Impact of President’s birthday celebration on freedom of conscience

President Robert Mugabe turns 90 on 21 February 2014. This day has since been canonized into a social and political movement and elevated to a day of national importance in Zimbabwe. What exactly is the significance of this day? For a few decades now, the day has been associated with the metaphors of youth, vibrancy, renaissance and hope. There is wide media coverage of this event to fortify these metaphors, values and beliefs.

While a lot has been written and said on how this impacts on right to freedom of information, including the rights to alternative sources of news, little has been written or said, based on evidence, on the day’s effect on the national psyche and in particular young people's right to choose what they believe in. This is what this article tries to do by briefly looking at the psychological phenomenon called ‘priming effect’ and how the 21st February Movement is conditioning swathes of young people into a proverbial pack of Pavlov’ dogs with with an unhealthy fear of authority figures.

21st February is intuitively associated and primed with metaphors of nationalism, independence, youth, hope, heroism, etc. The effects of such priming may appear not harmful but can be very salient and long lasting, even more so than simple recognition memory. In light of the fact that the target audience and participants of the 21st February movement are young people, who are still prone to cognitive suggestions, the unconscious priming effects can affect choices long after the event has been consciously forgotten and can prompt patriotic action, some of which may be based on discrimination of those opposed to the idea or those perceived as such, through what psychologists call ideomotor. When a stimulus is experienced, it is also primed.

According to findings by Kathleen Vohs, for example, some cultures provide frequent reminders of respect while others constantly remind and prime obedience by large images of their Dear Leader. For example, in North Korea, the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader not only convey the feeling that ‘Big Brother is Watching’ but also lead to an actual reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action. This is akin to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four where Posters of the Party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU", dominate the city, while the ubiquitous telescreen monitors the private and public lives of the populace.

According to research findings, reminding people of their mortality increases the appeal to authoritarian ideas, which may subsequently become re-assuring. This partly explains the harmful effect of other forms of religion in Zimbabwe today. In the same vein, 21st February movement is based on the realization of mortality and the need to create an immortal legacy.

Experiments have confirmed Freudian insights about the role of symbols and metaphors in unconscious associations. Cognitive associations can have profound effect on democracy. For example, a study of voting patterns in the precincts of Arizona in 2000 showed that the support for propositions to increase school funding was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school than when it was in a nearby location.

In the case of Zimbabwe, it is clear that priming effect has been the state’s alternative weapon in creating a placid and programmed society. Free flow of information is the corner stone of a democracy which is why the state has long history of unease with both independent and critical and media that might interrupt its priming programme. The state knows that it can easily lose popularity through exchanges on Blackberry Messenger (BBM), bulk texts, and other social media, which explains why the state hates encrypted information exchanges forums such as BBM.

The Zimbabwean problem is no longer merely political and a matter of violation of civil and political rights but a violation of national psyche. Combined with the stunning failure rate in secondary schools, young people are prone to whatever ideology that gives them hope. In the given circumstances the illusory hope offered by the 21st Movement is likely to create a rallying point them. While this may be interpreted as a gesture of respect for national leaders, if this is combined with other factors, this is creating social inertia and conditions that do not give rise to social change. Without social change, it will be hard to sustain meaningful political change.

How can this phenomenon and causal link to psychosocial regression be changed or at the very least mitigate? There is need for re-calibration of community engagement that does not only pay attention to effects of priming but causes of priming. Thus civil society engagement should equip communities with new language, metaphors and subtle psychological interventions. This would mediate change through offering to communities of alternative narrative in place of the one the state is propagated and consequently primed. One way of doing this is the need to continue pushing for the licensing of community radios in order to give communities back their voices and consequently control over what feeds their conscience.

Post published in: News

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