Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Evolving Our Social Currency (Whether Objectionable or Not)

An interesting thing happened today on the ThinkState Facebook fan page. Manolith.com had posted a propaganda image of Barack Obama (on his birthday no less), depicting him as the Joker (Batman's nemesis) along with the label of 'socialism'. I happened to find the image via my friend Charlie Ferguson's posterous page. The image is certainly evocative, but what really struck me was the power of individual use to convey a sentiment that, regardless of its basis in fact, had a perceptible impact that transcended the words themselves.

The thought arose: if we label people - especially public figures - we should be prepared to visualize them in that context. In other words, imagery can shape semantics and can impose a cultural value system upon us, no matter how small or self-contained.

So my longtime friend and colleague, Adam Goldberg, responded: "We should also be prepared to suffer the consequences of our own labeling and lies. And if need be, own them. If slanderous propaganda, God forbid, incites some kind of vigilantism against Obama, do you think that those who disseminated those mistruths will hold themselves accountable? No way. Freedom of expression should be a two-way street."

Then he posted an augmented image of his own to the comment thread and labeled it 'racism' - the image you see above.

This through me for a loop, because now there was a clear and conflicting relationship between the words and the image. It jumped right out at me. 

Was this new augmentation suggesting that Obama represented racism, or was he the victim of it? Was it saying that he was two-faced, or the victim of party posturing?

This is just one example - where the possibilities can reach epic proportions - of how media influence and social currency can shift perceptions in an instant. Looking at this hypothetically, imagine if the images had reached a wide, long-tail net of users. Further, imagine the lengths to which people could attack and counter-attack using these productions of words and imagery. Who knows, they may by tomorrow, or sometime in the next hour. We can never underestimate a groundswell of elicit conviction and perceived moral fortitude.

Ultimately, it forces all of us to ask ourselves about the role we play in sharing the responsibility of our messages and their subsequent actions.

Going forward, what role will you play?


Adam Goldberg said...

Goonth, thanks for post and intelligent insights, as always. However, I must clarify my visual response to the wild postings so that there are no ambiguities regarding my posting. It was directly pointed at the original creator of the poster. I was pointing out the victimization and what I see as blatant racism directed toward Obama. Why do I see it as racist? There are several layers. The first being an African American man portrayed with a white, painted-on face. Second, the word "socialism" is being thrown about haphazardly and only pinned on him. This was never done with Bush, Reagan, etc. who presided over huge handouts that can easily be seen as "socialist". Third, by superimposing a fictional villain's face onto Obama's it immediately paints him as something less than human, less than real. Once we objectify and dehumanize someone it makes it all too easy to victimize them in reality. Fourth, Heath Ledger's Joker is the most famous not only for his amazing performance but for his tragic demise. That in itself may not be racist but it certainly has a subtext of painting someone as a villain that will meet an untimely and tragic death due to their negative actions.

All in all, I'm all for public dialogue between parties of all kinds, heck, let's have a beer. But when these "social currencies" produce nothing of intrinsic value or intelligence and only move the conversation backwards, I think it's time to, well, think before one makes these kinds of statements.

I think of these things as Devolving Our Social Currency. And there's my 2¢. Give me some change.

Gunther Sonnenfeld said...

Adam - totally understood, and while I may not have articulated this in the same way, the intent of my POV was along the same lines - I get the fact that your response was directed at the original creator of the poster.

Also, thank you for explaining the rationale behind the production of the new image - you raise a very interesting point about racism in this context.

To add, it's ironic (at least to me) that Obama never played the race card in his campaign, but here, he is a victim of it. Perhaps this is precisely where our shared responsibility can play an active role in moderating and protecting his (or any other public figure's) best interests.