What Is 21st-Century Truth?

Propaganda Has Trapped Us in Plato’s Cave—the Shadows Aren’t Real but the Sun Is Blinding

Can Plato’s allegory of the cave shed light on America’s broken public square? Historian of American political rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca considers what the famous dialogue can tell us about propaganda in the 21st century. Illustration by Be Boggs.

Zócalo is celebrating its 20th birthday this year! As part of the festivities, we’re publishing reflections and responses that revisit and reimagine some of our most impactful stories and public programs. Historian of American political rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca continues to explore why political discourse is broken in the U.S.—as in her 2018 essay “Preaching Civility Won’t Save American Democracy.”

You’re a prisoner, held in a dark cave. Your hands are tied behind you and you can only look straight ahead at the cave wall. Your captors keep you occupied by putting objects on it. To pass the time you and your fellow prisoners play games. Who can be the first to shout out the name of the object? Who can correctly guess which object will appear next?

You feel pride when you’re right—because being right about the objects is the only thing of value you have.

One day a fellow prisoner escapes their chains, and looking around the cave, realizes that what you’ve all thought were real objects on the wall were only shadows cast by a fire that’s burning behind you. The escaped prisoner manages to find a ladder, climbs out of the cave, and rushes into the blinding sunlight. As their eyes adjust to the brightness, they realize that the cave isn’t reality at all; it is only a dungeon for the mind.

They decide to go back into the cave to rescue you and your fellow prisoners by telling you the truth about the world as it actually is. But when they try to explain about the shadows and the sunlight and the colorful world outside, you and your fellow prisoners refuse to believe them. When the former prisoner urges you all to come to terms with your delusions and free yourself, you band together and kill them. Rather than follow your liberator out of the cave, you collectively turn your attention back to the shadows.

This story is, of course, Plato’s “allegory of the cave” from his book The Republic, written in the second half of the 4th century B.C.E. But it’s also us, today. Our 21st-century cave is our modern media system, where truth is a spectacle controlled by propaganda. Some of us are prisoners, some of us are creating shadows, and some of us are escapees. All of us are vulnerable to manipulation.

In Plato’s allegory we’re supposed to conclude that the deluded prisoners are both victims and villains and that the escaped prisoner is a tragic hero, motivated only by pure knowledge of the truth. But it’s equally plausible to draw different conclusions about the cave and its prisoners.

What if the escaped prisoner didn’t have noble goals? What if they only claimed they’d escaped the cave and can now reveal the “real” truth—but are instead just selling a dangerous, fraudulent fiction? What if, for example, conspiracy clowns, manipulators, or demagogues (or conspiracy clown manipulator demagogues) tell us they’re the hero freed from the cave’s shadows? If you’re imprisoned in the cave, is it better to believe the “truth” of the shadows or the “truth” of the escapee?

How could you tell the difference? The uncomfortable truth is that you can’t. That’s why we’re all equally vulnerable. We ought to beware of the shadows on the wall, but also, we ought to beware of anyone who claims that the shadows are shadows.

Most Americans cannot have direct, first-hand experience with political events, either in our state capitals or in our nation’s capital. If we want to know anything at all about the decisions that affect us, we have to trust some source of news or another. Those sources “cultivate” political reality for us. None of us really know if we’re looking at shadows or if we’re blinded by the sun. We only know what we think we know through the media we consume.

Whether propaganda is manufacturing our consent or our dissent, both are a kind of force imprisoning our minds—and both are fundamentally anti-democratic.

There used to be a consensus around this political reality because there was a common news agenda set via mainstream media organizations. Like the prisoners looking at the cave wall, most of us agreed on a basic set of facts, and we mostly trusted the government and accepted its policies. That consensus was achieved via the “manufacture of consent” model of propaganda, where political and business elites used media to shape our opinions so that we’d passively accept elite decisions.

When we think of propaganda, it’s usually that top-down “manufacture of consent” model. Examples of this model could be 20th-century war films, posters, and leaflets created by the government and disseminated to the masses; patriotic symbols and slogans, and monuments to political leaders; or messaging foreign governments use against their citizens (in schools, in the news), and more recently, against the U.S. and its elections.

But over the last two decades, the rise of the right-wing media ecosystem and participatory media has enabled a new form of propaganda in our public sphere. Called the “manufacture of dissent” model of propaganda, it uses communication as a weapon to attack established institutions, norms, and the government itself. Its major premise is that politics is war and the enemy cheats. Those who produce dissent propaganda circulate endless conspiracy theories, accusations of hypocrisy, ad hominem attacks, and ad baculum threats. It’s the politics of creating fear and turning people into hate-objects.

This “manufacture of dissent” model of propaganda has challenged consensus media’s ability to control our political reality. It screams that the old propaganda is “propaganda,” while claiming that its own twisted messaging is the truth. All of this has led to a historic crisis of distrust in our government institutions, with an entire political agenda built around dismantling government power.

But whether propaganda is manufacturing our consent or our dissent, both are a kind of force imprisoning our minds—and both are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Propaganda, after all, is communication as force; it’s designed for warfare. It uses strategies like fear appeals, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to deny our ability to consent. It erases complexity and nuance, and it encourages groupthink and partisan discord. It asks us to think too much like others on our side while preventing us from thinking with others on their side.

The powerful point to the things that divide us rather than the things we agree on and use those differences as a wedge. Or, even when we can agree on the problems, the way that the powerful frame them prevents us from agreeing on the solutions. We don’t have a common reality that can help us mediate those differences.

In The Republic, Socrates, the narrator, solves this problem by advising the escaped prisoner not to return to the cave at all. The cave-dwellers, who only perceive the world through their senses, would not be able to absorb the bright light of truth, and the newly enlightened former prisoner would look foolish, Socrates thought. Worse, the escaped prisoner would harm themselves by trying to commune with the deluded—after all, they no longer agreed about reality, how could they find common ground?

Plato thought that the enlightened ought to rule over the cave dwellers as philosopher kings, but Plato’s solution won’t work for us in the 21st-century (and it didn’t work for Plato back then either).

There isn’t an obvious solution, except for people to agree to communicate for the democratic way of life. That means using persuasion instead of propaganda.

Persuasion is a dialogic meeting of minds in which one person asks another person to think like they do, to value the same values, to remember or forget history in the same way. It doesn’t force. It affirms human dignity by inviting. A person who seeks to persuade gives good reasons and formulates arguments in the best way they know how, always affirming that the recipient of the persuasive message has a mind, values, and experiences of their own and may not change their mind.

Unlike the fast, exciting, and entertaining work of propaganda, persuasion is slow, difficult, and unsexy. It doesn’t make good TV or internet content. But until we’re willing to persuade, and are open to being persuaded, we’ll stay in our 21st-century cave, which provides us with a never-ending propaganda spectacle to imprison our minds.

In today’s era of ubiquitous propaganda, the shadows aren’t real, but the sun blinds. We want to know the truth, but it’s hard to know who to trust to tell us the truth. Most of us throw up our hands and give up—avoiding political news altogether—but some of us dig into one version of the truth or the other, motivated by the status and prestige we get as rewards for being right.

There are those of us in the cave smug in the fact that what we believe—what we’re motivated to believe—is actually true. Simultaneously there are those of us standing outside of the cave looking down at the cave dwellers smug in the fact that what we believe—what we’re motivated to believe—is actually true.

One or both of us are wrong, and it’s tearing our nation apart.


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