Leiden Law Blog

The power of the (false) image

The power of the (false) image

In 2012 a few celebrities unwillingly revealed the true face behind their glorious public mask. The man who won the Tour de France seven times, Lance Armstrong, was found guilty of doping. Despite the media always being around and despite the many tests he had undergone, he had been able to keep up his image of the sincere sportsman for about a decade. In England the television star Jimmy Savile had been immensely popular with his childrens’ programs, until after his death, when it turned out he had been abusing hundreds of children during his life. In the Netherlands Diederik Stapel was widely regarded as a brilliant social scientist, until it was discovered (in September 2011) that he had been writing fraudulent texts during his whole career and fooling all of his direct colleagues for many years.

We don’t always seem to realize the tremendous, archetypal power images can have. They are far more powerful than words can ever be. One picture tells, as the saying goes, a thousand stories. All is well, when images arise  from an underlying reality, like the image of planet earth as seen from outer space (see my previous blog). Then we are dealing with real, beneficial images. But problems arise when images that are divorced from an underlying reality are created by human beings, often as a result of how they portrayed themselves in the media. What they said might have been powerful, but the images that arose from this are much more so. It’s this kind of image that Armstrong, Savile and Stapel – or Berlusconi, Strauss-Kahn and many others like them – had created for themselves: a false public image, a pretence of decency hiding the ugly truth beneath.

In fact they have followed a quite common and widely accepted use of the power of the image. On a daily basis the images of ads openly lie to us, and we don’t seem to mind this too much. The frozen pizza never resembles the image on the box. The car being driven heroically and on its own in a majestic landscape is a world removed from the real car stuck in a traffic jam. The moisturizing cream promises to magically take away all our wrinkles, but it never does.

Not only producers of consumer goods, but also dictators and criminals have always well understood the power of the false image. When appearing in front of a camera, dictators always make sure they appear extremely kind and generous, if possible patting the head of a little child. And any drug smuggler knows he has to look respectable if he wants to pass through customs unnoticed.

Because these false images are so common and widespread, we’re easily fooled by them and believe them to be true. We wanted to believe that Armstrong was the greatest cyclist ever, that Savile was a genuine child lover, and that Stapel was a genial scientist. But perhaps the power of the image is the strongest when the false image finally is shown for what it is: utterly false. We can be sure that people like Armstrong, Savile and Stapel will go down in history as icons of deception.

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