The not-so-hidden persuaders.
06 August 2021 | or 'The Myth of Fingerprints'
"Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite."
"Every nation gets the government it deserves."
Josephe de Maitre (1753 - 1821)
"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
Winston Churchill (allegedly) (1874 - 1965)
Democracy, huh!? Don't you just love it?
It's election time in Portugal and the place is awash with billboards, posters, slogans, and graffiti. These, you will be ecstatic to hear, are just as much a shit-crock of inane, cynical, illiterate, over-simplified meaningless crap, unscrupulously designed to appeal to the basest elements and vilest characteristics of human psychology as are their counterparts in Britain, or any other democracy for that matter, real or faux.
They've got to be a waste of time, money, and effort, haven't they?
Let's start with slogans (and probably end with them if you're lucky). It's not just politicians - everybody's got to have a slogan. All God's chill'un got slogan. Every rapacious multinational, every vipers' nest of middle and senior management, every Faustian Hell-hole of Human Resources Consultants, they all got slogan. So does every skulking coven of Public Relations con artists, every scheming cabal of estate agents and every loose affiliation of swivel-eyed conspiracy theorists. They all got a slogan, only this lot call them Mission Statements. Every recessive gene-pool of landed gentry, and every school in the country got a slogan. These used to be called mottos but, unlike slogans, they had some distilled wisdom in them and liked to show off by being in Latin or Greek and attributed to some obscure bloke who lived in a barrel or that one that walked around a lot, drinking hemlock or the wordy one who was named after that bloke in 'The Simpsons'.
They are disdainfully and snottily referred to by the Political Cognoscenti & the Chattering Classes (which includes me) as Dog Whistle Politics - designed to engender an emotional response, rather than propose a coherent policy or argument, or to dissect and rebut an opposing one. They fall into a number of categories:
1. The Chumley-Warneresque Imperative:
"Pick up your toys and stop grizzling!"
"Women - Know Your Place!"
In any rational person, these evoke the responses of:
'No - it's disgusting, and it'll give me a heart attack'
"No! - Won't!" and
"Ooh, look! An unreconstructed chauvinist - yum yum"
These techniques belong in a more ordered and respectful time, when the great unwashed knew their place and were grateful to be given the opportunity to do as they were bloody-well told and get a damned good patronising into the bargain if they were lucky. The genre still works on some toddlers and about 50% of the over 70s, although only the latter are enfranchised.
...It's only a matter of time.
2. The Provisional Surrealist Haiku Wing:
These dispense with all parts of speech except nouns. Full sentences are never seen. Even phrasal nouns are viewed with extreme suspicion and are about as common as rocking-horse shit. They are frequently conceived by cr'atives in the meedjah, who affect to describe themselves as 'edgy' but whom everyone else refers to as 'pretentious twats, way too far up their own arses'. They frequently employ a number of devices from classical rhetoric such as alliteration, assonance and the Rule of Three, although our cr'atives wouldn't recognise classical rhetoric if they bumped into it halfway along their own transverse colon.
The French, of course, have set the bar for this genre impossibly high with "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." This little gem had class, even if it was (a) grammatically suspect and (b) almost the exact opposite of what most Frenchies got out of the Reign of Terror. By comparison with such French élan most British slogans are closer to the random collection of English words found on Japanese t-shirts; you know - "Precise Dwarf Bravery", "Cash protagonist Omelette" and "Fly Hamster Sandwich" (1)
As there are no actual sentences in these catchphrases, there can be no transmission of coherent thought. The art in this field (A black art, admittedly but an art nevertheless) is to choose words which epitomise the best and most desirable attributes of human endeavour; words that evoke feelings of approval and righteousness, words which no-one, however crass, ignorant, louche or amoral, could do anything but admire and agree with (in public, at least):
"Dignity, Pride, Responsibility."
"Prosperity, Rectitude, Free Money."
"Love, Motherhood, Apple Pie."
The theory is that, if you make your candidate or party (or product) prominent in conjunction with such phrases, then these desirable attributes will be subconsciously associated with him, her, or it.
Don't laugh - wait 'til you get to the end.
3. The 'Shit or Bust' Faction - using whole sentences:
This is the high-risk strategy and is only undertaken by the highly articulate or the congenitally stupid (2). Most likely the latter. The most frightening worry with the SoB approach is that actually saying something enables people to scrutinise your proposition and highlight its flaws. Consider this one in the nearby town of Portimão:
Portimão vai voltar ser Portimão
Which translates as:
Portimão will be Portimão again.
Well this is just ripe for sustained mockery isn't it. I don't know where to start. What was it during the period when it wasn't Portimão - Ulan Bator?
And how far back are we going here? When exactly did a city of 60 000 inhabitants on the Algarvian coast suddenly find itself transmogrified into a scattered collection of yurts on the fringes of the Gobi Desert? What happens if he gets in and, uncharacteristically for a politician, decides to deliver on his ill-conceived promises?
