23 May 2007

Big Hole River Grayling, Image Events, and Mind Bombs

Environmental groups and other activists face a real challenge in capturing media attention and garnering public support. The problem is not that people do not care, but that they are distracted by the countless details of their own personal lives, the beating of drums for national issues such as imperialist wars against foreign nations, and the constant din of ringing phones and text messages and email etc. Add to this the deluge of media messages to buy more Big Macs, lose weight, and take a new boner drug and we're left with an attention span just wide enough to bridge a gnat's ass.

No wonder, then, that no one wants to understand the subtleties of what a "Distinct Population Segment" means for the Endangered Species Act or of how few motorized areas will actually be closed in a new Forest Management Plan.

The fact is, we live in a sound (and sight) byte world. If you can't get your message across quickly and in an entertaining fashion, then no one is going to care.

This is why "image events," or "mind bombs" if you prefer, are so useful. An image event is a brief narrative with a powerful psychological effect that changes the way people think. The classic image event, as described by visual rhetoric scholar Kevin DeLuca, was the Greenpeace "save the whales" news clip.

The year was 1975. The war against Vietnam was over. Greenpeace had just begun. Star Wars was soon to debut. Presidential candidate Reagan was hyping up public fear of the USSR--the Evil Empire. Americans were beginning to think of whales as an oversize but lovable and super-intelligent pet--like the dolphin star of the popular 1960s TV series "Flipper."

So there they were, a couple of harmless, peacable, hippie-next-door kids in a little inflatable boat. The Zodiac is a tiny boat dwarfed by the dark, looming Russian whaling ships. The kids next door are putting their lives in danger for our friend the whale. The little rubber raft positions itself between a harpoon ship and a lovable whale and then BLAM! the cannon-fired harpoon whooshes over their head, the poor whale is murdered, and the steel harpoon cable tightens just a few feet from the raft. [photo below from Greenpeace.org]

The Greenpeace activists get it all on video, and within a few days the clip is broadcast again and again by TV network news. Millions of Americans view it. They are outraged by the cruel Russians and sympathetic to the gentle hippie kids next door. Soon, American politicians caved to public pressure and supported an international ban on whaling.

How ideal it would be if we lived in ancient Athens, where Socrates, his students, and others would spend hours just talking, talking, talking about the issues of the day. Imagine a world where people had the time and patience to think deeply about a particular issue, and to follow a train of thought from beginning to end. What luxury!

Instead, we live in a world where politics can twist law and science into a pretzel because most Americans are simply too busy to give it much thought. And so to save a whale -- or a grayling -- we need to thrust a powerful image through the eye and down into the limbic brain. A good image will evoke love and outrage, support for and oppostion against.

The image must tap into extant culture types, ideologies, associated images/discourse, and other popular symbolic structures. While words/text are important, the image carries the main message. And yes, McLuhan got it write: the medium is the message.

The less people have to think about what they see (when they see it), the more they will think about what they see (after they see it). If the image event meshes with other efforts -- such as political campaigns or legal challenges -- the image event can aid greatly the support for and hence the effectiveness of such efforts. Image events build a participatory style of democracy that will not leave decisions in the hands of political sycophants or the technocratic elite.

Kevin DeLuca (1999). Image politics: the new rhetoric of environmental activism.
Robert Hunter and R Wheyler (1978). To save a whale: the voyages of Greenpeace.

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