Sunday, May 18, 2008

Deciphering the Image: Road to Reality

Images play an important part of our learning. They are studied by journalists, advertisers, visual artists and filmmakers. Humans learn by copying and oftentimes we find ourselves copying our surroundings without even realizing it. This can be seen if we examine how people dress in one office as opposed to another, or if we look at how people dance in different nightclubs. Without any verbal conversation, people end up copying each others looks and moves. It isn't that we're unoriginal. It's just how we learn. However, what we must also realize is that sometimes we mimic things before we completely understand what the meaning behind them is. No one knows this better than parents who are completely horrified when they hear their two or three year-old child say a bad word. The innocent doesn't understand what he or she is saying, but if there is a group of people who hear the verbal flub, the resulting horror (or laughter) is beyond the control of the well-meaning parents.

Let's take this same idea and apply it to adults. Adults probably don't swear without knowing what they are saying, but how often do adults repeat things they have heard without really understanding what they are saying? The jargon of "WMDs" and "superdelegates," for example, catches like wildfire because of the constant repetition that occurs on TV, the radio and in print media. The attached article doesn't really matter. It could be complete babble as far as political press writers are concerned; all that is necessary is to repeat the word that they want you to repeat. How often do you find yourself singing a song that you don't care for? Music companies have paid stations to have the song played multiple times an hour so that you will know it whether you like it or not. It is what our brains naturally do.

Therefore, the images that we see over and over, if you think about it in this context, are VERY influential. So influential that many times what we see will supercede what we hear. It doesn't matter that the shows on TV are fictional. When we see African Americans and Latinos in raggedy clothes with guns over and over, despite all of the educated African Americans and Latinos in the world, we will immediately associate African Americans and Latinos with the images we've seen on TV. Videogames, too.

This past week, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a trip along the Texas-Mexico border in order to look at conservation practices on both sides and to try and understand how the efforts can be joined. This is part of the honor I have as a fellow in the Hispanic Leadership Program in Agriculture and Natural Resources, which will soon be known as the Hispanic Leaders in Agriculture and the Environment. There were a couple of conversations that really made me think that I would like to share with you.

The first conversation was about the film Babel. I'm not sure who brought the film up but it was clear that everyone thought the film was interesting. I was once a film major, so whenever I look at a movie, my critical analysis runs pretty deep, but I try not to take it all too seriously. However, I found it really interesting when several people insisted that a certain scene, one where two boys irresponsibly shoot at a bus, took place in the Middle East. I thought to myself, "I wrote a paper on this movie, I could've sworn that the two boys actually weren't in the Middle East and that was part of the irony of the movie." See, the film was trying to show that the resulting chaos, where the careless but ultimately harmless boys, were considered terrorists even though they lived nowhere near the Middle East. I tried to say this to my fellow moviegoers. I said, "Um, weren't the boys actually in a country in Africa?" But no one wanted to believe me, so I just stayed quiet. Well, if you look at the "Morocco Text" section of the link to Babel above, you can see that the scene I'm describing does, indeed, take place in an African country. It takes place in an African country that is over 3,000 miles away from Iraq and the supposed "terrorists" we are trying to subdue. Why didn't anyone believe me? This really perplexed me upon confirming what I already knew. I had to face the fact that they were only looking at the image. They saw two boys in sand, shooting at a bus and regardless of the dialogue in the film, they equated the image with the Middle East. The propaganda, the repetition of a certain image on TV and in the news has been repeated to such an extent, that even when these folks were given different information that should've broken the stereotype, the stereotype stuck.

