Very little is done individually. Its usually done in groups by collective action and interchange and critique and challenge, with students typically playing an active and often critical role. The same is true here. Part of the genius of the system of domination and control is to separate people from one another so that doesn’t happen. We cant consult our neighbors, as one of my favorite Wobbly singers once put it back in the 1930s. As long as we cant consult our neighbors, well believe that there are good times. Its important to make sure that people don’t consult their neighbors.

DB: Who was that singer?

T-Bone Slim.

DB: You were listening to T-Bone Slim?

I read these things. Im not attuned to the auditory world.