BSR: Beware the hazards of social conditioning in politics


Innocent at birth

The day an individual is born, they are totally oblivious of the ways of the world. From that moment, however, their journey is shaped by individuals and social institutions with which they interact. Our paths are shaped by sets of rules that we encounter as we grow in our respective societies. These individuals and institutions before our arrival generate a set of unwritten rules according to which every person is expected to conform. These uncodified rules are called social norms. 

Individuals in each society find themselves conforming to them not because they are always right but because they are considered by the majority to be normal and acceptable. In conforming to them, individuals rarely give much thought to their accuracy or correctness. Rather, their validity is based on their general acceptance by the majority. The process by which people conform to these norms is referred to as social conditioning and it is the subject of this BSR in relation to the political arena.

The central argument is that there is a discernible pattern whereby the electorate is being socially conditioned to the alleged inevitability of Emmerson Mnangagwa’s and ZANU PF’s victory in 2023, the notion that the outcome of the election of a foregone conclusion. The democratic opposition would do well to take note of the dangers of this process of social conditioning that is underway. The hazard of this becomes evident when one fully appreciates the power and effects of social conditioning.  

Why do we conform to norms?

Some social norms may be reasonable. But others may be completely unsound, false, and irrational. Still, despite these weaknesses, we follow them. We do so partly because that is what we are exposed to from an early age, and it’s ingrained in our minds. We are also comforted by the fact that everyone conforms to them. 

We also follow social norms because they simplify the process of making decisions during our lives. The world is a complicated place with multiple layers and sources of often conflicting information. In this context, deciding becomes a taxing exercise. Social norms operate as codes representing decisions that have already been made by society in advance. There is no need for an individual to invest much thought into deciding or processing layers of data when there already exists a social norm to which they can conform and get on with other tasks. Think of copy and paste technology – between the choice of copying and pasting and typing a new document, most people will go for a copy and paste because it’s cheap and easy. The problem, however, is that there is no originality, and you might copy and paste the wrong thing. 

While these social norms to which we become socially conditioned might emanate from society over a long period, specific interest groups can also generate norms that lead to social conditioning. As we shall observe in this article, in the political context this is the function of political propaganda. You only must generate a message and repeat it so often until it assumes the appearance of reality and people believe it without even questioning it. In this way, people are trained to think, believe, and conduct themselves in specific ways on the basis that society approves or disapproves of it.

No one is immune from social conditioning. As we have already observed, it is a process that affects us right from the time we arrive into the world as babies. There are social institutions that train us to think, behave, and act in certain ways. It could be the family, the community, the schools that we attend, the books that we read, the church, television, music, mainstream, and social media, and even our peers. We tend to do certain things because society approves of them, and we avoid others because we think society does not approve. We are all therefore potential victims of social conditioning. The only question is whether it is positive or negative social conditioning but often we are exposed to both.  

Much of this is reinforced by a key social institution: the law. By its nature, the law is a social construct. This means that laws that govern us are not naturally occurring phenomena. They are created by humankind. They are, to use Yuval Noah Harari’s terminology in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind fictions, or products of the human imagination. Laws can change depending on place and time. Even though the notion of the universality of human rights is championed and much cherished, uniformity in the protection of human rights across countries remains elusive. For example, some societies accept same-sex marriage while others still prohibit them. Racism is prohibited across the world, but some sections of society still practice and vocalize racism as evidence at football stadiums across European countries shows. 

The law can play a powerful role in social conditioning because it reinforces norms by rewarding what is regarded as acceptable and punishing what is deemed unacceptable. That way certain beliefs and behaviors become ingrained in our mentalities and many cases, we regard them as self-evident truths. We do not even question them. However, such social conditioning may promote logical fallacies. It makes us believe in irrational things that are not supported by any substantive evidence. You can pause here for a moment to think of certain things that you oppose for no reason of your own other than that society, culture or religion has taught you to believe that they are wrong. It’s a product of social conditioning, not independent critical thinking, and decision-making. Now that you have given some critical thought to them, do you still conform to the social norm, or you are having second thoughts?

