The 1928 book Propaganda, written by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, begins with the lines: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized 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.” Never has that been truer than today, in the age of hyper-influence of social media platforms and the technological advancements in advertising. In fact, Bernays was one of the inventors of the modern practice of advertising and public relations, using the knowledge of the human unconscious as discovered by his uncle.
As the world reacts to the violent actions in Paris last week, users of Facebook were asked to change their profile pictures to support France in the wake of the crisis unfolding. But this ability did not avoid the backlash of many who were also aware of similar tragedies in Beirut, Syria, and Kenya which occurred during the same week. It could be argued that the tragedy in France took precedence in the collective consciousness of Facebook users because of this option, rather than being based on the death tolls of each event. A French woman who refused to change her own profile picture caused a viral shockwave, after she announced that she “holds every human’s life with value who is attacked by extremist beliefs whether they are based on religion, prejudice or profit!” It could also be argued that this option heightened the perceived need for security because of the global response to the tragedy on social media, as an indication to political leaders that the correct response was to act immediately on the condition of this social trend.
The response of American political leaders to the event primarily consisted of supporting the actions of the French government, with many exclaiming that they would refuse to accept any Syrian refugees into their own states after the events. President François Hollande, almost immediately, declared martial law across the state of France at the terrible discomfort of people living there – citizens, travelers and refugees alike. It became quickly proved that the suspects were identified as French nationals, though the continued bombardment of Syria by French airstrikesappears justified to those who would use this opportunity to execute a design that was already contemplated prior to these recent tragic events.
It is true that these events have affected people all around the world, and at a very rapid pace, to encourage a swift response by retaliating against the enemies of the state – but what of the people of France? French philosopher Étienne Balibar recently wrote of the terrorist attacks in Paris, “Yes, we are at war. Or rather, henceforth, we are all in war. We deal blows, and we take blows in turn. We are in mourning, suffering the consequences of these terrible events, in the sad knowledge that others will occur. Each person killed is irreplaceable.” It seems to most people inevitable that war will continue indefinitely – but to what end? Maybe a more correct hypothesis is that we should dismiss the inaction of our leaders as we learn to initiate change in our environment by collective action.
Love is a force more powerful and disruptive than any tool of destruction. Its effects are more pervasive in those who need it the most. When you pray for the victims of any tragedy, also pray for those who are as misguided as those who would commit such an act in ignorance of this truth. Jesus even remarked, in Matthew 5:43, that “you have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Consider this today as we mourn the loss of innocent people, those with loving families and friends, as we extend our own love to their grieving widows and children. In order to quell the cycle of violence, we should think of higher platitudes of action – to understand the suffering of those who felt compelled against their own humanity to effect destruction on others who have done them no harm personally. It is a sad state of affairs when this chain reaction can happen so quickly without consulting the wishes of those who were directly affected, but rather employ the same source of hatred and destruction that was the cause of this tragedy. Fascist tendencies would recommend that we observe others as animals and subjugate them to our way of life, but I prefer an alternative. Violence only begets violence, and a compassionate and understanding attitude might reward us with wisdom of the causes of violence. Life is indeed difficult to understand, especially in times of conflict, but it is a cheap and easy route to want to retaliate against those who’ve caused harm, rather than to quell the source of their hatred.