Suggestive power
by Chetan Parikh
 Mail this article to a friend
Previous Back  

In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.


“We have defined the conditions of automatic thinking, stating that it expresses a susceptibility to lively, stereotyped and repeated images. But in the last analysis, that susceptibility is impressed by the suggestive power of words. Hence the importance of choosing them carefully. It is not a question of precise expression or the clarity of the information furnished by this or that word, but of the number and strength of the images it calls up, irrespective of their real meaning, in the mind of the crowd. Le Bon insists that:


Words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence. Such, for example, are the terms democracy, socialism, equality, liberty, etc., whose meaning is so vague that bulky volumes do not suffice to fix it precisely. Yet it is certain that a truly magical power is attached to those short syllables as if they contained the solution of all problems. They synthesise the most diverse unconscious aspirations and the hope of their realisation. (Le Bon, 1952: 102-3)


When a leader sets out to rouse a crowd, he has to use such words. If he uses current ones, he must know exactly what they mean at the time. Some of them (the gods, honour) are worn out and have lost their evocative power. Others are too new and fresh to set up echoes in the mind. The leader and the statesman have to try to find 'telling' words, to baptise the things that the masses love or hate by encapsulating them in pithy expressions. Thus they induce their imagination to concentrate on the points at issue, since 'certain transitory images are attached to certain words: the word is merely as it were the button of an electric bell that calls them up' (Le Bon, 1952: 103).


Once the image has appeared, action follows. Le Bon had total faith in language. Not of course as a means of reflection or communication, but as a vehicle for verbal suggestion. In his eyes language, the appropriate use of words and phrases, had a magical power. When it has that power, where does it come from? From its ability to evoke strong feelings and lasting beliefs in the masses. In other words, language is powerful when it links past and present, fleshes out today's ideas with feelings inherited from past times and transfers old-established relationships to new situations. A declaration made by Maurice Thorez in 1954 illustrates this admirably. He gathered around the Communist Party all France's strictly national images and emotions and changed her revolutionaries into the heirs of her traditions, drawing all their representative figures into a corona of metaphors pregnant with the history of French feelings:


To Joan of Arc, the shepherd-girl of Domremy betrayed by the king, condemned by the Church and distorted by subsequent reaction, we have restored her true face, just as we have restored the true meaning of the Marseillaise, the revolutionary song of the barefoot army of Valmy and the volunteers of Year II. We have united the red flag of our hopes and the tricolour of our ancestors. (Birnbaum, 1979: 132)


The suggestive power of such language comes from the fact that in each member of the crowd it arouses the memory of events and age-old beliefs and feelings, all of which are part of the common inheritance of the mass of the people. Even if one is not aware of it or perhaps rejects it, it is nevertheless still the substratum created by history - in this specific case, by French national history - and secretly influences our opinions and our actions. In Durkheim's view, there is present in each of us, to varying degrees, the man of yesterday, and this man is necessarily predominant, since the present is insignificant in comparison with the long past in the course of which we have taken shape and of which we are the result (Durkheim, 1938: 16).


Le Bon, Tarde and Freud wrote in a similar vein, for one of the most constant hypotheses of mass psychology is that nothing in the life of a people, a religion or a group is lost, and so everything, or almost everything, changes. That is why it is essential, when addressing a crowd, to choose words that reach far back into the collective memory and bring back ideas and images drawn from a deep-rooted common past. That is why Georges Marchais says that the socialist society that the French Communist Party will create 'will be blue, white and red' (Le Monde, 23 January 1980).


Only words and pregnant phrases such as 'France for the French' and 'the have-nots and the haves' suggest that around the visible crowds there are others that are invisible, shameful, sometimes unknown, and these phantoms, once they have been summoned up at the touch of a button, exert enormous and irresistible pressure. Le Bon declares that:


The dead are infinitely more numerous and powerful than the living. They govern the immense area of the unconscious, that invisible field that controls the manifestations of intelligence and character. . . . The dead generations impose not only their physical make-up but also their thoughts. They are the only undisputed masters of the living. (Le Bon, 1895: 15)


They are also the cement that holds their language together, and those who are summoned up by words and images (Joan of Arc the shepherd-girl of Domremy, the barefoot army of Year II etc) surface spontaneously and make their presence inescapably felt. The leader has therefore to address the 'old' man in us and invent a language he can use to arouse crowds and draw them fascinated and incapable of reflection towards the predetermined end. If he wants to keep his mental hold over them, he will constantly have to widen the linguistic register, and hence its unconscious basis, by aiming at new beliefs and new sectors of the collective imagination and going to the furthest limits of legend. This is what Napoleon, Stalin and others did, uniting the ancestral heritage of revolutions and the masses with that of the fatherland, empires and tsars and so on and, in the case of Napoleon, with that of religion. Once these ways of speaking no longer have a master, an artist capable of renewing them, they lose their hold. We saw it happen in France immediately after de Gaulle's death, when the crowds weakened and evaporated almost without trace overnight.”