On the Uglies series

Lies and Consequences

Propaganda in the Prettytime
By Delia Sherman

This tape consists of selections from Professor Hayde’s lectures for Lies and Consequences: Propaganda in the Prettytime (Room 46, Level 16). Weeks skipped consisted of class discussions, role-playing exercises, and field trips to the Rusty Museum. Professor Hayde had eighteen students: six ordinary pretties, eight with extreme skin and body surgery, and four naturals who opted to keep their original, unmodified appearance.

Week 1: Carrots and Sticks

Welcome to Lies and Consequences: Propaganda in the Prettytime. If you’re signed up for Professor Tich’s Aesthetics and Body Modifications, it’s two levels down in Room 46, Level 14, and you’d better move fast, because Tich takes a very pre-Rusty attitude toward lateness.

You’ve all been learning world history since you were littlies. And you’re probably here because you’re really curious about what there is to say about the Pre-Rusties and the Rusties and the Pretty-time that you haven’t heard a zillion times before. You may think you’re going to hear a bunch of new stuff that’s too scary or sensitive to tell littlies or new pretties. So I’m going to tell you straight up that it’s not going to be like that.

Mostly, it’s going to be the same old facts and figures. What we’re going to be doing is looking at what you already know in a different way.

Those of you who are leaving, be sure to ping the Scheduling Committee to arrange a new class for this period. Close the door behind you and have a bubbly semester.

Let’s get started.

You’ve all taken enough history and civic studies classes to know roughly how governments work. A ruling body–in our case, the City Council–drafts, discusses, and passes laws and policies that determine all the public aspects of city life, from how many days each year you go to school to who is responsible for cleaning up the streets, and how many new buildings can be built every year.

No government can last for very long or govern effectively without the support of a majority of its citizens. Obviously, most governments try to earn that support by passing sensible laws that keep citizens safe and happy. Inevitably, some of these laws are going to be irritating or inconvenient. The trick is to present them in such a way that people obey them. The presentation is called propaganda.

The word “propaganda” simply means information that is spread. Over the centuries, it has come to mean information presented in such a way that it appeals to your emotions rather than your reason.

The information itself can be true or false. It can encourage people to be kinder to their neighbors or it can encourage them to hate their neighbors. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. It just has to feel right.

All propaganda appeals to two basic human emotions: the desire for happiness and the fear of harm. Propaganda that appeals to the desire for happiness relies on promises of rewards: carrots. Propaganda that appeals to the fear of harm relies on threats of punishment: sticks.

Here’s an example.

Say you’re a pre-Rusty living in a little town. One day, a man with a sharp sword and lots of soldiers rides in, kills your ruler, and announces he’s the government around here now. If you accept his authority, he’ll protect you from other men with swords.

That’s a very basic carrot.

If you don’t accept him, he’ll kill you and burn down your house.

That’s a very basic stick.

If he’s smart as well as strong and armed, he’ll back up these promises with other messages, which balance carrot and stick to encourage you to get behind his policies.

If you accept his rule, you’ll be prosperous, well fed, healthy. Carrot.

If you accept his rule, you’ll be on the side of Truth, Justice, and Goodness. Carrot.

If you complain about him, everybody will hate you. Stick.

If you disobey his laws, you’re helping the guys in the next valley, who are really evil and corrupt and ugly. Stick.

Most propaganda is just a useful tool, like a hammer or nanotech. But like a hammer or nanotech, it can lend itself to bad uses as well as good. Take the hypothetical “guys in the next valley” statement. Propaganda that labels a group of people as evil is called demonizing, and it’s dangerous. Once you start thinking of people as evil, you might start thinking that they deserve to suffer or even die. Demonizing can make otherwise reasonable citizens accept horrors like the attacks on the New Smoke and the Diego war.

Nobody wants anything like that to happen again.

This class will help you identify propaganda and see how it works. The theory is that people who recognize when they are being manipulated will be harder to manipulate into doing harmful things.

Some of our classes will be discussion and exercises. Some will be lectures–which are a kind of propaganda, as you will see. History suggests that most people don’t mind being manipulated as much as you might think. They just don’t like being lied to. When I lecture, I promise I’ll try to keep the manipulations positive and transparent. And I won’t lie to you. Not on purpose, anyway.

The main text for this class will be The History of the Mind-Rain, which is the story of the role Tally Youngbood and her friends played in the ending of the Prettytime. I’ve pinged it to your feeds, along with some bytes of Prettytime news videos from just before and after the Diego war.

