This paper explores the moral and epistemic status of a particular species of propaganda—namely undermining propaganda. While much attention has been paid to anti-democratic uses of undermining propaganda, this paper will focus on democratic uses of undermining propaganda. When deployed democratically, undermining propaganda aims to promote democratic ideals by undermining anti-democratic ones. The strategy aims to encourage unsympathetic audiences—who are taken in by flawed ideology—to consider alternative perspectives they might otherwise discount; to accomplish this, a contribution is initially presented as an attempt to justify the flawed ideology in question, though the contribution surreptitiously aims to undermine the ideals on which the flawed ideology rests. This paper argues that despite the strategy’s apparent persuasive potential, undermining propaganda risks undermining itself—that is, it risks lending support to the flawed ideals it aims to erode.
I offer a sketch of undermining propaganda and its epistemic and political utility, distinguishing it from other undermining strategies (e.g. satire, immanent critique, reductio ad absurdum). Undermining propaganda succeeds in virtue of a strategic mobilization of the common ground, or, the shared epistemic resource consisting of propositions mutually treated as true by interlocutors in a given context. When undermining propaganda is deployed anti-democratically (e.g. in service of flawed ideologies), the strategy mobilizes or exploits reasonable content in the common ground, with the ultimate aim of undermining reasonableness and promoting unreasonableness. When deployed democratically, however, as in the kinds of cases with which I am concerned, undermining propaganda reverses this strategy, mobilizing or exploiting unreasonable content in the common ground with the ultimate aim of undermining unreasonableness and promoting reasonableness. But herein lies the problem. Because the strategy lends credence to the unreasonable ideals it aims to undercut—affirming their truth in the common ground—it risks reinforcing their normative and epistemic justification in the public-political sphere.
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