Socialising the young to uphold collective values and behaviour was once the responsibility of a family or a tribe. While some communities still preserve traditional customs, such as the Pashtunwali code of hospitality in Afghanistan and North Pakistan, today that mantle has been wrested by the machinery of public communications — newspapers, television, cinema and social media.

Our personal memories and impressions are interrupted by external influencers, who tell us what to think and how to behave. In a consumer-driven society, with its dizzying messages, it is easier to be told what to think, as we silence our individuality by social inertia.

While history is full of individuals such as Abdullah ibn Saba’ and Peter the Hermit, who managed single-handedly to create revolts or lead nations to war, today sophisticated specialist organisations have stepped in. They manipulate our desires and fears using algorithms and big data to persuade us what to buy, how to vote, who to go to war with, who to condemn and who to emulate. ‘Cyber troops’ are engaged by governments, political parties and big businesses for propaganda, manipulation or disinformation, as a 2019 study by the Oxford Internet Institute reveals.

Neuro-marketing identifies three parts of the brain — the new brain, the middle brain and the old brain. The old brain, which controls decisions, is also the most primitive. Marketing thus appeals to our most basic needs and desires with simple attention-getting strategies. Equally, the choice of street names, monuments, stamps, sporting events, cultural events, awards and prizes, and cartoons, direct what we give significance to.

While persuading people to buy certain products may be relatively innocent, manipulating the public to make value judgments about nations, races and genders, can have serious consequences. In a study by Manzaria and Bruck, the different approaches to nuclear Pakistan and France are revealed. While Pakistan is said to have created the ‘Islamic Bomb’ and is seen as a ‘Barbarian State’ and a threat to world peace, France’s nuclear test in the Sahara Desert was seen as a successful example of nuclear diplomacy.

In ancient Greece, and through most of the 19th century, rhetoric was the elegant art of persuasion with its canon of invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery, with which to engage in honest and rational debate with an opponent. Today, oratory is relegated to a soap box in Hyde Park or confined to courts of law. Religious intolerance, the deep state and global economic forces have made open debate a dangerous activity.

In everyday life, we are equally controlled by influencers. From childhood we are taught to obey the dictum of parents, who prepare us for a smooth transition into society. Fairy tales, cartoons, pre-arranged educational systems, proverbs and role models, ensure we share a collective identity. Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, elaborates the ways in which our thoughts are managed.

Cinema has been a great influence on how we should respond to love, friendship, anger, crime, conflict and in recent years, disasters — manmade, natural or extraterrestrial. Music videos, fashion magazines, Facebook identities and video game avatars become absorbed into our daily lives.

The artist, Jenny Holzer, uses truisms in her work. Phrases that are used every day, whose meaning is rarely considered, such as ‘Remember, you always have freedom of choice.’ We have our own in Pakistan — ‘Heaven lies beneath a mother’s feet’, ‘Cleanliness is half of faith’ and ‘One day as a lion is better than a hundred days as a jackal.’

With the current lockdown, we may be at a turning point in our history. Many are questioning the lifestyle we had grown accustomed to. Within the quiet of our homes, perhaps we can finally hear our inner voice.

*Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 24th, 2020

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