March 5, 2010
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
This statement, written on Mr. Sigward’s white board, greeted the 8th grade humanities class earlier this week. As the class began a discussion about the insidiousness of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, Mr. Sigward instructed the students to copy the quote into their notebooks and to take some time to decide whether or not they agreed with it. On another part of the board, he wrote a definition of the term propaganda: “ideas that are spread for the purpose of influencing opinion or behavior.” For the next hour, responses poured out, addressing issues of ethics, psychology, history, and the responsibilities of citizens when the truth is contradicted by the state.
Many students raised questions about the conditions under which a lie might be believable if repeated enough. It would need to be something difficult to disprove. It would be more plausible if delivered by an authority figure. It would need to be something that started small, so as not to appear outrageous at first. In response to these suggestions, Mr. Sigward wrote a name on the board: Josef Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and author of the Nazi campaign to eliminate “undesirable” people from the German state. It was Goebbels who made the claim that the students wrote in their notebooks. The statement ends, “It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
A recurring theme in the class discussion was that of “going along with the crowd.” Someone noted, “People just go with what the majority says because they don’t want to be troublemakers.” Another student added that there is a difference between accepting a lie and actually believing it. This comment brought nods of agreement from several classmates, along with a follow-up remark: “There’s always someone who can stop the lie, but it’s easier to go along.” In response to this thought, Mr. Sigward posed a question: How many people does it take to believe something before you go along with it yourself?
In an age when gossip mixes with news, when social media competes with traditional journalism, and when information flows from sources that are not always easy to identify, our students could point to clear examples of propaganda and of alternative interpretations of facts. As digital citizens, they easily found the contemporary connections that were woven into this history class.