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Hashtags and Images after Ferguson

September 15, 2014

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.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Brown permalink
    November 7, 2014 8:32 pm

    Matt, I’m glad you pointed out this hashtag! I hope you are well.
    My students and I looked at this trend to discuss how juxtaposing two “opposites” can question and perhaps collapse a duality. Basically, we get to see how two very different people (me as a party animal and me as a scholar) are actually one, inseparable amalgam of dualistic opposites.

    This kind of juxtaposition acts like a metaphor. After comparing two very different, even oppositional realities, a third element arises from the comparison that unites the two. A good example would be Socrates’ idea of “Wisdom”, which is a realization of the joint nature of ignorance and knowledge. i.e. “All I know is that I know nothing”.

    This third metaphoric element, as I name it, is reflection. So, when a duality is represented as one coin with two faces, the audience is offered a new way of symbolizing the so-called differences that once seemed very separate. Being able to reflect on the “lie” of the leaf that Nietzche famously pointed out really means lining all the leaves next to all the non-leaves and making some hard decisions about the truth and worth of our metaphors.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      November 12, 2014 10:58 pm

      Hey Chris! Sorry for the slowish response. On the academic market currently (hi anyone from search committees who may have googled me or seen this blog on my CV!), so things are hectic.

      Anyway, great to hear from you, and glad you’re still reading our little project! What are you teaching these days? That sounds like a really great lesson, hits a lot of the same notes that I was trying to hit in this post in a more eloquent/theoretically grounded way, and wish that I were teaching something related enough that I could steal it…with due credit of course 😉

      I think that notion of the duality of display is my favorite thing from that Prelli intro, but you’re absolutely right to point out that in this case the duality isn’t just between display/hide from the media’s perspective, but also between all the different faces we all wear on a day to day basis. What a fascinating and brilliant hashtag.

  2. November 12, 2014 9:39 pm

    We’ve all done bad things, because most of our learning comes from making a mistake and seeing the results of it. We can’t change things we didn’t know, so we can only look forward from this present moment into the future, and let our past mistakes guide and inspire us. It’s when we try to get by on feeling what is right instead of knowing, that gets us into trouble every time. Rhetoric isn’t something decided or awarded, it can only be recognized by an individual humble enough to fully receive its worth. We have to gain understanding of how consciousness operates, how morality works in all our social situations, and the difference between our imagined feelings and objective reality. To become an individual is to recognize that freedom only comes from independence; therefore, you can depend on nobody else to understand for you. You do not have the right to believe in anything you don’t fully understand, or else you are depending on others to uphold your understanding. Let their path guide you, but never emulate it blindly. If we do not seek out our greatest weaknesses and improve upon them, then our greatest strengths will become the walls of a prison that are only protecting us from learning the rest of the story. While I dislike most teachers because they think they know what is right, this Mr Chris Brown actually does a good job of explaining these “thought exercises” that will develop your ability to process information on higher levels, so you can eventually become a conscious individual. Thank you for doing more good than harm (but the road to hell is paved with good intentions; so while you educate others, keep educating yourself and let the information itself be the final teacher).

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