A few weeks ago Logan posted about photographs of the President and how recently the office has become much more concerned with image management than it has in the past. To the point (he maintained) that it is almost impossible for an unattractive president to be elected. This struck me as an interesting hypothesis, so I began to do a little research into the idea of how human beings use and respond to images, particularly in politics.
The first thing that needs to be understood is how images are used in human thought. It’s a complicated field of study, but generally, we can say that human thought in its basic form is a set of images and concepts, which derive from sensory perceptions and are communicated (internally and externally) using words. The important point being that we don’t think primarily in words, but in complex and composite interrelations between words, concepts, and images. Richard Feynman describes an incident in which he realized this:
“Thinking is nothing but talking to yourself inside.”
“Oh yeah?” Bernie said. “Do you know the crazy shape of a crankshaft in a car?
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Good. Now, tell me: how did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?”
So I learned from Bernie that thoughts can be visual as well as verbal.
As he demonstrates with “crankshaft,” a noun is easily called to mind and inextricably tied to a specific word, but its nature and characteristics are not usually communicated to ourselves using words—they are too slow and clunky. Bertrand Russell explains a similar process by describing how a dog is a composite of a host of perceptions and ideas and impressions that are hard to distinguish from the single concept of “dog”. One scholar summarizes his point:
“He was fond of his example of sense data of a dog which he called a ‘canoid patch’. The ‘canoid patch’ sense datum had to include: brown, hairiness, sounds or whimpering—and perhaps expectations and also assumptions of the dog’s past—for all these are inextricably bound up with the perception of a dog.
So it’s important to realize the power of our mind’s system of thought using images, composites of data, and connotations of meaning.
The second thing we need to realize is that images, in the broader sense of the word (a person’s image; a government’s image) are affected based upon this concept. So the connotations of sight become connotations of the mind. These perceptions become conflated with one another.
This is closely related to the principle of inductive reasoning. We perceive relationships between things because we see them always in conjunction. We almost always become warmer in the sunlight so we think, reasonably, that the sun makes us warmer.
Now, where this becomes really interesting is when one starts to look at politicians and how they ever-so-skillfully manage the connotation of their image through political advertising, speeches, debates, etc. I think Logan is absolutely right about that.
One thing he didn’t mention though is how other people manipulate the images of politicians in particular. Late night comedians like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live, especially, thrive during the election seasons by creating caricatures of political figures and parties. My thesis, is that it is fairly easy for these caricatures to overtake and unduly influence the true image of a political figure. In an article from the journal Humor, D. G. Young writes, “it would be appropriate to assume that repeat exposure to political jokes that are homogenous in theme and topic might have the ability to foster chronic activation of such constructs over time.”
Don’t believe me? Take a moment to analyze your mental image of Sarah Palin. Can you separate the caricature from the reality? Do you find phrases like “bridge to nowhere” and “I can see Russia from my house” and Tina Fey playing the flute flooding your mental image?
Do you think Obama is a communist?
W. was stupid?
Then you’ve fallen victim to the caricatures.
It’s very important that we realize as a culture the way that our own ideas are formed. Images stick with us. They lodge almost permanently, in our concepts of the things that they are visually associated with. And the repetition of false or misleading images (I’m using “images” in the broad sense of “impressions” a bit here) can grow or reinforce an incorrect concept.
I think this is a serious issue because the caricatures of political figures, or the the manipulation of our collective mental image of a figure, ideology, or group of people, allows for the kind of simplified thinking that fuels division. If we cannot think of the other side of the political or ideological aisle as having any sort of good motivation for their actions, then we are dangerously close to the kind of thinking that has, without a doubt, caused the majority of genocide in human history. Caricatures fuel this sort of thinking.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I think political satire needs to be banned from TV or anything like that. It means that we need to teach our kids how to read books. Because if there’s one thing that can utterly obliterate a false impression or a false concept, it’s a true one. And exposure to books means exposure to ideas that are reasoned deeply, constructed delicately, and communicated with words: which forces the reader to actively understand and digest the idea. We have to translate the words into our own mental image or concept (which is more durable) and we don’t simply adopt the impression that is set before us.
Television and the internet generally thrive on image-based communication, and they are dangerous because they are so repetitive that false impressions can be subtly grown and nourished. The solution is simple, don’t avoid TV and the Internet.
Works Cited (that cannot be linked to)
Russell quote from Gregory, Richard. Mind in Science. Cambridge UP, 1981. Page 353.
Young, D. G. “A Flip-Flopper and a Dumb Guy Walk Into a Bar: Political Humor and Priming in the 2004 Campaign.” Humor 25 (2012). page 227-8.