Symbols, Stereotypes, and Power

Walter Lippmann was very concerned about the inaccessibly of Truth. “The facts we see depend on where we are placed and the habits of our eyes,” he wrote in his 1921 work, Public Opinion.

He repeats this concern numerous times. “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

Lippmann, an American journalist with an intimate familiarity with propaganda and war-time rhetoric, had reason to be concerned. “Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.”

Lippmann’s concern is perhaps most concisely expressed as Bent Flyvbjerg’s more recent axiom: power is knowledge.

We each have a unique experience of the world, and we each filter our experiences through our constructed stereotypes of meaning.

Lippmann, in fact, coined the word stereotype. Writing in Public Opinion:

In untrained observation, we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset, rather we notice that the thing is a man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subject.

There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question…Modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead, we note a trait which marks a well-known type and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a ‘Southern European.’ He is from Back Bay. He is a Harvard Man. How different from the statement: he is a Yale Man. He is a regular fellow. He is a West Pointer. He is an old army sergeant. He is a Greenwich Villager: what don’t we know about him then, and about her? He is an international banker. He is from Main Street.

These stereotypes – helpful heuristics which help us make sense of a busy world – are comforting. “They are an ordered, ore or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves,” Lippmann writes. “We feel at home there. We fit in there. We are members. We know our way around.”

It is perhaps because of this comfort that we cling so desperately to our stereotypes.

Lippmann remarks that what matters is “the character of the stereotypes and the gullibility with which we employ them.” That those who hold the wise philosophy “that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas,” are more likely to “to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly.” But this is easier said than done.

Our stereotypes are such a familiar comfort that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Thus, even the wise intellectual, aware of their own stereotypes and open to altering them, may easily make the mistake of taking individual truths to be universal truths; and to take those individual truths to be self-evident.

“What is alien will be rejected, what is different will fall upon unseeing eyes. We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account. Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy,” Lippmann warns.

These stereotypes, “loaded with preferences, suffused with affection or dislike, attached to fears, lusts, strong wishes, pride, hope” can then be evoked by manipulative elites through the use of symbols.

“The detached observer may scorn the ‘star-spangled’ ritual which hedges the symbol,” Lippmann writes, “…but the leader knows by experience that only which symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out.”

Lippmann is widely considered to be an elitist – marked by his fear of how easily the “bewildered heard” of the masses are manipulated – but I’ve tended towards a kinder reading. If the public cannot be trusted, it is because elites are corrupt, because those with power actively seek to shape the knowledge and beliefs of the public at large.

Flyvbjerg’s warning “power is knowledge” gets at exactly that point. Power defines reality. Power determines what knowledge enters the public domain and how that knowledge is presented. As  Flyvbjerg writes in a detailed urban planning study, “Rationality is penetrated by power, and it becomes meaningless, or misleading – for politicians, administrators, and researchers alike – to operate with a concept of rationality in which power is absent.”

So perhaps it is to be expected that those with power will deploy symbols to keep the masses in thrall, and perhaps it is to be expected that such magic tricks have great effect. It is not, inherently, the people who are flawed, it is the system. Power is knowledge and power defines reality.




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