At any point in the day, our brain receives trillions of sensory impulses from our body which flow from our nerves directly to our brain for processing and interpretation. It is these impulses which shape how we perceive the world, covering everything from pleasure and pain to the baser level bodily functions.
The interpretation of this data by our brain shapes our perception of reality at the sensory level. At a psychological level this shaping is more pronounced, if we have a negative experience of reality we are far more likely to behave negatively and vice versa.
The shaping of reality or perception at a psychological level can be influenced by individuals through behavioural training and learning more about our own character. An entire industry exists, generating millions of pounds, to promote these ideas and to enable individual introspection, character adjustment and behavioural modification with the ultimate aim of becoming more positive and productive individuals.
Take the simple idea of sensory based reality, substitute the brain for the collective consciousness of society at a political and sociological level; you have an almost infinite range of perceptions and impulses, experienced by the society as a whole and reflected in what it does, how it acts and how it responds in the world.
As with the brain, this reality can be shaped, tailored and where applicable manipulated to suit the overriding imperative of the government or society where they are experienced.
So how does a society experience and perceive politicians?
A perception of a politician is experienced at many different levels: there are the acts of the individual within their local community and how they are perceived, how society perceives them in relation to their wider party affiliation and how they exist in the public eye.
The first two can be controlled, or at least attempted to be controlled, by the politician through the medium of spin. This is a low-level example of the manipulation of perception to ensure a positive outcome for that individual, in the same way that you would use behavioural training to shape your behaviour.
Spin is a product of the media age and media as a whole contributes dramatically to how a politician is perceived in the public eye. Once an individual enters public life, their life essentially becomes public knowledge, with their every move scrutinised and commented on by countless individuals, even more in the world of social media and the internet. Politicians experience this on a much more fatalistic level, with every misstep potentially contributing to the end of their political career.
Indeed once an individual involved in the political sphere makes a political gaffe, or is involved in a scandal, the media can shape the public perception to such a degree that the individual can no longer function as a politician.
These two necessary functions of modern politics sometimes work in synergy with each other, but the sheer levels of exposure and potential profit render the media far more likely to want to cause damage to a politician than prevent it (as seen this week with the Keith Vaz sex sting scandal).
The public largely perceive two types of politician: the institutional politician and the populist politician. The institutional politician is seen as a stuffy, privately educated individual who is more likely to want to enhance their own position rather than act in the best interests of the people. By contrast, the populist politician is seen as a self-made individual, someone who the common voter can relate to and retain an interest in, a true man or woman of the people.
Go up a level to the international stage and the perception/manipulation of it becomes less obvious, but wider ranging in its implications. Shaping public perception of the country involved is a national occupation and is vital to the longer term success of that country.
Manipulation at this level involves a more subversive method: that of propaganda. The use of propaganda has been one of the bedrocks of statecraft for almost 500 years now and is enjoying a renaissance in the age of the internet.
Propaganda can be used to assert, subvert and otherwise engender the ideology of the country using it or be used to destroy the ideology and people of a target country.
Overtly obvious use of propaganda today is largely confined to those restrictive regimes, who need the constant reassertion of their ideology to place their message into the minds of their people, thus shaping their perception to embrace that ideology fully.
In those less restrictive regimes, pronounced propaganda as asserted by a regime or government cannot exist because it would inevitably clash with the fundamental right of freedom of speech, i.e. the freedom to express a contrary opinion to the prevalent political line of that country. The contradiction between these two precepts forces the use of propaganda away from the political sphere and back into media sphere.
As with the politicians, the media can be used as a tool by the government to create negative opinion about opposing countries and regimes, shaping the public perception subconsciously and not endangering the fundamental freedom of speech rights. Indeed, the media is perceived as the guardian of free speech, despite increasing evidence that it is becoming the mouthpiece of political parties and governments.
The one thing that this manipulation can sometimes struggle to keep up with is the change in political position in respect to a country. For example if a rogue country moves overnight from a totalitarian regime, which is universally hated, to a democratic regime, the government of the opposition country may need to soften its political stance towards it and change its relationship. We’ve seen it recently in the open dialogues between the USA and its old adversaries Cuba and Iran. The public’s perception, previously shaped to a negative opinion of these regimes, had to be shifted to a positive one in the long-term to ensure the opening of good relations between the nations. Again the media and government play a part in moving this process forward.
Another recent example of this is the softening of the negative opinion on Britain leaving the European Union. During the referendum campaign extremely negative sentiments were expressed about the potential consequences of leaving and our eventual place in the world. Politicians, both domestic and foreign were keen to add their opinions to the seemingly unceasing tide of negative press about Brexit. However once the vote was concluded and the decision to exit confirmed by the UK government, the overriding need to proceed with the publicly voted for mandate prompted an almost immediate shift in media and government communications from being negative about the consequences to active examination and criticism of the implementation process.
The perception that a country has in the world can often have a negative impact on how that nation is treated by its neighbours in the international community. For example, while the Russian federation does not exhibit any overtly evil or totalitarian qualities, it is perceived as being a totalitarian regime or “evil empire” when in fact the truth can be something entirely different. This perception and the implementation of it by the other nations of the world causes much of the diplomatic conflict which exists between Russia and the wider community, particularly the USA who has been the historical enemy of Russia for many years.
Another example of this is how the USA is perceived in the Middle East. With significant interests in the oil rich nations of the middle east, the USA has always been keen to provide stability for the region through support of vassal regimes and clients. Additionally, the USA has been the most ardent supporter of the state of Israel, viewing it as a key ally in the region.
This support and, dare I say it, interference in the affairs of the region, while well-intentioned, does not garner popular support from the various tribes and ethnic groups of the region. Combine that with a secular religion that does not view outsiders as friends and you have a recipe for extremist opposition. A sort of opposition that manifests itself in the various terrorist organisations that operate in the region, opposed to the interests of the USA and their perceived puppet states.
Consider the political effectiveness of a nation if it was in tune with how it is perceived in the world, has full cognisance of the consequences of its actions and is in possession of a coherent and appealing ideological standpoint. Such a nation would have the blueprint for longer term stability and success, effectively making itself immune to all potential issues which would arise in the course of its life.
With the obvious example of a politician in the public eye being able to shape his or her perception to suit their objectives, you have to wonder why more countries do not employ this sort of perception manipulation in their political armoury. With so much at stake, can they afford not to?
© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.