Not entirely omniscient
30 October 2014 16:12 (South Africa)
Opinionista Gushwell Brooks

The phantom menace of subliminal messaging

  • Gushwell Brooks
The politicians are experts at driving home a message. They do it by repetition. Over and over. And if the subject subsides or its proponent gets fired, someone else revives it. They aim their messages mainly at the poor. The danger is that the poor might start believing them. By GUSHWELL BROOKS

An urban legend, started by James Vicary in 1957, claimed that subliminal advertising during a movie screening led to a 58% increase in popcorn sales and an 18% increase in Coca-Cola sales. He claimed that he projected words like “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” on to the screen. These messages were apparently so fleeting that the conscious mind and eye would not notice them, but the subconscious mind would buckle under their persuasion.

We here in South Africa, in the year 2012, are also victims of this most horrendous abuse of suggestibility. New, divisive messages are perpetually being fed into our collective consciousness and it is starting to influence our thinking. These messages may not be as sophisticated as those attributed to Vicary, but they are far more dangerous in their obviousness.

The most recent and obvious of these messages leaking into our joint consciousness are the recent expressions by that ever-more famous understudy of Julius Malema, Ronald Lamola, by re-igniting the extinguished embers of the contentious land debate. With revived rhetoric, he demands that white-owned land be expropriated without compensation. He warns that this policy needs to be adopted because black people are becoming increasingly impatient with government’s current land policy and that we should anticipate Zimbabwe-style land invasions.

These land invasions, he threatens, will ensue unless government abandons its current constitutional approach of expropriation with reasonable compensation. Gwede Mantashe has decided to respond with dismissive silence as government constantly reminds us that this  ANC Youth League-led suggestion is completely in opposition to its policy. When this policy suggestion was raised by Lamola’s predecessors there was a backlash as every economist, analyst and anyone else with internet access reacted and swamped the web with their musings. International economic rating agencies took these policy proposals so seriously that South Africa was downgraded in terms of it economic outlook and investment potential.

What upset the bigwigs of the ANC was not the public sentiment and debate, but much rather the fact that policy contrary to that of the party was being expounded by an organisation that was an organ of itself. The internal political tussling between the youth and the elders of the ruling party, however, is not my concern. What bothers me are the subliminal messages being touted by the likes of Lamola.

Our collective goldfish memory has placed the land debate somewhere in the recesses of our subconscious minds. We did not forget about it entirely, but because of so many other prominent issues within the narrative that is South Africa, we kept it on ice. Now Lamola has brought it to the forefront and I cannot deny the importance of the debate, so I cannot bemoan Lamola for bringing it up again. But what should be of serious concern is how he introduces it.

Despite what he claims, the majority of the poor are not salivating with anticipation at the possibility of violently invading and claiming the land of privileged whites. What he is doing though by insisting that that is the case, is in fact attempting to turn a slow trickle into a flood. The risk is that if someone takes Ronald seriously and believes that his equally impoverished neighbour wants to invade a farm with the hope of alleviating his poverty, that person might not think it is such a bad idea himself.

So what Lamola is doing, whether consciously or not, is implanting an idea in the minds of the collective. At the other end of the spectrum, on the side of the haves, his pronouncements could re-ignite paranoia. In essence, the potential for driving a wedge in an already divided and unequal society could be perpetuated. 

Of course Mantashe and the rest of his leadership colleagues at the helm of the ruling party do not feel the need to dignify their young squires with a response in this instance, but we know that they strongly disapprove of their policy proposals. We also know, from the recent fate that befell Malema, Shivambu and the rest of their now fallen brethren, the ANC responds authoritatively against those that contravene its sensibilities and speak out of turn. It is indeed a pity, though, that the parental structure itself broadcasts its own subliminal, negative messages.

The Spear debacle brought the worst out of the usually rational, tailored-suit-wearing leaders of the ANC. Mantashe openly instructed his constituents to ignore the ruling of the courts and to take the battle to the streets. Blade Nzimande insisted that the painting was the worst assault committed against the collective black body.

What then was an expression that was intended as an injury and an insult to one individual became an assault on the collective, not through the artist’s intention but through Blade’s insistence. Some may argue that he united the masses against a singular perceived evil, but in essence what he achieved was to create an us-versus-them scenario.

New fallacious cultural norms were expounded upon and referred to, cultural norms that imply that all people of a certain racial persuasion conform to a homogenous set of cultural practices and beliefs. More importantly, these cultural norms were somehow separate and perhaps superior to those of other racial persuasions.

Potentially dangerous and divisive messages seem to be leaked into our collective social consciousness by the very leaders that should be uniting us as a nation. No one has overtly said that certain races are superior to others, or that the courts’ decisions should be ignored, or that poor blacks should invade the farms of whites.

However, the perpetual suggestion that this is the will of the people, if unabated, will become the will of the people. Continually telling people that their culture demands this or the other, that they are angry and want to take back the land that was stolen from them, will lead them to act on these suggestions.

Freedom of expression is limited when it extends to hate speech and inciting violence. The subliminal messages being filtered into our minds are tantamount to this. We have far too many poor people in this country and they see the accesses and privilege on the other side of the railroad tracks. Government’s failure to alleviate this problem at a pace that would satisfy basic needs leaves many of these poor onlookers angry and frustrated, with reason. That anger and frustration could be ignited with the slightest spark and history recounts this narrative continuously, often with the direst of consequences.

Vicary’s claims were debunked by subsequent repetitions of his experiment. We, however, cannot risk placing our hopes on the possibility that the influence of these messages being fed to us will have no long-term influence. Messages that divide, that elevate negative and potentially violent civil discord need to be exposed for what they truly are, an evil tool of populist politician in dire need of success. DM

  • Gushwell Brooks
gushwell brooks for DM

Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.

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