15 March 2012

Symbols



Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann, 1921, Excerpts

Symbols are so useful and so mysteriously powerful that the word itself exhales a magical glamour. In thinking about symbols, it is tempting to treat them as if they possessed independent energy. Since the offering of symbols is so generous, and the meaning that can be imputed is so elastic, how does any particular symbol take root in any particular person’s mind? It is planted there by another human being whom we recognize as authoritative. No successful leader has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his following. When quick results are imperative, the manipulation of masses through symbols may be the only quick way of having a critical thing done.

Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end. So where masses of people must cooperate in an uncertain and eruptive environment, it is usually necessary to secure unity and flexibility without real consent. The symbol does that. It obscures personal intention, neutralizes discrimination, and obfuscates individual purpose. It immobilizes personality, yet at the same time it enormously sharpens the intention of the group and welds that group, as nothing else can weld it, to purposeful action.

He who captures the symbols, by which public feeling is for the moment contained, controls the approaches of public policy. And as long as a particular symbol has the power of coalition, ambitious factions will fight for possession. A leader or an interest that can make itself master of current symbols is master of the current situation. The professional politicians learned this long before democratic philosophers.



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