"Good Morning - I'm your new Mayor. There's gonna be some changes made around here. We're all going back to the way things used to be - the Golden Age. All that tarmac - that's got to go. And make sure the track underneath's really rutty and full of potholes. What's that big modern building over there? A hospital? Knock it down. Replace it with a couple of convents and a charity box. See that substation? Go get the JCB. No, on second thoughts, harness up a pack of donkeys and pull the bugger over. See those bridges - dynamite'em. Then take those old foot ferries out of the museum and start rowing. What are those blots on the landscape? Sewage & water treatment plants? They'll have to go. If cholera was good enough for Prince João of Beja then its good enough for you bunch of snowflakes. Come on! We haven't got all day. We've got 3½ centuries to lose.
My favourite, though, was in Jersey. The candidate's posters were everywhere, and his face bore down like Big Brother from every tree, lamp post and railing. He managed to combine genres (1) & (3) in his slogan that admonished you to Make It Happen!
Make what happen?!
Just the once, or every Tuesday?
Sometimes, though, genius strikes and a slogan is coined that contains a deep political truth and proffers sound and realistic political advice:'Vote for the crook, not the idiot' (3)
No matter how disparate these strategies may seem, they all work to a common theme. They are not trying to convert their opponents with the strength of their facts and the power of their logic. Now that would be a waste of time, money, and effort. No, what they're trying to do is preach to the converted and the convertible. To the former they reinforce tribal loyalty. To the latter, they try to flip them over:
What a field day for the heat.
A thousand people in the street.
They singing songs and they carrying signs.
Mostly say, "Hooray for our side"
('For What it's Worth: Buffalo Springfield 1966)
They do this by manipulating emotions, not by deploying fact-based reasoning. (Hence the phenomenon of 'alternative facts'). They strive to get voters to associate positive emotions with their party/candidate and to associate negative emotions with their opponents'.
Today's recipe: Tribal Loyalties Stew:
Start off with a good slug each of fear, greed, and indignation.
Throw in a large handful each of envy, nostalgia and xenophobia.
If you can get hold of some grief, anger, and resentment, then so much the better.
Mix well & simmer for five years.
Garnish with dismay and disappointment and smear over your opponents.
It's easy for us to wring our hands and bemoan the deteriorating standards of political discourse and to blame the politicos. I must confess that, in my younger days, I did this with relish and gusto (OK - I still do). My arrogant, self-aggrandising faith in the power of reason and my pompous and totally unsubstantiated belief in my own intellectual superiority led me to sneer condescendingly at the party faithful displaying shows of tribal loyalty in their windows. How could a picture of some bloke you've never met before and the terse imperative "Vote Labour / Conservative / Liberal / Monster Raving Loony Party (4)/ Crooks, Cronies & Plagiarists Party / Peoples' Front of Judea (5) possibly have any significant effect on the electoral process and outcome?
Anno Domini has modified my certitudes now, and I realise that the whole business is much more nuanced than was recognised by my youthful, narcissistic self. These tactics have persisted for the simple reason that they do work. If they didn't, they would have either died out or evolved into tactics that do work.
Almost without exception, psychological research has confirmed that human beings interpret the world through the filter of a number of subconscious biases and that these biases are highly susceptible to being influenced and manipulated by the very techniques we have been looking at. Even a heavily abridged discussion of this is beyond the scope of this brief treatment, but believe me, there's a good consensus. Our not-so-hidden persuaders use these techniques not out of spite or malice, but precisely because they work. Our millennia-old tribal quirks, tics and foibles make damned sure they do.
So perhaps it is ourselves we should blame. Abstainers being just as guilty as voters.
In fact, though, I've developed quite an affection for political campaigns now. If nothing else, they're so easy to take the piss out of.
Makes me feel young again.
(1) These are all genuine examples.
(2) Look up the Dunning-Kruger effect. In essence it states that the more someone knows about a subject, the less confident they are about their understanding of it, and vice versa. In layman's terms, some people are too stupid and ignorant to see just how stupid and ignorant they are.
(3) Vote for the crook, not the idiot' was originally about a contest between Sylvio Berlosconi and Walter Veltroni. It has since evolved and surfaced a number of times, notably as Vote for the crook, not the fascist, in the 2002 French presidential election between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Most voters complied.
(4) Despite its rather surreal manifesto, the Monster Raving Loony Party was, in the 60s, ahead of its time in some respects. Among its policies which were derided at the time were votes at 18, pet passports, the abolition of dog licences and all-day pub opening. All of these are now on the statute book.
(5) Newbury's codicil to the law of Nominative Determinism: "Any party that sees the need to put the words 'people', 'democratic', or 'Christian' in its title can be guaranteed to oppress its people, flout democratic fundamentals, and act in a thoroughly un-Christian manner."