In a classic book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on mass psychology.
“Once the scene has been set and the mass gathered together and plunged into a state of collective hypnosis, the centre of all attention is the person of the leader. His gaze holds them fascinated, in that mixture of attraction and fear that the ancients attributed to the eyes of demigods, certain animals such as serpents or basilisks, or monsters like the Gorgon. Once the mass has been subjugated, it is more receptive to words, which become the main vehicle for fascination. Everything depends on the leader's intention: he can refer the mass to its own desires, dictate a clear solution to complex problems and, his supreme achievement, address the crowd as if he were speaking to each member of it individually and in confidence. Le Bon saw language as the great lever of power. ‘Words and formulas are the great creators of opinions and beliefs. They are powerful forces and have killed more men than cannons have’ (Le Bon, 1911: 232). And, unlikely as it may seem, his disciple Hitler followed him, writing in Mein Kampf: ‘The force that started off the great historical avalanches in the political or religious fields was from time immemorial no more than the magical power of the spoken word. The great mass of a given people always submits to the power of words.’ This he proved himself on many occasions, as did his exact opposite, Gandhi, who used words as the most effective means of bringing peace to men's minds and fighting violence.
What changes ordinary words into fascinating ones? Certainly the charisma of the man uttering them before the crowd. How effective they are depends on the precision and imperiousness of the images evoked. ‘The multitudes are never impressed by the logic of a speech, but they are by the emotional images that certain words and associations of words create’ (Le Bon, 1910: 122). ‘They are uttered with solemnity in the presence of crowds, and as soon as they have been pronounced an expression of respect is visible on every countenance, and all heads are bowed. By many they are considered as natural forces, as supernatural powers’ (Le Bon, 1952: 103).
We need only think of certain slogans (‘Liberty or death!’, ‘Long live France!’) or of the magical powers that primitive peoples ascribe to formulas or names. They all have the mobilising power of images and memories. Crowd psychology puts a trust in language which is almost as unlimited as that which the Christian puts in the divine word, believing firmly that if it is used appropriately it can persuade men to believe what we believe and do what we want them to do. The grammar of persuasion is based on affirmation and repetition; its two sovereign rules.
The basic condition for any propaganda is that a unilateral position or a dominant idea should be clearly presented in a way that brooks no retort. Its informational content may well be slender, and it could even be said that a public speech does not need to contain anything that those hearing it do not know already. As there is a kind of complicity or even identity between the crowd and the leader, which puts both on the same level, the latter must not try to play the teacher or show any kind of pedantic superiority.
In fact it is better not to innovate as far as content is concerned. With regard to the style of the speech or harangue, however, constant innovation and surprise are necessary. The phrases used have to be pithy and striking, like Cresar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, or, from a time nearer our own, ‘France has lost a battle, but she has not lost the war’. De Gaulle's appeal of 18 June 1940 impelled his confused and helpless compatriots to action.
The lassitude of crowds and the erosion of words by long usage must constantly be taken into account, for over a period of time the latter acquire a rather well-worn look, and ones like ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘fraternity’, ‘revolution’ or ‘internationalism’ may seem very threadbare. At times of danger, in a different context, they sound quite different. We mechanically repeat the words of the Marseillaise, but when the enemy is at our frontiers, ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’ rings out like a bugle-call and becomes once again an image from the past we share. A call like that, minimal in content but imperative in form, can say everything with no need for logic or truth.
Affirmation generally reflects a clear-cut attitude, making a distinction between the strongly-held view the orator is defending and the opponent he is attacking. When a politician says that the rich are in power or calls for action rather than a wait-and-see attitude, he is expressing clear left-wing views and cursing the right. Every affirmation must also follow others, be based on them and confirm them. The human mind tends that way, as Bacon maintained in the Novum Organum, pointing out that once a proposition has been uttered, either as a result of a consensus or a general belief or because of the pleasure it procures, our intellect forces all others to bring fresh support and confirmation.
The more concise and positive its form, the more authoritative an affirmation is, since it seems to offer proof of the conviction and rightness of the person making it. Goethe expected this of anyone talking to him: ‘If I have to listen to the opinions of others, they must be expressed in a positive form. I have enough problematical elements within myself.’ Assertion demands the short and commanding tone of the hypnotist giving an order to the subject, and one that he is not free to contradict. It must be ‘brief, energetic and impressive’ (Le Bon, 1911: 194).
In a speech, to affirm means to refuse all argument, for a man or an idea open to argument loses all credibility. It also means that the audience, the crowd, is expected to accept the idea unthinkingly, to take it as it is without weighing up the pros and cons, to answer ‘yes’ without reflecting. There is the example of Goebbels at a rally after the defeat at Stalingrad:
‘Do you believe with the Fuhrer and us in the total victory of the German nation?’
Response from the body of the hall: ‘Yes!’
‘Do you want total war?’
‘Do you want the war to become, if necessary, more total and radical than we can imagine at present?’
Such pseudo-questions are of course affirmations. They guide the mind of the crowd in a single direction. The pseudo-replies merely reaffirm what the orator says, since repetition is the strongest form of affirmation.
The magical effects of approved and repeated formulas and words come into operation and spread by contagion with the speed of an electric current. The crowds are magnetised. The words used evoke precise images of fire or blood, uplifting or bitter memories of victory or defeat and strong feelings of hatred or love. The following fragment of one of Ayatollah Khomeini's speeches gives a precise idea of the power of language in action:
You who are disinherited, stand up for yourselves! Israel has occupied Jerusalem, and this very day Israel and the United States have plotted to occupy the Al Karam and Al Nabil mosques. . . . Stand up and defend Islam, for it is our duty to do so. Put your trust in the Almighty and go forward! Victory is at hand! Victory is certain! (Le Figaro, 25 November 1979)
By using short sentences and referring to the sacred places that everyone has seen or heard of and by naming the enemies alleged to have desecrated them, the orator paints a picture that each of his listeners can easily see in his mind's eye - dark and diabolical forces are invading the sacred mosques. He explains briefly why fighting is necessary, calls upon everyone to come forward for battle and assures the people of victory.