Class dismissed.

Week 2: Spreading the Word

Today, I’m going to talk a little about how propaganda works.

In the Prettytime, everybody knew that people were better off if they were equal. They also knew that asymmetrical faces were ugly and people with crooked teeth or scars were savages.

Don’t laugh. They really believed that. It was as real to them as the Floating Space Stations are to you. Propaganda made it real.

Propaganda doesn’t start out trying to get people to believe a lie. Propaganda begins by giving people provable facts, then gradually slipping in comments that look like facts but are actually emotional judgments. For example: it’s an historical fact that the Rusties clear-cut virgin forests and strip-mined mountains for fuel. It’s an observable fact that they bioengineered species like the white orchids that are still out there endangering the ecosystem. It is not a fact, however, that all Rusties were stupid and greedy and crazy. That’s a judgment, just like saying that all people with crooked teeth are savages. Repeated often enough, however, it starts to feel like a fact.

As you read The History of the Mind-Rain, you’ll notice a number of recurring phrases and ideas:

The Rusties almost destroyed the world.

The Rusties were stupid and insane.

You can’t change biology.

All pretties are equal. Being pretty makes them equal.

When she was an ugly, Tally repeated these catch-phrases without thinking about what they actually meant. She had no way of knowing that truth is too complicated to fit into a simple, snappy phrase. When Dr. Cable manipulated her into spying on the Smokies, she was all ready to believe that being ugly–as well as burning wood and eating meat–made them as bad as the Rusties.

When Tally had spent some time with the Smokies, however, she learned that living off the wild didn’t have to mean destroying it. She met people who weren’t pretty, but were intelligent and thoughtful. She learned that looking different didn’t have to make people unhappy, and that disagreement didn’t necessarily lead to violence and war. As Tally’s adventures led her to the pre-Rustyoid villages, the New Smoke, and the city of Diego, she began to realize that her city did not hold the only key to human happiness. She began to question the facts she’d always accepted as true. She questioned authority.

Authority, particularly authority based on manipulation and secrets, doesn’t like questions.

Somebody might uncover the real answers and get mad–mad enough, maybe, to rebel against that authority and even overthrow it.

Class dismissed.

Week 4: The Web of Propaganda

Today, I want to look a little more closely at the kinds of messages governments use to control their citizens and how they work.

Perhaps the oldest and most effective message is a simple appeal to authority, when a government identifies itself with some greater power that everybody accepts as a source of wisdom and truth.

In pre-Rusty days, most lords, kings, emperors, and governors appealed to powerful, invisible superheroes called gods. People believed these gods had created the earth and everything on it. Gods would reward you if you were good and punish you if you were bad, even after you were dead, for ever and ever. Which is like the biggest carrot in the universe rolled up with the biggest stick. So if a ruler could persuade his subjects the gods were behind him, he was set. Soldiers with sharp swords may inspire fear, but divine authority inspires respect.

By the time of the Rusty Crash, the only people who still believed in gods were primitive tribes living pre-Rusty lives in what little wilderness was left in the world. For most Rusties, the ultimate authority had shifted from religion to science. If a government’s policies were supported by scientific studies, people were likely to accept them.

The Prettytime built a whole social structure on Rusty scientific research proving that pretty people were happier than ordinary people.

It was more complicated than that, of course. The post-crash scientists reasoned that if everyone was economically, socially, physically, and mentally equal, the world would be a paradise in which all people would be happy and healthy, the earth would be left alone to heal, and war would be unnecessary. Cheap, non-oil-dependent technologies like nanotech and solar-powered magnetic levitation would provide the infrastructure for this brave new world, and the pretty studies would provide the model for a new social order.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Who wouldn’t want to be pretty, healthy, and happy with their lives?

The only possible drawback was that the whole plan depended on every single citizen undergoing a major operation on their sixteenth birthday.

The surge itself wasn’t much by today’s standards–skin rubbed smooth and tight, bones ground and reshaped, teeth straightened and strengthened. But the way you looked, down to your height, the color of your eyes, and the shape of your nose, was controlled by a group of scientists called the Committee for Morphological Standards. And keeping the randomly generated face you’d been born with wasn’t even an option.

Of course, the government didn’t actually say the pretty operation was compulsory and everybody who didn’t have it was a possible threat to society. It just saturated the culture with pro-operation propaganda.

