Hashtags and Images after Ferguson
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO last month has brought new attention to a long-ongoing conversation about police race relations. You can read up on the event and its ongoing aftermath here on CNN, and you can, of course, turn to social media to see what everyone from your 10th grade study hall thinks.
Social media in the aftermath of the Brown shooting hasn’t just been opinions and stuff, though. On Twitter, a number of people tagged photos of themselves with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to make a point about how the media tends to portray victims of police shootings.
The basic point of the hashtag (which you can track here, or in an alternate phrasing here—some of the images are NSFW) is to tag two pictures of yourself. In one, you’re at your best. Maybe you’re in a uniform of some sort, or dressed up for a special occasion, or doing something nice or kind. The other one is one of those pictures we all have where we’re doing something a little bit unseemly that for some reason or another we thought warranted being documented for posterity—drinking, using drugs, leaning against a wall, pool sharking, gyrating your hips, or whatever. The implication being that if, heaven forbid, you were unarmed and shot by the police, media reports of your demise would probably focus on the second picture, especially if you happen to be a young person of color.
Implicitly, this hashtag highlights something very very important about images—picking one over the other is a rhetorical choice. Of course, we all assume that someone picks the picture to go along with the text of a news story, but in so doing, they’re also picking a second story to tell, this time implicitly. A picture of you doing something stupid or illegal is going to make you look, well, stupid. Or like a criminal. Which, in the unfortunate event of your demise at the hands of the police, might make your death seem to make a certain kind of sense. A picture of you doing something good, though, makes your death seem especially tragic. And all this without the use of words—we can imagine these two different pictures accompanying two copies of the same exact text leading to two different snap judgments of your character.
And therein lies the rhetorical power of the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag—all of us have done some stupid things, and for some reason all of us have also felt the need to document some of those stupid things with a camera. Recognizing the potential for one of those pictures to define us after we were dead, as opposed to the pictures we would choose to represent ourselves, automatically makes us feel sympathy for any person who ends up in the news, let alone someone who’s just been shot.
On top of that, seeing both of those kinds of images of the same person, juxtaposed side by side, makes manifest the agentive choice behind linking pictures to news stories. This hashtag makes us realize how easy it would be to make just about anyone look like a criminal.
If you want to know more:
- In his introduction to the collection Rhetorics of Display, Lawrence J. Prelli argues that any time that someone shows something on purpose, this constitutes a rhetorical display. He argues that all displays simultaneously present some things while hiding others—they all tell incomplete stories, and that selectivity makes them rhetorically significant.
- The ability of pictures to influence people without the use of text has led a lot of people to be really suspicious of situations in which people use images rhetorically (although, see note above, that’s not really something that can be avoided). Check out “Can Pictures be Arguments?” by David Fleming, or “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments” by Anthony J. Blair for some examples.
- Conversely, in “Effing the Ineffable,” Michael A. Gilbert argues that words aren’t really any less rhetorically ambiguous than any other mode of communication.
- If they gunned ME down, they’d probably have to use a picture of me stuffing my fat face with pizza. But only because I’m otherwise beyond reproach.