Repetition is thus the second condition for propaganda, giving a greater weight of conviction to affirmations and transforming them into true reflex obsessions. They are heard time and time again in diverse forms and connected with the most varied subjects and are finally totally absorbed. They are unconsciously repeated and become a kind of linguistic and mental tic. At the same time, repetition erects a prohibition against any contrary belief or affirmation by irrevocably changing the words, images and positions in question. They thus acquire a weight and an obviousness which mean that they have to be accepted in toto and serially, like a chain of reasoning that finally proves what it set out to prove.
Once we have appreciated that fact, it is no longer surprising that the speeches of a dictator like Stalin or Hitler are so self-repetitive. The orator simply keeps churning out the usual themes, scarcely bothering to change the way they are expressed. The very repetitiveness shows how totally convinced he is and to some extent ‘proves’ his obsessive faith. All leaders, Le Bon observes, are ‘generally very limited but highly tenacious men, who repeat the same things in the same way but are often willing to sacrifice their personal advantage and their lives to ensure the success of the ideal that dominates them’ (Le Bon, 1910: 361).
Repetition has a twofold function, for it is both an obsession and a barrier to divergent or contrary opinions. It thus minimises the part played by reasoning and rapidly changes an idea into an action to which the mass has been conditioned like Pavlov's famous dogs.
This rapidity made Napoleon say that repetition was the only effective form of reasoning, and Le Bon, who admired Bonaparte, considering him and Robespierre as outstanding manipulators of the crowd, saw the process as of crucial importance in the psychology of persuasion:
This power is due to the fact that the repeated statement is embedded in the long-run in those profound regions of our unconscious selves in which the motives of our actions are forged.
He adds, however, this extremely subtle observation:
At the end of a certain time we have forgotten who is the author of the repeated assertion, and we finish by believing it. To this circumstance is due the astonishing power of advertisements. When we have read a hundred, a thousand, times that X's chocolate is the best, we imagine we have heard it said in many quarters, and we end by acquiring the certitude that such is the fact. (Le Bon, 1952: 125)
This perception was confirmed by wartime research on propaganda.
By frequent repetition, slogans and formulas become independent of the person of the leader and acquire their own life and autonomous reality, like a prayer or an incantation. They burrow into the unconscious and become part of collective belief. This is strengthened by the fact that the crowd is often called upon to respond to the leader in the manner of a congregation responding to the celebrant at mass. The words are declaimed, then repeated in unison by the crowd of thousands like a huge echo. This repetition separates the idea from its source and transforms it into a self-evident truth independent of time, place or person. It is no longer an expression of the speaker, but of what is spoken. Repeat, repeat, and something will remain, even if it is only a whisper. And whispers, like slanders and prejudice, are a force.
Repetition also serves to make ideas coherent. By the frequent association of declarations and scattered ideas it creates the appearance of logical connection and the sense that behind the phrases and the frequent conjunction of irreconcilable ideas there is some sort of system. If unusual collocations of words such as revolution and religion, nationalism and socialism, Marxism and Christianity, Jews and Communists are repeated often enough, the audience is surprised (or at least this used to be the case). But you are also convincing your listeners that the two ideas go together and that their juxtaposition has a hidden meaning. Human nature is attracted and fascinated by a unified representation of the world around it. Discussing totalitarian propaganda, Hannah Arendt justly notes that:
What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses' inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time. (Arendt, 1967: 341)
She is wrong about one thing at least. The masses are capable of remembering. In one sense, they remember too much.
The result of affirmation and repetition is mass suggestion. They come together in a current of beliefs that spreads with the speed of an epidemic. The contagion is even more rapid when the more powerful emotions have been roused and reflection has been short-circuited by action.
Le Bon sums up the matter in these terms:
Ideas do not compel us because they are correct but only because by means of the twofold mechanism of repetition and contagion, they have taken over those unconscious regions where the motives that create our behaviour are shaped. We do not persuade people by simply showing that arguments are correct, but by making them act in terms of them. (Le Bon, 1911: 22)
What is in many ways striking, and little understood, is the importance of words in crowd psychology. They receive power not from what they say but rather from their ‘magic’, from the man who utters them and the atmosphere that carries them. They are like embryonic images, the germs of ideas, almost like living beings rather than particles of discourse in the way they must be treated. An orator who evokes no memory evokes no response. When words exert their fascination, the crowd succumbs to the power of the things they evoke and the actions they demand and obeys the leader who has fascinated it. He offers grandiose but vague prospects, and the very vagueness which shrouds them increases their mysterious hold.
Many modern - and ancient - books have something to say about each of the three strategies of representation, ceremonial and persuasion, but crowd psychology related them to a common factor, hypnosis. When they are all orchestrated and combined in a unity of time and space, they become a single whole, the strategy of mass suggestion. The leader who has the gift and the vocation uses it to transform the most disparate gatherings - and the more mixed they are the better it is - into a homogenous mass, implanting beliefs whose kernel is a passion and whose aim is action. Since its discovery, the strategy has been applied everywhere. Its procedures have usually been examined and explained individually. I have presented them together to show the reason for their existence and their Unity.”