Victor Frankl, after surviving Hitler’s death camps, wondered why some kept on and others simply gave up and died?
Frankl said that our drive for meaning, or in his words the “will to meaning”, is our most powerful motivation and is what sustains us in extremity. We want our lives to count for something. We want to be connected to something that is important and meaningful.
How do we find our meaning? How do we connect to something bigger and better and meaningful?
Certainly this is the appeal of demagogues and cult leaders who claim they have the answer to what is important and try to brainwash people into buying their brand of “meaning”.
It is also undeniably part of the appeal of every religion. God is really big. Giving oneself over to God or even just to the church, synagog, or mosque often satisfies our “will to meaning”.
Devoting oneself to work or family or country are other ways of trying to satisfy our “will to meaning”.
But how does one know which of the many possible meanings is “right for me”?
Propaganda uses simplistic emotional appeals to persuade us. These appeals may be towards noble causes (e.g., save the whales, family values, house the orphans) or evil causes (e.g., against an ethnic group or jingoistic calls for wars of aggression). In all cases the hallmark of propaganda is one-dimensional appeal to simple values.
Art may promote the same causes as propaganda, but it does so in a different way. Propaganda is one-dimensional: its heros are without flaw and its villains have no redeeming qualities. The issues are simple and clear-cut. Art is more subtle, nuanced, and complex. Art’s heros and villains are sometimes hard to tell apart because both are flawed human beings. The issues are messy, complex, and require serious consideration.
Propaganda demands an immediate emotional response and discourages any thinking. Art also provokes an immediate emotional response, but because it is nuanced and complex the answers to the questions it raises are often anything but clear-cut.
And what does all this have to do with the “will to meaning”?
Propaganda tries to tell us what our meaning should be. Art invites us to search our own souls for our own meaning.
Propaganda tries to diminish us, to put us in a pre-defined box controlled by the author. Art invites us to fully explore our own humanity. Art does this by crafting an experience that not only elicits a deep emotional response from us but also provides a compelling puzzle for us to solve: what is the right and the wrong of this situation? Was the hero justified in what he did? Was this other character simply a helpless victim or could he have acted otherwise?
As we explore these ethical conundrums, we discover our own values. We discover (or invent) our own self-hood, our own humanity, our own meaning. And therein lies our freedom, a freedom that no one and nothing can take from us.
That is the difference between art and propaganda.