By Nikos Pasamitros
Nikos Pasamitros is a founding member of INTER ALIA and a PhD candidate in the Panteion University of Athens
One rainy afternoon of March 2007, in Boulevard de la Plaine, Ixelles, Brussels, in an almost full classroom, prominent International Relations’ Professor A. J. R. Groom was teaching International Conflict Management to his students. Talking about conflict, the 1st half of the 20th century was an age of wars and the second, one of Cold War(s). Living in the dawn of the 21st century, insights and hopes were high for a better international reality. During the discussion time, one bright student from the US asked the Professor a tricky question; “What about our century? What would it be like?” Possible future worlds were twirling in our IR-infused minds. Was it going to be an age of global terrorism, an age of a Centre-Periphery struggle or one of a Clash of Civilisations? An age of highly exposed nuclear weaponry or an age of revolutions? In my distorted and idealised memory, Professor Groom responded that it is going to be an age of ideologies and he seemed quite certain about it.
Almost 8 years after the university lecture, the surprised students of that classroom do not seem that surprised anymore, at least in this neighbourhood of the world. Global economic crisis has brought to the surface political deficiencies that led the arguments back to a more ideological basis. New movements emerged and old ones re-emerged. Fresh proposals along with dusty ones were drawn on the table. Rising wealth and prosperity is not a given anymore and ideologies are back for good.
Rising ideologies consequently led to political polarisation and perceptual radicalisation. This tense, ideologically-based discourse bears certain implications for the perceived realities of all the people involved in the sphere of the political; from the decision-makers and the internal stakeholders to the external stakeholders and the people at large.
In 1956, leading Systems theorist Kenneth Ewart Boulding introduced the “knowledge as image” approach in his book “The Image”. According to Boulding, the subjective knowledge of the world which is the perceived image of reality, affects the behaviour of individuals and groups.In that way, solidified images of reality determine behaviour since they constitute simplified representations of a complex reality which is unbearable for the human mind. Images are constantly “bombarded” by messages through human interaction. External messages may have three kinds of effects on a fixed image; 1. Keep it unchanged, 2. Validate it and reinforce it and, 3. Change it.
In a Europe of deep crisis, ideological polarisation has led to the creation of new and the reappearance of old divisions. These divisions can be explained and researched through the “knowledge as image” approach. On a perceptual level, following Boulding’s theory, there are various examples of images remaining unchanged, image change and image reinforcement on all walks of the European reality. Given the fact that the European societies are democratic, the peoples’ images bear a certain importance in shaping policies. Namely, on the one hand people and decision-makers[i] share the same images through bidirectional relations, at least on a certain degree and on the other, people can influence images through democratic procedures and diversified sources of information.
The Greek Case which is the most discussed during the years of the European crisis, is a perfect example for aspiring researchers to study the function and significance of images. Below, I indicate some examples from the Greek Case that could be useful material for the study of images:
Images inside Greece
Germany hates Greece
Greek people reinforced their negative image of a Germany that hates Greece and constantly attempts to block its way to prosperity. This image roots back to memories of the Nazi occupation and the open wounds of a, deficient to non-existent, debate on Greek Nazi collaborators. The image is validated and reinforced through the hard line political stance of the German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble and the demonising depictions of German politicians by Greek and foreign media.
France loves Greece
Greek people reinforced their positive image of a France of philhellenes. Persistent societal bonds between Greece and France solidified an image recently reinforced by a soft and mediatory stance of French politicians to the Greek issue.
Russia loves Greece
This is a very interesting case of unchanged image. Though the Tsipras Greek government heavily relied on Russian assistance by enhancing diplomatic relations, the much awaited help move was never made. However, Russia maintained its positive image in the eyes of the Greeks and remains highly popular across the whole Greek political spectrum.
Images concerning Greece
Greeks are lazy and deeply insusceptible
This is an image validated and reinforced during the European Crisis. Despite the constant and abrupt change in Greek politics and society, Greeks are seen as diachronically lazy with a fresh mocking mood towards their EU counterparts. The root of the image lies in the perception that the southerners of Europe are some kind of bon viveurs on the money of the “proper” and hard-working Europeans. The image was reinforced by the denial of the Greek governments to implement certain reforms, by the attempt of the SYRIZA government to ask for alternatives to austerity and by the rigorous European media and their stereotypical depictions of the Greeks.
The Greek, leftist SYRIZA party is a communist party
This is a fresh image that seems that it will be short-lived. The birth of this image is the job of the European right, the Eurosceptic politicians and parties and the Europe-wide media and their distorted depictions in the hunt for higher ratings. This card has been especially played in the former Eastern Bloc countries in an attempt to wake terrible memories of a sad, authoritarian past. Various stakeholders backed this image in an attempt to fulfil their agendas.
Greeks live rich lives and are tax evasion masters
This image was created by European as well as by Greek media since the beginning of the European crisis. Diachronically, people of the sunny and warm places of the world are perceived as living carefree lives. Rising prosperity of the Greeks in the 2000-2008 period along with bad performance of the Greek state on tax collection, created a negative image of the residents of Greek as disproportionally wealthy and as systematic tax evaders. Notwithstanding, data show that Greece’s performance in sectors related to such concepts is not that lower than in other EU states[ii]
The meaning of this analysis piece is to draw the attention and warn of the reinforcement of fixed negative images in times of polarisation and of the retreat of group and individual perceptions to maintained “realities”. Deepening of dividing lines renders the human mind more resistant to external messages that may lead to image change. On the group level, maintained images are hardened by a strict in-group / out-group logic that may turn perceived realities to stereotypical images and in extreme cases in demonising stereotypes. Consociational systems like the EU and the Eurozone could be gravely endangered by the persistence of negative images in times of political polarisation and perceptual radicalisation. In my view, there are specific answers to these challenges in the European sphere; more democracy, more Europe and diversified sources of information. More aware citizens are less prone to radical ideological calls, populist outcries and emotional reactions that may offer instant satisfaction but entail the danger of long-term harm.
For more information on Image Theory and Perceptions contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Those interested in decision-makers’ images can follow the works of Irving Janis and Robert Jervis
[ii] For more on this particular issue see the related article by Dr. Apostolos Agnantopoulos, (Dis)orienting the Greek Crisis in the upcoming volume; Papakostas Nikolaos & Pasamitros Nikolaos, EU: Beyond the Crisis, A Debate on Sustainable Integrationism by Ibidem Verlag