The Individual and the Masses

Posted: August 21, 2008 in Articles
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Any modern propaganda will, first of all, address itself at one and the same time to the individual and to the masses. It cannot separate the two elements. For propaganda to address itself to the individual, in his isolation, apart from the crowd, is impossible. The individual is of no interest to the propagandist; as an isolated unit he presents much too much resistance to external action. To be effective, propaganda cannot be concerned with detail, not only because to win men over one by one takes much too long, but also because to create certain convictions in an isolated individual is much too difficult.

Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins. And that is why, in particular, experiments undertaken in the United States to gauge the effectiveness of certain propaganda methods or arguments on isolated individuals are not conclusive they do not reproduce the real propaganda situation. Conversely, propaganda does not aim simply at the mass, the crowd. A propaganda that functioned only where individuals are gathered together would be incomplete and insufficient.

Also, any propaganda aimed only at groups as such — as if a mass were a specific body having a soul and reactions and feelings entirely different from individuals’ souls, reactions, and feelings — would be an abstract propaganda that likewise would have no effectiveness. Modern propaganda reaches individuals enclosed in the mass and as participants in that mass, yet it also aims at a crowd, but only as a body composed of individuals.

What does this mean? First of all, that the individual never is considered as an individual, but always in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings, or his myths. He is reduced to an average; and, except for a small percentage, action based on averages will be effectual. Moreover, the individual is considered part of the mass and included in it (and so far as possible systematically integrated into it), because in that way his psychic defenses are weakened, his reactions are easier to provoke, and the propagandist profits from the process of diffusion of emotions through the mass, and, at the same time, from the pressures felt by an individual when in a group.

Emotionalism, impulsiveness, excess, etc. — all these characteristics of the individual caught up in a mass are well known and very helpful to propaganda. Therefore, the individual must never be considered as being alone; the listener to a radio broadcast, though actually alone, is nevertheless put of a large group, and he is aware of it. Radio listeners have been found to exhibit a mass mentality. All are tied together and constitute a sort of society in which all individuals are accomplices and influence each other without knowing it.

The same holds true for propaganda that is carried on by door-to-door visits (direct contacts, petitions for signatures); although apparently one deals here with a single individual, one deals in reality with a unit submerged into an invisible crowd composed of all those who have been interviewed, who are being interviewed, and who will be interviewed, because they hold similar ideas and live by the same myths, and especially because they are targets of the same organism. Being the target of a party or an administration is enough to immerse the individual in that sector of the population which the propagandist has in his sights; this simple fact makes the individual part of the mass. He is no longer Mr. X, but part of a current flowing in a particular direction. The current flows through the canvasser (who is not a person speaking in his own name with his own arguments, but one segment of an administration, an organization, a collective movement); when he enters a room to canvass a person, the mass, and moreover the organized, leveled mass, enters with him. No relationship exists here between man and man; the organization is what exerts its attraction on an individual already part of a mass because he is in the same sights as all the others being canvassed.

Conversely, when propaganda is addressed to a crowd, it must touch each individual in that crowd, in that whole group. To be effective, it must give the impression of being personal, for we must never forget that the mass is composed of individuals, and is in fact nothing but assembled individuals. Actually, just because men are in a group, and therefore weakened, receptive, and in a state of psychological regression, they pretend all the more to be “strong individuals.”

The mass man is clearly sub- human, but pretends to be superman. He is more suggestible, but insists he is more forceful; he is more unstable, but thinks he is firm in his convictions. If one openly treats the mass as a mass, the individuals who form it will feel themselves belittled and will refuse to participate. If one treats these individuals as children (and they are children because they are in a group), they will not accept their leader’s projections or identify with him. They will withdraw and we will not be qble to get anything out of them. On the contrary, each one must feel individualized, each must have the impression that he is being looked at, that he is being addressed personally. Only then will he respond and cease to be anonymous (although in reality remaining anonymous).

Thus all modern propaganda profits from the structure of the mass, but exploits the individual’s need for self-affirmation; and the two actions must be conducted jointly, simultaneously. Of course this operation is greatly facilitated by the existence of the modern mass media of communication, which have precisely this remarkable effect of reaching the whole crowd all at once, and yet reaching each one in that crowd. Readers of the evening paper, radio listeners, movie or TV viewers certainly constitute a mass that has an organic existence, although it is diffused and not assembled at one point. These individuals are moved by the same motives, receive the same impulses and impressions, find themselves focused on the same centers of interest, experience the same feelings, have generally the same order of reactions and ideas, participate in the same myths — and all this at the same time what we have here is really a psychological, if not a biological mass. And the individuals in it are modified by this existence, even if they do not know it.

Yet each one is alone — the newspaper reader, the radio listener. He therefore feels himself individually concerned as a person, as a participant. The movie spectator also is alone; though elbow to elbow with his neighbors, he still is, because of the darkness and the hypnotic attraction of the screen, perfectly alone. This is the situation of the “lonely crowd,” or of isolation in the mass, which is a natural product of present- day society and which is both used and deepened by the mass media. The most favorable moment to seize a man and influence him is when he is alone in the mass it is at this point that propaganda can be most effective.

We must emphasize this circle which we shall meet again and again the structure of present-day society places the individual where he is most easily reached by propaganda. The media of mass communication, which are part of the technical evolution of this society, deepen this situation while making it possible to reach the individual man, integrated in the mass; and what these media do is exactly what propaganda must do in order to attain its objectives.

In reality propaganda cannot exist without using these mass media. If, by chance, propaganda is addressed to an organized group, it can have practically no effect on individuals before that group has been fragmented. Such fragmentation can be achieved through action, but it is equally possible to fragment a group by psychological means. The transformation of very small groups by purely psychological means is one of the most important techniques of propaganda. Only when very small groups are thus annihilated, when the individual finds no more defenses, no equilibrium, no resistance exercised by the group to which he belongs, does total action by propaganda become possible.

-Excerpt from “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s AttitudesBy Jacques Ellul (1965)


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