Sunday, January 9, 2011

Symbolic Manipulations and the Media

CNN’s Reliable Sources, hosted by Howard Kurtz examines how journalists do their jobs and how the media affect the stories they cover. On January the 9th broadcast, the topic was the roles and responsibilities of the media and political figures… pundits and office holders… as it pertains to exasperating the current mood of fear, desperation and downright hatred that is becoming increasingly prevalent among the American public, as evidenced in political campaigns and social issues. The question posed was: Are our public figures responsible for the increasingly violent reactions by an increasing number of fringe extremists, both right and left?

The tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D, Arizona), and death of U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, among others was examined as the latest example of violence as a first option. In the ensuing debate, the “talking heads” on the program illustrated the role of public figures with the example of Sarah Palin targeting Congresswoman Giffords district for political action. On Palin’s website, this targeting was literally displayed with a “crosshairs” symbol on a map of the US. This violent symbolism was argued back and forth, with the implication that violent “rhetoric” in American politics has gone too far.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says inflammatory political rhetoric has risen as a result of the immigration debate. And more recently, he says, the weak economy and the election of President Obama have led to a 50 percent increase in the number of so-called hate groups. – NPR

Rebecca Mansour, a spokesperson for SarahPac, told conservative commentator Tammy Bruce, "We never imagined, it never occurred to us that anybody would consider it (the crosshair symbol) violent." – ABC News
What seemed to go over the program pundit’s heads was the more powerful impact of symbols, as opposed to rhetoric, on the American psyche. The focus was on the use of “military” or “street fighting” analogies to describe a political struggle. There is no doubt that words are powerful... but within the realm of the “collective unconscious,” symbols speak louder than words.

Unexamined (or ignored) were the more abstract, disarming and thus more deeply impressionable impact of symbols upon the susceptible or partially aware mind. Specifically, the symbol that triggered the connotation was the use of the crosshairs. More overt than the symbolic consideration of the crosshairs as “christian cross” or “crossroads,” etc… is the implication of the crosshairs as a “call to action.” Unlike the symbolic understanding of a “gun” or “bullet,” the crosshairs denote action… action to eliminate that which is in the crosshairs.

The use of symbols to denote esoteric meanings, to convey covert associations, and to influence the thoughts and actions of the “uninitiated” is an ancient and persistently successful practice among the few, to control the many. Although the call to “tone down” the inflammatory rhetoric in American politics is welcome, the lack of understanding of the power of symbols continues to evade the public’s consciousness. It is through the clear and conscious understanding of such symbols and their impact on the American psyche that social enlightenment can shine forth. In this sense, the Congresswoman’s shooting has become symbolic of the alarming trend toward violence in our culture and the condemnation of such horrific acts. Let this tragedy illuminate the dark side of symbolic manipulation by those who would seek to control. Such manipulations cannot withstand the light of day.