“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
This quote belongs to Edward Bernays. You might not have heard of him.
Perhaps you’ve heard of his uncle- Sigmund Freud.
Bernays took what he learned from his uncle’s world of working with the human psyche and masterfully turned it into a goldmine by inventing the field of Public Relations. Bernays is the man who normalized the act of smoking for American women in the 1920s, which became a huge taboo. He also worked with the CIA on government propaganda. I’ll let you be the judge of whether he’s to be lauded or loathed.
This article is not about Bernays; it’s about what he termed “the invisible government” of “men we have never heard of.”
The goal of this “Invisible Government” is single-minded: to shape public opinion in its own best interest.
Public Opinion itself has two aspects: public opinion on the private arena of life and public opinion on the public arena.
A quick glance at any country’s most popular ads reveals public opinion on the private arena.
In the case of contemporary Pakistan, there are three F words that seem to reign supreme: Family (to be revered without question), Food (live to eat, not eat to live), Females (I can do it all! With the support of a male figure though, of course).
Having worked in advertising, I know advertising works.
“Wo/men we have never heard of,” (to modify Bernays’ phrase) sit for hours conducting focus groups to gain insight on the pulse of the people, brainstorm endlessly to marry what a particular demographic’s inclination seems to be with an ad idea that will sell more of their paymaster’s soap or pizza or car.
Sometimes, advertising can even be noble in its commercial goals, as in advertising reproductive healthcare products and services. I cite this example because the importance of family planning can’t be overstated in the world’s fifth most populous country, uniquely ill-equipped as it is to deal with said population.
In the case of shaping public opinion in the private arena, commercial entities toil endlessly to enter the sacred realm of the household without much thought about the norms and mores they’re actively shaping and instilling into the individual they’re attempting to woo and the collective these individuals merge to form, and in turn the social and cultural fabric this collective weaves, namely the spoken and unspoken rules by which we live our lives as Pakistanis. The ocean is made up of single drops, and the single drop is made up of the ocean.
And so, one obvious way in which public opinion pertaining to the private arena is shaped (for better or for worse) is through the content of advertising with commercial gain as its impetus.
A second tool in the arsenal of what Bernays termed the “invisible government” is media created for the purpose of entertainment. Enough has been said about the impact of TV Dramas on the collective psyche; I won’t belabour the point.
It would be worth pointing out, however, the convergence of the shaping of public opinion in both the private and the public arena in all works of propaganda-driven entertainment.
Long-format storytelling is a uniquely potent force in moulding an individual’s opinions and the lens through which they view the world. We’ve all had the experience of walking away from a great movie feeling deeply moved, vivified even. We notice that we feel different than we did prior to watching the movie in question.
What goes unnoticed, perhaps, is the psychological micro-shift, the unnameable change that the manufactured entertainment we’re consuming is successfully producing in us.
Humans are psychologically hard-wired to understand the world through stories. It’s the most fun way for us to learn. It’s also the easiest way for us to fall prey to an alien idea that is not our own. Now, it’s common knowledge that Top Gun was U.S. military propaganda. We had Alpha Bravo Charlie. The point here is not to dethrone a work of art that is a part of our cultural inheritance. The point is to be aware of who wants you to see it and then very seriously ask the question, “why?”
The shaping of public opinion regarding the public arena most transparently takes place in the clamorous world of news media. For this stage show, the public votes with their eyes every day; the ticket price is merely one’s worldview.
The word “potter” is both a noun and a verb.
The word, as a noun, denotes a person who moulds things out of clay.
The “invisible government” of Bernays’ imagination in the Pakistani context is like a potter moulding clay in a dark room. Working in darkness, he depends on muscle memory to guide him. The shape of the bowl he is trying to fashion out of the clay he can’t see depends completely upon his skill at his craft as it has been handed down to him from his teacher before him and his personal conscientiousness.
So, too, the “invisible government” works in the darkness of its own inherited ideology and bias towards the end of a myopic monetary or political agenda with little care for the shape of what it’s creating. It just so happens that what it’s creating is the public opinion.
Entertain for a moment the assertion (Foucault’s assertion) that we, each of us as individuals, are shaped by the structures of power that govern our society. These structures of power range from the power of the state to the power of the individual family unit and the dynamic it operates under.
We’re not just shaped in terms of voting behaviour or purchasing behaviour. Our personal idea of who we are is shaped. Our own sense of identity is shaped.
Perhaps a worthwhile use of time then would be to attempt to recognise the hands of the potter blindly moulding our clay.
Coming to the word “potter” as a verb.
The verb “potter” means to occupy oneself in an aimless but pleasant way. Much the same way in which one watches TV or scrolls through social media, consuming manufactured content.
While we potter away, perhaps a question needs to be asked: Are we pottering in the dark?