Thursday, March 18, 2010

Image sells

"I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif?.. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless." Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about."- C.S Lewis, the Screwtape Letters

We all know the phrase "Sex Sells.", used almost constantly now in advertising. The truth is that sex itself doesn't sell much at all- sex itself is often a let down for those of us raised ona steady diet of the idealization of sex. What our culture acknowledges as sex is a far more sterile and glowy idea, one where sweat is always a good thing, and the moment of passion sweeps away all thought, and the release at the end is never ugly messy or boring.
But here is the import of my argument- the distance between the crafted image and the thing itself. Sex does not sell, my friends. The image of sex sells, and I will go even further than that- image sells. Do not craft a real picture of anything if you want to sell it- craft only it's potential, it's ultimate idealized state.

C.S. Lewis published the Screwtape Letters in 1942, and I am often astonished by how well this quote expresses the truth in our consumerist society today. It is not the argument or it's logic that matters- it is the image.

These days, every ideology has an image. The easiest example of this is given by Richard Dawkins in the preface of his book The God Delusion, in which he states that atheism is "Brave and noble" and goes on to promise just how he will prove his statement and in what chapter. The Preface itself is all about image- he makes vague references to how many people really are atheists, even if they themselves cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it- an impossible statement to prove, since the people in question cannot acknowledge it even to themselves. He also goes on to say that being an atheist in America is equivalent to being gay in the 50's. Not only are they numerous, noble and brave, but they are also downtrodden and misunderstood, as well as persecuted! He paints a very interesting image of the state of atheism in the world today- but never gives any hard facts, never gives any data to back up his claims.

Dawkins is selling atheism, very clearly in his preface to the God Delusion. I must admit that I thought him a giant with awful rhetoric on his side, excellently wielded data and argument, but I have been deeply disappointed by the disparate image and the man. His rhetoric is easy to disarm, it is easy to drive Hummers through the Redwood trees that grow in the holes in his logic. But you see, logic is not important to one who longs to be brave and noble.

I cannot speak so clearly towards other ideologies, but Buddhism's image is an easy one to point out. Immediately, one thinks of serene inscrutable smiles, the lotus blossom, and pacifism. I have heard the Dalai Lama described as a"Beautiful man" more times than I care to count, from people who aren't even Buddhists. The picture he presents is one they enjoy, would hang on their walls, even, but ask them to actually prescribe to the self-denial rigorously upheld by Buddhists...and well...the Dalai Lama is a beautiful man. I think that's the nice way of saying "That's true for you, but-"

Every ideology maintains an image. Once upon a time it was based on the lives of its followers. Now we are surrounded by marketing, and marketing is all about hype, not actuality. Remember the first time you had sex? Was it really any good at all? Were you disappointed? I know I was. The image presented was so much more...everything. Magical, exciting, romantic...clean. MArketing is all about hype, about potential, about the ideal state, and it does not concern itself with the distance between what it shows and what life is like. But we should.

What does it mean to be a responsible consumer of ideas? What does it look like when people truly think about the messages they receive?

Image is fired at us from so many different medias that it's commonplace to think in image-jargon instead of truth. Atheism is brave and noble, Buddhism is serene and compassionate, Christianity is hypocritical, Republicans are corporate, Democrats are philanthropists, etc. And all of these crafted images will shift when you talk to the followers of an opposite ideology.

Abortion is the perfect example. From the Pro-Choice camp: Abortion is a necessary right of a woman to control her life and her body, and denial of that right is cruel. Those that oppose it are referred to as "anti-choice" or even better, "anti-woman".
From the Pro-Life camp: Abortion is the destruction of human life and should not be allowed. It itself is a cruel act that harms all involved. Those that oppose this view are called "pro-abortion".

Now, before anyone gets all up in arms about this narrow very very short run-down of terms, please be aware that I am using terms employed in short essays and articles written by both sides of the issue, and will be glad to hunt down those articles for you if you want them. For quick reference, the pro-choice terms can be found on, and the pro-life terms can be found on

But the truth about image is that it tells us, the audience so much more about it's crafters and the culture that we live in than most would believe. Each image carefully omits very important ugly details. By familiarizing yourself with the details omitted, you begin to see what it is that the proponents of the ideologies struggle with themselves, what our culture tells us we should and should not want out of our ideologies, and in the end, human nature itself. If you follow the rabbit hole, Alice, you will come out the other side of the looking glass, and then my child, you shall be so much fiercer than a Jabberwock.

Be a responsible consumer, and do not blindly swallow the images, but discerningly swallow the image's makers, their fears, their hopes, their secrets exposed in the way they crafted the image, chew them soundly in your mind, and spit out the lies.

See what blows, and how far.

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