Why is this relevant? 

It is relevant because powerful groups in society can generate norms to which the rest of society members become socially conditioned. They can create a set of beliefs that result in the brainwashing of members of society. This is quite evident in religious cults. Cult leaders are very adept at defining the boundaries that shape the behavior, beliefs, and actions of their followers. That is why a desperately poor individual might even borrow money to give a tithe to his religious leader who is already wealthy beyond measure when he could use the money for food, clothes, rent, or investing in a business. He has been socially conditioned by the agent of social conditioning in that religious sector to believe that it is the right thing to do and that not giving the tithe is socially unacceptable. The corporate sector is also adept at generating messages that are designed to promote social conditioning which is aligned to their products and services. Entire marketing teams are dedicated to ensuring that consumers make decisions that are favourable to their organization’s products and services. They market their wares as if they were a way of life, thereby encouraging conformity and compliance. 

Social conditioning in politics

Our interest, however, is in respect of social conditioning in the political arena. Political communicators of all shades are very adept at social conditioning. Although all political systems try to achieve a measure of social conditioning to advance their cause, it is most evident in authoritarian regimes. Like religious cult leaders, authoritarian rulers like to create uniformity and conformity among members of society. Having citizens who think, behave, and act the same makes it easier to manage and control society.

As we have already observed, the key instrument by which this is advanced is propaganda. That is why authoritarian regimes traditionally maintain tight media controls to control the flow of information. That way the regime can, without challenge, propagate and repeat certain messages that are designed to socially condition citizens according to what the regime considers desirable and appropriate. Those who challenge the regime are punished through harassment, jailing, abductions, and torture. The aim is to get citizens to think about politics in a way that is designed and promoted by the regime. 

We have already observed that social conditioning works through the repetition of messages over a long period. It might have no factual basis. There might be no substantive evidence to back it up. It might be completely irrational but when it is repeated so often the brain becomes used to it and might even begin to accept it as reality. Like corporations selling their wares, political parties also market themselves to citizens and use methods that are designed to promote social conditioning. We have already observed that social conditioning is useful in decision-making processes. Imagine a voter who must decide between political parties. There is lots of information to consider and it is a complex exercise. It is made easier by social conditioning, which shows why ZANU PF is keen to promote the notion of the inevitability of its victory. 

It is against this background that I highlight how the Zimbabwean regime is using social conditioning to promote the alleged inevitability of its success in the 2023 election. Ironically, it is receiving assistance, wittingly or unwittingly from political commentators, some of whom profess neutrality and objectivity in their assessments.

The primary message that the Zimbabwean regime is pushing to entrench in the minds of citizens is that the outcome of the 2023 election is a foregone conclusion. It is that “ZANU PF will win the 2023 election”. When President Mnangagwa said “2030 teetichipo” (2030 we will still be in power), he was simply reinforcing this message. His lieutenants have joined the chorus to strengthen the view that ZANU PF has already won long before the vote has been conducted. The tightly controlled state media, which dominates both print and electronic media, is also reinforcing the same message.

While it is understandable that ZANU PF leaders and apparatchiks have incentives to push and reinforce the message that the election is already won, less clear is the role of political commentators and analysts, especially on social media. Without any rigorous research or evidence to back up their claims, they regularly post and repeat the same message that a Mnangagwa and ZANU PF victory is a foregone conclusion. The argument is seemingly grounded on a sense of frustration and resignation because of what the commentators and analysts say the MDC Alliance is not doing. Therefore, the projections of a ZANU PF victory are not because of its strengths but the MDC Alliance’s alleged weaknesses.

The sense of frustration among analysts is understandable. The MDC Alliance has its work cut out of it. The past two years have involved egregious assault upon the party. After the momentous Supreme Court judgment in March 2020 which dealt with the messy succession after the death of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa has been under a sustained attack from the regime and its surrogates. It has lost the majority of its MPs from Parliament, removed by the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora which controversially claims title over them. Mwonzora has also been backed by the regime to grab political funding from the state due under the national financing legislation. Chamisa’s MDC Alliance also lost the party headquarters. Analysts have become despondent partly because they would have liked to see a more robust response from the MDC Alliance.

