I am amazed at the images I have been seeing on my TV and social media this week. It is heart breaking seeing kids taken from parents and the pictures of conditions in which “migrants” are living in. Yet at the same time there are contradictory reports that not all the images are authentic; some are from other times or events and used to sway public sympathy. Like so many articles I have written, I am not going to argue the legality, morality or blame of the immigration debate; I am not qualified. I want to comment on the history of propaganda.
In class this week we discussed the Boston Massacre of 1770. I began the lecture by first showing them an engraving by Paul Revere that he entitled “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street.” It is an iconic image of an orderly row of British soldiers mercilessly shooting down peaceful colonists. The officer, standing behind his men, is ordering this attack, while the colonists are caught by surprise from the looks on their faces. When I asked the class to interpret the picture, they replied with what I expected, the British soldiers were the aggressors killing innocent men and women.
I always enjoy starting this lecture this way, because it shows the power of propaganda. This rendition, made three weeks after the shooting, is false. However, it was published in colonial newspapers and so seen by the public as accurate. It is important to understand that often in history reality does not mean as much as perception. It does not matter what is true, only what is perceived as true. The engraving was false, but it became the colonist’s truth.
In reality what became known as the Boston Massacre began with colonists protesting the Townsend Acts and a growing frustration with British soldiers in Boston. The Townsend Acts went against the colonist’s British right of “no taxation without representation” and the soldier against the British custom of no standing army during peacetime. These conflicts came to head on March 5th as a crowd of protesters began harassing a group of soldiers with snowballs (note: there was no snow in the image). Eventually the snowballs turned into rocks and bricks as the soldiers came under attack. When one of the soldiers was struck by a rock, he fired and other soldiers followed suit, killing five. In the trial, it came out that the officer was, in fact, in front of his men and had not ordered his men to fire as he was accused of and some reports claimed it was, in fact, the crowd yelling fire.
A jury of their peers found the officer and six soldiers not guilty and two of the soldiers guilty of manslaughter. Yet even with the acquittals, Revere’s image would have the lasting effect and help push colonists towards revolution six years later. The point is a picture on the news or even worse social media does not always tell the truth. It is a powerful tool to give a perceived reality. The reports show that when families are picked up they are brought into a detention center where the family is then processed and separated. Again, I am not trying to argue for or against separation, what I am showing is that pictures that show children being pulled from their parents upon contact in the desert or seeing a picture of a baby cry, may not be as accurate as much as they are emotional.
Another powerful weapon are the words themselves. Revere named his engraving “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street” and it is today known as the Boston Massacre. Had he named it “The Mob Scene” it would have completely changed how we see the picture. Instead he described it a massacre. I am not sure how many people it takes to become a massacre, maybe five is enough, but massacre tends to insinuate the victims are innocent. Rocks verses guns may make them innocent, but I am sure Revere knew what he was doing when he named his work. This applies to words used in recent news stories. As you watch and read, notice that the people being contained are referred to as “migrants” and rarely as illegal aliens. If reports refuse to call them illegal, you have to question what perceptions they are trying to avoid, and ultimately what their motives are.
I know this is a complicated issue; it is dealing with real human beings, most of whom are looking for a better life for their families. I lived in McAllen, Texas, for five years and know some of this first hand. I hope our government can find a fair and humane solution to this growing crisis. However, solutions can only come from real discourse that is not being influenced by propaganda from both sides. The Boston Massacre is only one such example of images and words used as propaganda to promote agendas. So in this case, make your arguments, but beware of the way these events are presented.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.