By Angela Groom
Monday evening the philosophy club invited guest speaker, Femi Taiwo, to give a speech on Propaganda. Taiwo began the talk by referencing Robert Stonaker’s tool of the “common ground.” The “common ground” seeks to show how language operates to generate propaganda. The common ground is, in essence, the area of language that is bound by preconceived notions and assumptions we all have and use to operate in everyday conversation.
Taiwo then introduces John Rawl’s criterion of “Reasonableness.” The term is used primarily when referring to the task of reasoning together as groups of people, as a “democratic” society. These discussions manifest with the inclusion and consideration of all voices and opinions within that community. Of course, decision making cannot seek to satisfy each and every opinion and still be considered efficient; disagreement is natural. However, to be able to say a group is characterized by “reasonableness”, one must be sure that every voice was considered in the process of decision-making, otherwise it is not considered reasonable.
One Jason Stanley determined that to undermining propaganda one must undermine a political ideal.
“Speech acts are a way to undermine political ideals,” said Taiwo.
In order to bring his point home, Taiwo gave a historical example. In the 1920s, a group of med students were given the number of black patients that had syphilis versus the number of white patients who tested positive for syphilis. This was a general statistic that was not false or altered for political reasons.
However, the stereotype that black people were sexually deviant existed already in the minds of the students. These students were left to assume that this statistic existed in this way due to lack of clarification. The actual reason that the number of black patients having syphilis was higher than white patients was due to the white patients having greater immunity to syphilis and not because they were more sexually pure. When the circumstances of a statistic are left unclarified, the background knowledge of assumptions that a society possesses has to fill the void.
Taiwo then discussed what is now known as the Flint Water Crisis. “Everyone knew the water was bad, it was brown. But the Michigan Department of Environmental quality said that the water was ‘safe’ and, since building wells or accessing water alternatively wasn’t feasible, the people of Flint continued to use the water,” said Taiwo.
He added that,
“If a slave master addressed a slave, saying ‘come here boy’, and if the slave he addressed was grown, preferring not to be addressed as ‘boy’ then he would have to remain complicit due to lack of alternatives.”
He concludes that one way to correct injustice lies within the common ground. Those in larger number but possess less power must either gain a position of power or obtain enough voices with the same common goal to achieve attention from those in power. Frederick Douglass famously proclaimed, “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” as a tactic for social reform.