To Mislead and Manipulate
by Lindsey Abston Painter | 22 November 2018 |
Today on the internet I came across a video that was said to be “created by lay members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” and “produced in partnership with the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.” It was about women’s ordination, unity, and the infamous compliance document voted at the 2018 GC Annual Council meetings at Battle Creek.
I watched the first half of the video, took a break because it was making me disgusted and a little ill, then watched the second half.
Since the video is in English and every person in it speaks with an American accent, I’m going to assume it was made with the North American Division in mind. In other words, people like me.
And this North American’s reaction? I found it manipulative, misleading, and heavy-handed.
A System of Understanding
The phrase that hit me hardest described the compliance legislation as “A system of understanding.” I actually laughed out loud at that phrase.
It’s difficult to quote the video because when it’s written it looks bizarre from all the repetition. Honestly, try reading the following quote out loud. You’ll sound like a crazy person.
“We finally decided to create and implement a system of understanding… understanding… dialogue… dialogue… and eventually consequences to bring all our family members back into harmony… back into harmony… with our collective decision. It’s not about control, politics, or power, it’s not about forcing conscience, it’s about respecting the decisions that we made together… together… together… and following the will of god in pursuing church organization… organization and unity… unity…”
What on earth is a “system of understanding?” To begin with, a system, by definition, is not capable of doing things like “understanding.” Individuals understand one another. Systems don’t—especially a system designed to force compliance.
Second, in what universe does forced compliance equal understanding? Did they really think a disciplinary document would make me feel understood? Raise your hand if you feel “understood” by a “system” designed to force you into compliance against your own conscience. Anyone?
I’m a Star Trek fan and I can’t help but think of the Borg every time the GC starts in with its compliance rhetoric. The Borg, for those non-trekkies out there, is a fictional alien species that operates as a hive mind. There are no individuals in the Borg: they forcibly capture other beings and “assimilate” them until all their individuality is erased and they are slaves to the collective mind. Their famous message is: “We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. Resistance is futile.”
When someone resists the Borg’s response is always, “You will comply.”
It just sounds too familiar. I can’t get it out of my head.
Help! You’re Hurting Us!
The people in the video seem to be just heartbroken over all this disunity. Faces display pain and anguish. They plead with us not to break our family apart! If we weren’t Seventh-day Adventists, who officially don’t wear jewelry, they’d literally have had the woman in the video clutching at her pearls.
Excuse me while I try not to hurt myself from all the eye rolling.
At one point a woman’s voice breaks as she describes the hard decision the GC had to make.
“As a family sometimes we have to make decisions. Hard decisions. Decisions that we may not all see the same way. And that can make things hard. Really hard.”
“Some have decided to go in a different direction from what the world family decided. This has challenged our principle of staying together… staying together… staying together as a church family even when we disagree.”
“Our family had to make another really hard decision.”
They insist that this decision wasn’t about control, politics, power, or forcing conscience. That sounded to me like a parent getting ready to whip their child with a belt while saying “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” To which I want to reply… wanna bet? Interestingly, this sentence doesn’t contain repetition: they apparently don’t want us to dwell on that idea, since it might make us wonder if that isn’t precisely what it is about!
Speaking of children: one of the creepiest aspects of this video was its use of children. There is something viscerally repugnant about making a young girl part of a film saying that women shouldn’t be ordained and everyone needs to comply with the decisions of a few people in power.
Repetition and Fear
Just for fun I googled “propaganda techniques.” I wasn’t disappointed. The Wikipedia page lists 67 techniques used to manipulate and mislead.
Repetition is a favorite propaganda technique, one this video relies on heavily. It’s the weird repetitive way it was edited, in which words are repeated one after another—in some cases words that don’t make a lot of sense. Why, for example, would you need to repeat the words “in session” three times?
More importantly, certain key words are repeated often throughout the video: mission, family, unity, prayer, dialogue, harmony, unity, understanding, together, and (weirdly) organization. Words they would like us to focus on.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the famous dystopian novel about a government control, Big Brother forces people to watch propaganda messages over and over. When the message is repeated enough times, the people begin to believe even contradictory things like “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” What they’re repeating is doubletalk: in 1984 the Ministry of Peace oversees war, the Ministry of Love tortures political prisoners and polices compliance, and the Ministry of Truth rewrites history and news to agree with the party’s beliefs.
“So we want to appeal to you… to you… to you… to support the decisions that we… that we… that we as a church family made. Let’s not break our family apart into congregationalism.”
Congregationalism is when there’s no oversight from a denomination, just local congregations hiring and firing ministers and directing their own mission. This is an example of the slippery slope fallacy, backed by an appeal to fear. They’re implying that a small change will lead to extremes—here, that allowing divisions to decide for themselves on the issue of women’s ordination will end in denominational anarchy. There’s no reason why it should, but they present it as though it is a fact.
Appeal to authority: In this case, both the authority of the General Conference, and a backhanded appeal to Jesus himself. “You can help fulfill Christ’s prayer for unity in His church.”
Appeal to the common man’s common sense: This can’t be isolated to a single quote, but it’s reflected in the entire video. Here, ordinary people using plain language start with the perfectly obvious premise that “we” voted against women’s ordination, and that we can’t ever reach the world with the gospel unless we’re in lockstep with the GC. Not common sense at all, because we disagree on a lot of more important things. But it’s said as though the only sensible response would be, “well, obviously.”
False accusation: Those who disagree with the GC’s compliance policies don’t just have a different point of view. They are breaking our family apart, sowing disunity, and leading the church to congregationalism.
Flag waving: This is when the propagandist implies that the action they are promoting is patriotic or showing support for a specific social group, and any other action is unpatriotic and unsupportive. “We support our church. We support… support… support… our… our… our church. Won’t you?”
Glittering generalities: Emotionally appealing words that are applied to a product or idea, but present no concrete argument or analysis. In this case, the words that are repeated frequently are unity, harmony, understanding, and together.
These are just a few examples of the way the video seeks to mislead and manipulate.
Which may be what makes my friend Pastor Seth Pierce’s quip so delightful: “Is it true that if you play the new GC video backwards you can hear the words ‘misogyny’, ‘patriarchy’, and ‘fear mongering?’ Asking for a friend.”
Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.