From the time they were littlies, all Prettytimers knew about the pretty studies. They learned about them in school and heard about them from their parents, who were pretties themselves. The benefits of prettiness were everywhere. Pretties lived in beautiful mansions. They got all the bubbly clothes they wanted, not to mention champagne and lobster and chocolate cake. Their lives were one long party, surrounded by friends. Pretties were happy and bubbly and had no responsibilities. Everybody loved them and wanted to protect them.

Before you could be a pretty, though, you had to be an ugly, and that wasn’t fun at all.

Uglies lived in a community called Uglyville, in ugly dorms where the recycling holes provided them with ugly uniforms to wear. They were encouraged to play with morphing programs that showed them how pretty they would be after the operation. They attended classes in which they learned about the savage pre-Rusties (who were ugly) and how the Rusties (also ugly) had almost destroyed the world.

Human nature being what it is, the uglies did some of the gov-ernment’s work for it by demonizing themselves. They constantly talked about their physical imperfections and called each other nicknames like Shorty, Nose, Squint, and Skinny. By the time they were sixteen, uglies were insecure, self-hating, angry, and alienated.

And then they had the pretty operation, which turned them, practically overnight, from angry, passionate ugly ducklings into beautiful, happy, smiling swans who didn’t care enough about anything to get mad.

Living proof of the Power of Prettiness, right? Propaganda on the nicely manicured hoof?

Well, maybe.

Class dismissed.

Week 6: When Propaganda Fails

Today, we’re going to talk about what happens when promises and threats aren’t enough to control a population’s behavior.

First, a little history.

After a few generations under the guidance of the Committee for Morphological Standards, everybody over the age of sixteen was as pretty and healthy as statistical analysis and sophisticated surgery could make them. Great strides were being made in the fields of magnetic levitation and nanotechnology, nobody was hungry or sick or cold.

So everybody was happy, right? And there was peace and plenty throughout the world?

Well, not exactly.

Human beings seem to be hard-wired to ask questions and disagree and take risks and break rules. The Prettytime government accepted that some uglies were going to take off their interface rings and sneak into Prettytown or modify their hoverboards. They were uglies, practically Rusties. Being pretty–plus a good solid diet of pro-pretty propaganda–should have taken care of their disobedience. But when the government learned that propaganda can’t change human nature, it took a more direct approach to the problem.

Brain surgery.

You all know about the so-called bubblehead operation. It made pretties easily distracted and lazy. It also damped down their creativity, their curiosity, their confidence, and their ability to make decisions. But world peace is worth a little brain damage, right? Especially if nobody knows that’s what’s happening?

Obviously, everybody couldn’t be a bubblehead or society would fall apart. A government needs intelligent, confident people to make decisions and carry them out–to govern, in fact. Occasionally, it even needs strong, aggressive people to deal with physical emergencies. So scientists developed new operations to make people stronger, faster, cooler-headed, and more confident than ordinary bubbleheads. The scientists underwent these operations themselves and they performed a variation on selected rebels to create a kind of super-pretty, called Specials.

Specials were used for Special Circumstances only, Special Circumstances being anything or anybody that, despite propaganda, training, and brain lesions, threatened the stability of Prettytime life. Like uglies running away to join the Smoke. Like Zane and Tally and Shay, whose taste for excitement survived the bubblehead operation almost intact.

Except for troublemakers and misfits, most people never actually saw a Special. They were a scary rumor, like the Rusty bogeyman parents threaten littlies with when they won’t go to bed. “If you keep acting up, the Specials will come for you” was halfway between a joke and a threat, shadowy and powerful.

The Specials themselves were anything but shadowy. They were decisive, self-confident, and very aggressive: way beyond cool and all the way to icy. They were programmed to track down anybody who threatened the wild and bring them to justice. They knew they were the good guys, with all the authority of the government and science behind them. Their motto was “We don’t want to hurt you, but we will if we have to.”

This motto is an interesting piece of propaganda all by itself. It’s clearly a threat, but it’s a complicated one. The implication is that if a Special hurts you (or even kills you, as they killed Boss when they invaded the Smoke), it’s your fault. The Specials are just doing their job, which is to bring you to justice. If you resist, then you are forcing them to hurt you. Which is the worst kind of lie there is–one that makes the victim believe they’re responsible for their punishment when the punishment is, by all reasonable standards, unjust or out of proportion.