But what these analyses miss is that these assaults happened at the height of a worldwide pandemic when political space was severely limited by the national lockdown. The MDC Alliance could not have defended itself outside the formal structures without attracting charges of recklessly endangering the citizens. In these circumstances, the MDC Alliance had no scope to organize politically to resist the patent assault. However, its inability to respond was read as meekness, submissiveness, and cluelessness. It is interesting however that despite the sustained assault, a poll conducted by Afrobarometer this year put the MDC Alliance as the main rival to the incumbent regime. Interestingly, despite the ZANU PF-engineered successes over the past year, the Mwonzora-led outfit shares the miserly 1% with the rest of the minor political parties.

The problem is that by repeating the same mantra that ZANU PF’s win is a foregone conclusion, the analysts and commentators are simply reinforcing the ruling party’s message that is designed to promote social conditioning. The regime is keen to socially condition the citizens to the inevitability of a ZANU PF victory. Some analysts and commentators may be part of the racket. They actively promote and reinforce the message of a ZANU PF victory because that is what they prefer.

However, the majority seem to be unwitting actors in this game of propaganda that favors ZANU PF’s social conditioning agenda. They are probably motivated by a desire to wake the opposition’s leadership out of an alleged slumber or even to adopt their preferred ideas and strategies. But their conjectural projections have unintended consequences: the more the message of a ZANU PF’s inevitable win is repeated, the more it assumes the appearance of reality, and the more citizens are socially conditioned to believe it is true.

The major problem is that social conditioning may lead citizens to make irrational choices. Some may feel that since a ZANU PF victory is inevitable, they might as well minimize personal costs and go along with the flow. Resistance to an inevitable outcome is costly so it will be cheaper to go along with the flow. It is only natural for an individual to think it’s better to go along with a winner than to support a lost cause. Yet, this is irrational because the inevitability of victory is based on social conditioning rather than factual reality.

If one finds it utterly disagreeable to back ZANU PF, they might decide to stay away from the election altogether. The result is voter apathy. Why register to vote or if already registered, why vote at all if ZANU PF has already won the election? The more the message of ZANU PF’s inevitable victory is repeated, the more the sense of societal resignation and apathy are reinforced. This scenario of voter apathy can only favor the incumbent. ZANU PF doesn’t have to stop people from registering to vote. The mere existence of a message that socially conditions citizens to the inevitability of its victory is strong enough to dissuade potential voters from participating in the elections.

Countering social conditioning

Several ways can be deployed to counter or at least minimize the effects of this social conditioning.

The first thing is to recognize the existence and power of social conditioning. It cannot be denied, and no individual is immune from its effects. From the day one is born, a person is exposed to agents of social conditioning. It starts at the family and community levels. The education curriculum and the materials to which pupils and students are assigned to study play an important role in social conditioning. This is the reason why a version of “patriotic history” is championed by the ruling establishment. The traditional and religious institutions also play a key role in conditioning individuals as they progress through society. The media is a critical instrument of social conditioning, which, as we have observed, explains why print and electronic media are tightly controlled. Social media has played an important role in democratizing spaces of information, but it can also be used by reactionary forces to promote an agenda to socially condition individuals in ways that have already been discussed.

The second thing is to accept that everyone is a potential target and victim of social conditioning. If you do some self-introspection, you might discover that there is a lot that you believe in or do that is a product of social conditioning. Accepting that you are a victim of social conditioning is an important step in tackling it. As already mentioned, the constant repetition of specific messages is designed to promote social conditioning and oft-times it happens without you knowing that you are being socially conditioned.

The third thing, once you recognize its existence and that you are a victim of social conditioning, is to confront and challenge it. In this regard, independent and critical thinking skills are necessary tools. Critical thinking demands that you don’t simply accept everything that is presented to you. Question it. Who is presenting the message? Why are they presenting that message? Is there any evidence to back it up? Are there any alternative messages? Why are they being excluded? Is it not a logical fallacy? You should not simply accept something just because it is repeated very often or accepted by the majority. It may be wrong. Question it. Challenge it.

