Propaganda, the Silencing of Speech, and Strange Bedfellows

Propaganda – n. chiefly derogatory information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view

dissent – v. [intrans.] hold or express opinions that are at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held

discourse – n. a formal discussion of a topic in speech or writing or v. engage in conversation

Two contemporary news stories highlight the problem some elements of status quo have in distinguishing the difference between these three words. The Providence College withdrawal (and subsequent reinstatement with changes) of the speaking invitation to Dr. John Corvino, and the Russian prohibition of “non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda” have this confusion in common. In both cases, official reasoning equates the presentation of information, argumentation and expression of the self with propagandist communication.

In fact, it is the act of silencing discourse and/or dissent that are the more familiar tools of the propagandist. “Silencing … robs others of the ability to engage in speech acts, such as assertion. It is [also] possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims.” (Stanley, NYT Opinion, 6/25/2011)

The Russian public policy is under increased scrutiny due its potential impact on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The crackdown is one part of the continuous denial of freedom of association, the lack of protection from violence, the discriminatory and ambiguous bans on “propaganda” that are designed to limit free expression and to infringe on the constitutionally-protected rights of Russia’s LGBT persons. (Grekov, Policymic, September, 2013).

Despite his assertions that the Corvino lecture (The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage) was “postponed” to allow for the inclusion of an opposing point of view in a debate format, Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president of Providence College, “cited a document produced by the American bishops in 2004, “Catholics in Political Life,” to support the decision.” (New York Times, 9/24/13) Specifically the document bans “public officials from speaking at Catholic institutions if they oppose key church teachings on abortion and gay marriage.” (Detroit Free Press 9/26/13)

In his response to the cancellation, Corvino wrote in his blog (johncorvino.com), “The truth is that it’s difficult not to feel as if the Providence College administration regards me as a sort of virus, which might infect students if not blocked by some administration-approved surgical mask. This feeling is sadly familiar, to me and to any gay person. It is the malaise of the closet, the notion that some features of oneself are unspeakable.” (9/24/13). His sentiment could be applied to the feelings of thousands of LGBT Russians, silenced into their own closets.

During an interview with Corvino and Catholic priest, Paul Nicholson on Fox 2 Detroit, September 29, 2013, Father Nicholson defended Providence College’s decision. “The college has the right to say this is the parameters [sic] of what we stand for and we want to have a [sic] intellectual discussion [not] just a one sided propaganda.”
The bill President Putin signed “classifies “homosexual” propaganda as pornography with vague wording that could subject anyone arguing for tolerance or educating children about homosexuality to arrest and fines.” (New York Times, Opinion Page, July 27, 2013).

Interesting, in these troublingly similar cases, that a Russian President and agents of the Catholic enterprise have chosen the same tactic. Perhaps propaganda is best identified by the choice of the communicator.

Michael Tew, Director

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About Equality Research Center

The mission of the Equality Research Center is to promote, support, and disseminate research focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender equality and human rights. The Center is dedicated to the advancement of Equality by connecting academic, evidence based research to community action, public policy, and curricular innovation.
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