Non-violent Resistance to Propaganda

In this essay, Glenda Eoyang will explore paths of Adaptive Action to counteract propaganda.

Effective non-violent resistance is focused and unambiguous. It targets the center of the oppressive force, so the message cannot be misunderstood. It requires concrete action that is physical and visceral. We can march and dialogue and boycott, but the most effective resistance focuses directly on the means of oppression. In my last blog, I described three patterns of oppression that we believe shape the dis-ease across the US, indeed around the world, today. In Adaptive Action, these patterns can inspire us, as individuals, to resist oppression in powerful and non-violent action.

The three, emergent and actionable patterns I named were Propaganda. Self-interest. Fatalism.

In this essay, I will explore paths of Adaptive Action to counteract propaganda. In future blogs, I will address the other patterns. This is what we call an Adaptive Action Experiment. In Adaptive Action we ask three questions:

  1. What?See a pattern.
  2. So what?Understand the pattern in useful ways.
  3. Now what? Take action—even small, individual, local action—to shift the conditions that hold the pattern in place.

I invite you to join us in this process to test the hypothesis about propaganda and to overcome oppression at the same time. 

What is propaganda and how can it be a pattern of oppression? When I proposed this pattern in my last blog, “fake news” was influencing public will and public policy. That was before January 20. Since then, the pattern has become even more pronounced. “Alternative facts” have appeared on the scene. By the time you read this, the pattern may be even stronger. I expect it to be normalized in the near future, so that we don’t even notice, much less comment on, the distortions of truth. Even now, the press declines to estimate the number of people attending the inauguration to avoid the offense of contrasting the crowd to the Women’s March. We can see those patterns writ large across mass media, but those information engines influence individual judgments and shape personal and professional relationships, as well. Real people in real communities experience the oppression of hatred and fear engendered by the current flood of misinformation.

On both sides of the political divide, you can see examples of truth claims used to influence public will and action: Gun control, Medicare, women’s rights, healthcare as a right, public education, and other examples too familiar and too numerous to mention. Those messages also are intended to shape perceptions and influence public will. They also set conditions for hurtful and obnoxious hate speech.

So, what can you do to fight propaganda, regardless of its nature and content?

Some things we know do not work. Ignoring propaganda does not stop it, though it might give you relief for a short while. Providing “alternative truths,” no matter how well documented, feeds into denial and cynicism. Speaking louder and longer just exhausts you and irritates the other. None of the strategies is effective. So what does work to counteract propaganda?


An honest, clear, sincere, authentic question can break down the barrier of propaganda.  It can turn an assault of words into a dialogue. Inquiry carries this power when it turns:

  • Judgment into curiosity
  • Conflict into shared exploration
  • Defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Assumptions into questions

Every authentic question emerges in a specific time, place, and context, so there is no recipe. Consider these as examples and imagine how they might transform propaganda from oppression to opportunity.

  • What is your personal experience?
  • What has convinced you that this is true?
  • What does this mean for the future?
  • Where did these ideas come from?
  • How do you and I help create this situation?
  • What can you and I do to change the situation?
  • How are children or elders affected by what you see and/or what you say?
  • When is it not true?
  • What do you see?Can you draw a picture of it?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • What happens when your children say it?

Consider the last time you heard someone repeat a statement of received “truth,” that you perceived to constrain freedom or pervert justice for you or someone else. What might have happened if you responded with a real, honest question, rather than with anger, stony silence, or disdain?  Would the patterns of oppression have shifted?

Using inquiry to fight propaganda may seem to be a hopelessly idealistic strategy, but it is not. When the right to marry issue arose in Minnesota in 2015, the LGBT community and its proponents used inquiry in their successful campaign.  They asked people to talk about their own marriages. How long? What joys?  What high points? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could share their lives in such committed relationships? These questions broke through barriers of fear and misconception and created opportunities for empathy and mutual understanding.  

When I suggest inquiry as an antidote to propaganda, my intention is to empower every victim of such oppression. I believe that generative questions can help anyone see, understand, and influence the patterns that constrain them. Farmers in small towns can use generative questions to confront what they see as unfair government interference. Victims of domestic violence can use questions to create the possibility of healthier relationships. Anyone can use inquiry to fight the oppression of propaganda: African American youth, economically disadvantaged families, anti-abortion advocates, people with disabilities, LGBT activists, people who want to wish others Merry Christmas, and members of the Tea Party. If you can see the forces that oppress you in one of these patterns, you can take immediate, non-violent action toward freedom and justice. What are the patterns of oppression that might inspire true and useful Adaptive Action in our world today?

Of course, inquiry doesn’t always work, and it seldom works at the first try. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first to challenge bus rules, and the Freedom Riders did not see the end of segregation in the South. Their actions didn’t immediately crush oppression, but their persistent, non-violent actions forced a pattern to change over time. In the same way, real inquiry can begin to wear away at the power of propaganda that oppresses you.

Now what questions can you ask that will surface and challenge patterns of propaganda? How might you turn the oppression of opinion into the opportunity of dialogue?  How can your inquiry generate freedom and justice? 
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