I saw the two bloody visions dance past each other on a street just below Market in San Francisco. It was a bright cold morning and the suits shuffled and gabbed while others curled up below sleeping off last nights drunk. A little grey-haired lady laughed, that’s the only reason I looked up to see it, the absurd and magical moment that the anti-fur mobile with it’s flayed skinless little creatures plastered across it and the anti-abortion box truck with it’s big posters of bits of aborted fetus on it’s sides slowly passed each other in the mid-morning traffic.
The little old lady snorted another short little laugh, and said to herself, “Well what’s the meaning of those two put together, huh? No coats out of babies? Stop badger abortions now? Oh it’s just too much. “
When I was eight my babysitter took me to planned parenthood with her when she went to get a pregnancy test. I got to pick whatever assortment of candy I wanted in exchange for my silence. I was working on my third abba-zabba when we walked out to the parade of tiny elderly ladies outside the clinic. Shelly tried to get us out of range before they saw us, but it was too late. In moments we were beset by cotton ball headed grandma’s in decorative sweaters with binders full of confusing red photos. I was curious when I saw the first photo of the red glossy shapes they put in front of me, I didn’t understand what the globs were supposed to be, but it made me think of when I saw kittens being born, of curled up birds I’d found, and sliced cherry pie.
It was in the same moment I heard one little lady say “they’re killing babies!” that I saw the little hand. It was like a little severed doll hand in the mess of red. I threw up. I threw up and I fell down. I don’t remember Shelly carrying me to the car and driving me home. I told my mom I ate too much candy and got sick, she put me in clean clothes and into bed.
Horrifying images are nothing new in the lexicon of political propaganda, probably because they are inherently compelling, and effective at making issues tangible and real to the viewer. These kinds of images beg people to look at the “truth” of a situation, confront them with an aspect of life that they would rather not see. Such is the case with films like “Hearts and Minds.” A Vietnam war documentary which shows just about every horrifying aspect a war could manifest. It seeks to show the horrifying, the grisly, the in-humane portions of the war to combat the notion that it was an honorable war, that war could be honorable.
But you can choose to watch a film, or not. You can choose to look at reporting in newspapers. You can choose to seek out these “truths,” or you can gloss over them, ignore them like most people do, or as the news sometimes chooses to do for them. But what happens when these images are forced on us? When do we deem it appropriate, even ethically necessary that we press these images on others? And what happens when the gore simply becomes part of the aesthetic? Used simply to convey the protest-ness or political activity? Does it ever do what it’s meant to? Or is it less about advocating a cause than using it as an acceptable release of moral outrage at those do not agree with you? Psychically hitting them with the violence of your images.
If that’s the intention, to express moral outrage, to express anger, then by all means that is important too, but if the intention is to change minds, to advocate, to appeal to the part of another that you think would be as rightly outraged as you are if they understood the way you understand, then the best way to do that is to create interest, to create dialogue, and nothing will prevent that more than a tactic that is basically a confrontational visual slap.
But sometimes shit is just so crazy, so outrageous, you really do just want to slap people who don’t see the horror you do. I know that feeling, I know it intensely as a hater of war, the suffering and exploitation of animals, of rampant ecological devastation, of poverty, of a million other things that seem so obviously hate-able, that seem so clear, that it does almost make me feel wild with rage that it isn’t universally acknowledged. But I also know what it feels like to be the subject of someone else’s moral outrage. I have a thousand dreams of a little severed hand to remind me that there has to be a limit to how far you should go to make your point.
I’ve had my vengeance a few times over by throwing water balloons and garbage and condoms full of lotion at various sets of little old ladies protesting outside of clinics (If you’ve never tried it, let me tell you it is seriously helpful for working through issues).
I like to think about what the two drivers of those gore covered box trucks must have thought as they passed that morning. I imagine them slowing to check eachother out, finding themselves disgusted, but with a kind of professional sympathy and maybe even jealousy. “That’s so disgusting, and printed so well, I wonder who does his sign work…”
It really is too much.
I know, I know, there’s a lot to this. Trying not to over simplify, but I know if I do, you’ll call me on it. That’s what an angry letters section is for. I welcome a dialogue about this… niegh, I plead for one. Please send all passionate emails defending your vivisection photo poster collection to ______________ and all your napkin drawings of aborted fetuses should be made into a zine and sent in for review.