So the Specials were not only stronger and faster and more aggressive than the pretties, they knew they didn’t have to follow the same rules. They were the perfect weapon, and like all weapons, once they’d been created, it was only a matter of time before their creators found an excuse to use them.

Which brings us to one of the worst things a government can do when it feels that its propaganda is failing, that its people are no longer behind it, that its most closely guarded secrets are about to be revealed.

It goes to war.

Class dismissed.

Week 8: The Propaganda of War

War demands a different, even more emotional kind of propa-ganda–especially in a population that has been raised to believe that war is wrong. War, after all, was one of the bad things the horrible Rusties did, one of the things that almost destroyed the world.

How do you turn a bad thing into a good one?

You find a really big stick and use it to make people too afraid to think straight: you identify an enemy and then you demonize it.

The way the Diego War began is an excellent example of this technique. After the city Armory turned into a smoking crater, everyone was terrified and mystified. Even the City Council didn’t know about Dr. Cable’s new, experimental, super-special Specials, the Cutters, or would have believed that a couple of sixteen-year-olds, however crazed, could create such damage. It had to be an enemy, someone who hated the peace and prosperity of the city and wanted to destroy it. Someone demonic. Someone inhuman.

They–or Dr. Cable–chose the Diegans, who allowed extreme body surge, who accepted immigrants from more restrictive cities, who tolerated disagreement with governmental policies.

The propaganda machine was already in place. Scientists are authorities. Dr. Cable was a scientist. Violent people are stupid and evil. The Diegans had attacked the city for no obvious reason. All that was left was to fill the newsfeeds with stories about how awful Diego was, how they’d been encouraging the city’s children to run away and join the Smoke, how exciting the attack had been, and how superior in every way we and our city were to the Diegans and their dangerous tolerance of extreme surge and opposing points of view.

Luckily, the war stopped as soon as the Diegan’s anti-special serum cured Dr. Cable of her insanity. The negative propaganda stopped, too, and was replaced by positive propaganda, by stories sympathetic to the Diegans and information about reversing the brain damage part of the pretty operation. In fact, it was the beginning of the mind-rain, the beginning of a whole spectrum of new ways of governing, including finding ways of dealing with differences–of opinion, of appearance, even of loyalty–other than simply making them go away.

Which, of course, includes the dissemination of propaganda, both of the carrot (“Being different from each other makes us stronger”) and stick (“Only weak governments are afraid of controversy”) variety. Governments, like people, prefer to be liked, and can be counted on to tweak the facts, if necessary, to make themselves look good. It’s a good thing that our government is encouraging classes like this one, that teach you to see what’s being tweaked and why, so you’ll notice when things start to get scary.

After all, history tends to repeat itself.

Class dismissed.

Week 10: Thinking for Yourself

Last class today. It’s been a wild ride. The discussion classes in particular have demonstrated, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you are neither bubbleheads or specials. You’re fully individual human beings capable of thinking and deciding for yourselves.

That’s what governments are made up of, after all: individuals, each with their own fears and desires, their own demons and dreams. Whether you are ruler or ruled, you’re still responsible for recognizing a convenient story when you hear it and making your own decision about it.

Tally, for instance, was not just an exceptionally stubborn young woman with a real gift for getting into trouble. She was someone who did not ignore facts that didn’t fit into her world-view. She learned to see that the Smokies might eat meat, but they weren’t barbarians, and that the villagers of the wild might carry on blood feuds, but they weren’t stupid or crazy. She learned to look at the Rusty Ruins and see human tragedy as well as a lesson in ecology. She learned to work around brain surgery and social conditioning to examine the facts, make her own judgments, and act on them.

She was also self-centered, bossy, and a complete show-off.

So if you start hearing about some particular group of people, how inferior they are, how barbaric, how less than human, remember Tally and Shay and Aya and David and his parents and Andrew Simpson Smith and Zane and the other heroes of the mind-rain. None of them was perfect, not even the pretty ones.

Human beings are complicated and contradictory. Any one of them can be, and often is, stupid and smart, destructive and creative, sheep-like and independent. If you’ve learned nothing else from this course, I hope you’ve learned this: However technology changes us and the world we live in, human nature remains human nature. People are people. No matter what they look like, and no matter how far they deviate from what people tell you is normal. Good or evil, harmful or helpful, bubbly or bogus, whatever anybody says, they’re as human as you are. Always.

Have a bubbly summer. Class dismissed.

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