I have to admit, this disappoints me. The next conversation that I will share, however, didn't just disappoint me. I have to admit, I was dumbfounded. A few of us were eating breakfast at our hotel and the morning news was on. All the same rhetoric about Obama, Clinton and McCain was being repeated and, unfortunately, Rev. Dr. Wright's name came up again. I asked someone if she had heard about the controversy and she said she had. In her opinion, the image of Obama and Wright fighting in the media was equivalent to "divide and conquer" and was in line with "how to create a slave," the racist practice by Willie Lynch that our country was founded on. I thought she had a valid point, but I thought, from a PR standpoint, there might be more to it. When another person asked what we were talking about we mentioned the topic and he immediately called Wright arrogant and selfish. This person maintained that Rev. Dr. Wright made controversial comments in order to become famous. This is when I had to reveal my own relationship to Rev. Dr. Wright. I mentioned that I had been to Wright's church and that he was an excellent preacher and I also mentioned that my dad had worked with Wright (not in any official capacity). It was quite clear that my own personal experience with Wright was less important than what others had seen in the media. In other words, the image was more important than actual physical contact with the man. I can't necessarily argue with that. I've been guilty of the same thing.

Let me explain how Rev. Dr. Wright helped my father, Rev. Dr. Samuel Acosta. My dad is a very educated man, even though he doesn't tell people this. I take every chance to tell people this because they never expect to hear it. He went to Princeton Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary (which is part of the University of Chicago). He is a minister and a pastoral counselor. Dad's goals, as a young leader, included helping Latino families who had just moved to the United States stay intact despite cultural differences. As he was building his church and clientele in Chicago in the 1970s-1980s, Papi (Dad) approached Wright, who had a successful church, with some questions. Lutheran General had approached Papi with an opportunity to have a practice in one of their hospitals. This would be lucrative but Dad was unsure. Rev. Dr. Wright told him that the real work was with the people at the groundlevel. He said that the work would be much harder and thankless, oftentimes, but that if he did his job well, he would be able to create a strong community base and really help people. My dad ended up following Wright's advice and opened a practice in Logan Square instead of within the suburban hospital. Papi often charged his humble clients well below the standard rate. He's the only therapist I've heard of who would charge $20, sometimes $15. But his clients came back, they set goals, and they reached those goals (very different than therapy that goes on forever as an exercise in self-indulgence). And our church, First Spanish United Church of Christ, grew and was completely self-sustained. I did not share this information with the folks I spoke with because it seemed that the image of Wright was more influential than anything that I could say and I wanted to respect their knowledge, but I didn't understand why they seemed uninterested in my family's experience with the man. Or with my journalism/PR background.

Advertisers and publicists know that there is no bad publicity. It doesn't matter if the publicity says something controversial or if the publicity seems to ruin someone's credibility. Ultimately, the goal is name or phrase recognition, and this is why we must consider that Wright and Obama may be much smarter than we give them credit. We could look at it as Wright just wanting to become famous, or we could look at it as two African American men using this opportunity to speak about issues that the majority of United States citizens have never spoken about. For example, some of the soundbites show Wright talking about the possibility of the U.S. government creating AIDS to hurt certain populations, or talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, or other controversial issues. These topics have been talked about in the circles I've lived in, roughly, for the past 20 years or more. Still, there was a huge population of U.S. citizens who NEVER mentioned AIDS being a racist lab experiment. Now that population mentions it all the time. Yes, they mention it in association with Wright; yes, they mention what an appalling notion it is; yes, they mention it with anger and without the least bit of understanding or desire to consider its possible truth. But they mention it. Like an overplayed Britney Spears record. And they never did before. Did Wright and Obama stage their dispute in order to get people talking about stuff they didn't talk about before? I don't know. But I do know that the result is that some different words are being repeated as a result of their public "dispute."

My own work, with the Hispanic Leaders program and in the English Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, involves teaching young people how to decipher what the truth is in the midst of stereotypes in texts (novels, TV shows, films, music). For example, Esmeralda Santiago's novel, America's Dream, could easily be interpreted as another novel about a battered Latina. However, in it she hints at truths: the U.S. Navy in Vieques; depression caused by Latino populations moving from rural to urban environments; and the unhealthy overcrowding of the Bronx. Through some basic tenets, I'm helping students figure out how to squeeze the truth out of the constant propaganda we are exposed to. One of the tenets directly relates to my Hispanic Leaders work and it is very simple: just look at the environments in these texts (some folks have been doing this through ecocriticism). I'll be presenting on this topic in Chicago next month at the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice. Please feel free to stop by.

While the tenets are meant for high school and college-age students, I'm beginning to realize that perhaps there are some other people that might benefit from them, too.