[Note: This was originally published at Elder of Ziyon around Martin Luther King Day.]
Every now and then, it’s nice to pull back from the combat zone to take a look at some of the tools and weapons used in our battles with Israel’s enemies. And, given that we’re primarily fighting against a propaganda war, Martin Luther King Day gives us the chance to learn about an important verbal jousting technique known as the “Halo Effect.”
Like many persuasive tools, the Halo Effect takes advantage of the fact that the human mind is extremely gifted at making associations, but that many of those associations are formed in the absence of full knowledge. Some uninformed associations (like associating a rustle in the bushes with danger, even if it’s just the wind) have obvious evolutionary benefit. But uninformed associations can have a dark side (prejudice, for example, falls into this category), and the mind’s tendency to associate first and ask questions later (if ever) leaves us vulnerable to manipulation.
It is the propagandist’s job to create uniformed associations to the benefit of their cause. For example, the BDSers’ incessant incantation of “Israel=Apartheid” is meant to cement an association in the mind of an audience that Israel represents the kind of racist society associated with the “Apartheid” term. The boycotters must pitch this message to those who have no idea what Israel is like, since such factual knowledge would instantly expose the Apartheid accusation as a lie. But they also prefer their audience to know nothing (or next to nothing) about South Africa’s actual experience with the Apartheid system, which leaves the term serving simply as a marker for a bigoted society worthy of dismantlement.
In general, the Halo Effect is used to associate your own cause with a person, image or movement with positive connotations. Invocation of Gandhi, for example, gives your cause a halo of spirit-driven, non-violent resistance to power, just as invoking Reagan or Kennedy associates you with the perception of uncompromised conservative or liberal principles (regardless of the complex lives and political beliefs of all of these icons).
In the Arab-Israeli propaganda, no icon is the subject of more dispute than Martin Luther King, which is why quotes of his support of Zionism show up on so many pro-Israel web sites every Martin Luther King Day. Anti-Israel propagandists, desperate to claim the mantle of the Civil Rights movement for themselves, ignore, deny or dispute King’s support for the Jewish state, and thus the ongoing war over King’s legacy.
Keep in mind that the Halo Effect does not require in-depth education of the public on the facts of the matter. In fact, diving deeply into the complex real lives and beliefs of any icon (the ones already mentioned, or additional ones like Nelson Mandela or Albert Einstein) are as likely to lead to confusion over where they ultimately stood. And for purposes of generating a halo to stand inside, a simple story will always trump a complex one.
So how to best use this technique, both to cement our own causes to worthy individuals and messages and prevent our enemies from doing the same?
I’ve already mentioned the importance of keeping your story simple. But while simplification of complex stories is acceptable in political argumentation, such simplicity should never stray into inaccuracy. For example, it’s fair to highlight that Nelson Mandela never advocated for BDS or point out his positive experiences with the Jewish state. But using that to claim Mandela as an ardent Zionist would be a stretch into self-delusion or deception that could damage the credibility of anyone making such statements.
Identifying the line between telling an easily digestible tale and telling fibs is the key to using the Halo Effect to maximum advantage, as well as limiting its effectiveness for opponents. For example, years ago a memo in which Nelson Mandela condemned Israel as an Apartheid state was exposed as a fraud, a hoax that has limited the BDSers ability to invoke his name ever since. And while similarly inaccurate quotes from Martin Luther King condemning anti-Zionism were also exposed as incorrect, our side benefited from exposing this inaccuracy ourselves, rather than waiting for our opponents to do so.
So what’s the bottom line for activists whose main weapon is language? First off, understand human psychology and the tools of persuasive communication (like the Halo Effect) well enough to put them to use for a worthy cause, and (2) always hitch these techniques to the truth (which is not that hard, given that the truth is on our side).