To be sure, it is by no means easy to challenge social conditioning. In most cases, it is the only thing that you know because that is what you have been exposed to from an early age or for a very long time. Where there is no exposure to other beliefs, ideas, or thoughts, and when you are regularly bombarded with the same messages, it becomes very difficult to expunge them from the mind. Consider, for example, the sanctions narrative. It has been pushed so hard and so relentlessly over the years that some people take it for granted that Zimbabwe’s challenges are caused by sanctions. There is no nuance to the argument because, after so many years of being flooded with the same message, people believe it to be the true cause of the country’s woes. The reality, of course, is that it is not that simple. Zimbabwe’s economic woes, including serious arrears, pre-date the imposition of targeted sanctions in the early 2000s.  

Another example is societal beliefs concerning gender. In a deeply patriarchal society, children become socially conditioned to believe that women have a subordinate role to men. The roles to which boys and girls are assigned, the expectations regarding the conduct of girls and boys, the assessment of their capabilities are all products of social conditioning. These attitudes do not change overnight. Members of religious sects where young girls are married off to older men might be surprised when they are told that their conduct is wrong and illegal because they are socially conditioned in their spaces to believe that their conduct is normal.

In politics, members of the ruling party and even some fence-sitters do believe that the opposition is an instrument of foreign forces; that they are pursuing a Western agenda. The message has been repeated so often that many people believe it to be true. The notion that these are citizens who have agency; people who can think and act for themselves and in pursuit of their interests is foreign to them. They have been socially conditioned to believe that the opposition are Western puppets.    

One way to start developing resistance mechanisms against social conditioning is through reading alternative thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. It includes reading things that challenge one’s innermost and deeply held beliefs. The problem is that people are generally averse to reading books or articles that challenge their cherished beliefs and ideas; things that threaten one’s comfort zone. Travel and exposure to other societies and cultures would be another good way to challenge existing beliefs and thoughts to which people are socially conditioned. Some in the Diaspora might testify that they have had a change of beliefs and thoughts regarding several issues over which they had strong views in the past. The reason is that they have been exposed to different cultures and ways of doing things, although one might argue that they have become socially conditioned by the societies to which they migrated and settled. The problem is that travel is an unaffordable luxury for most people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Another way to counter social conditioning is to champion messages of positive affirmation. Instead of messages that affirm the inferiority of women, you need messages that affirm the equality and success of women. Instead of messages that suggest that one race is inferior to the other, you need messages that augment equality between races. As opposed to messages that suggest Western puppetry, you need messages that reaffirm citizens’ agency. Instead of messages that suggest the inevitability of ZANU PF’s victory, society needs messages that affirm the ability of the opposition to overcome.

Finally, the messages of affirmation need to be backed by positive and progressive action from the champions of the agenda. You cannot have champions of gender equality who doubt the capacity of women. They must push hard for a progressive message and actions that support equality. There must be a plan and actions that back it. Likewise, leaders of the opposition must be positive, and they must demonstrate that their organization can succeed against the odds. They did that successfully in Zambia recently. Many naysayers never gave President Hakainde Hichilema a chance. They were predicting the inevitability of the incumbent’s success. UPND and its supporters refused to believe in that negativity. They focused instead on the positive message that they would succeed, and they had a strategy to achieve their goal.

For the democratic forces, it is important to be aware of the social conditioning that suggests the inevitability of a ZANU PF victory. We saw similar forces before the Zambian election. They were making bold declarations of Edgar Lungu’s victory, as if the outcome was a foregone conclusion. They were wrong by a wide margin. There is no inevitability regarding Mnangagwa and ZANU PF’s success in the 2023 election, even though they would like that message to be repeated so often that citizens go into the election already defeated. Social conditioning is very powerful and in this regard, it is critically important to counter its effects.