Monday, May 14, 2007

Subliminal messages

This is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Elections should be about issues. It’s about personalities, yes; but ultimately, it should be about the issues behind the personalities. It should be about platforms, ideologies, principles, etc. Thus, in an ideal world, an election campaign is meant to bring about an enlightened discussion of issues, highlight what the candidates stand for, and in general aim at helping the electorate see beyond the fluff and static that inevitably surround candidates.

When I was growing up, the electorate would troop to public plazas to listen to candidates make long and often exuberant discourses about their platforms. People got the real thing—no fuzz, no sleek packaging, no subliminal messages—direct from the candidates themselves.

Technology, specifically, media technology, has changed all these. Thus, today’s election is significant for a number of reasons. The pundits have already gone to town with their lectures on the implications of this election on the state of the country’s democracy, so I won’t go there anymore.

But there is another thing about this particular election that we must take note of. In this election, the contest to engage the hearts and minds of the electorate was mainly conducted through the media. For the very first time, we have seen how media technology can be fully harnessed or conversely, wantonly exploited, to advance or retard candidacies and causes. I am not sure we were prepared for this development, nor for the repercussions.

The Commission on Elections has stringent rules about campaign spending limits, and to a certain extent, the length of media exposures of candidates. But I doubt if we have clear guidelines on the substance and content of the media campaigns. And clearly, a number of candidates pushed the limits in terms of what is fair, ethical and politically legitimate.

We delude ourselves in thinking that media organizations impose their own ethical standards. But we forget that media in this country, as in anywhere else, are primarily a business enterprise and media are the main beneficiaries of the windfall from the campaign. What’s more, we forget that more and more today, media are hardly an objective participant in the political intramurals in this country.

So we have witnessed for ourselves how media have become a powerful force in politics in our country, particularly in elections. And certain media organizations have been more than willing to oblige their new role of not just being a mouthpiece, of being the messenger; but of being an arbiter or worse, as agitator.

Of all the psychological techniques engendered in this new political milieu, the most nefarious but least obvious—at least to non-psychologists—is the conditioning and programming of minds through repeated media exposures of certain messages including subliminal messages.

Subliminal messages are messages we do not actively perceive, but receive just the same. This can be done using many different techniques, such as flashing words, phrases, or even pictures somewhere in the frame of an ad. The human brain does not consciously perceive these messages, and yet the message is registered. Other techniques could include a subtle mention of, or reference to certain issues.

What is detestable and therefore unethical about the use of subliminal messages in campaigns is that the technique bypasses rational thought processes. We do not consciously question these messages precisely because they are subliminal. We just accept them.

In this campaign, these messages continue to be relentlessly dished out by candidates through media, and by media organizations themselves, in order to condition the electorate into forming a particular opinion or state of mind that forward a specific agenda.

In more advanced countries, this kind of political advertising is considered unethical and therefore disallowed. Sadly, it is only in this particular election that we’ve started to witness this kind of conditioning in our country so there are no helpful guidelines yet. So not only have we witnessed all possible variants of subliminal messages, we’ve actually seen many forms of in-your-face conditioning that forwarded a particular agenda.

Let’s not nitpick on this: There are people and organizations out there with illegitimate political agenda. We’ve seen these throughout the campaign and we will continue to see this even in the next few days of the canvassing. The sad part is that we are all handicapped by the fact that it is almost impossible to notice how we are being conditioned and therefore brainwashed.

Let’s take a look at some of these political agenda that we’ve been conditioned to accept.

First, that there will be cheating in the elections and that the administration will be the only perpetrator of such atrocities. The canvassing has not commenced yet, but some candidates and certain media organizations have already started conditioning our minds that massive cheating will happen, and worse, there is nothing we can do about it. Various subliminal messages that accused certain candidates and personages as perpetrators of cheating were the order of the day. It’s clearly unethical because the attack is done subliminally and results in conditioning.

I am not saying that cheating will not happen and that we should not do anything about it; all I am saying is that there is a difference between raising issues in a valid and ethical way and in a hit-and-run and therefore irresponsible way. Unfortunately, the distinction between these has been blurred under the guise of vigilance. And let’s not even go into the anatomy of cheating and how everyone, regardless of political affiliation, is guilty of it anyway.

Second, that corruption is a partisan issue. I am all for eradicating corruption in this country, but the subliminal messages in the campaign is that corruption is the sole domain of one political party. It is extremely hypocritical to make generalizations about corruption based on party lines because if we come down to it, all candidates particularly those running for re-election regardless of party affiliation are theoretically guilty of corruption courtesy of the pork barrel funds and other political largesse. But no, we are being conditioned to think that electing certain candidates would eradicate corruption in this country. Such conditioning is not only simplistic and fallacious, it absolves the equally guilty.

Corruption is a valid issue in this election, but let’s discuss it rationally. But because most of the messages along this line have been delivered subliminally, it’s not open to rational discussion. We’re just conditioned to accept without question. And that does not address the problem.

Third, that only the administration is interested in moving this country forward, the opposition is focused on destructive politics. We all know this is not true because the administration cannot do anything without legislative support. And no one, absolutely no one has a monopoly of good intentions for this country.

There are more examples—but you get the drift. Again, subliminal conditioning is dangerous because of a number of reasons, but mostly because it bypasses rational thought. It also makes a mockery of the very same democratic processes that is supposedly being fought for because clearly the agenda is not to inform but to judge, the intent is not to discuss issues in a rational way but to malign and earn points in an illegitimate way.

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