Reductio ad Hiroshima

So far MAL has been pretty upbeat and peppy. I am going to ruin that today. I’m going to ruin it by showing you something that I found shockingly offensive, but I’ll do that after the break

Today I want to talk a little about propaganda in art. Visual art is a powerful medium for communication. It can have a powerful emotional impact on the viewer that goes beyond the cerebral and strikes deep emotional chords. Usually artists use this with the intent to enlighten, engage, inform and entertain. But it can be misused; as my Uncle Ben always told me “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Propaganda, however, attempts to abuse the loves, fears, doubts, and heroes of the audience to force new opinions and associations. It plays carefully on the emotions of the audience to form associations, the artistic equivalent to a sucker punch.

The example below uses the most awesome thing ever, Batman, and associates him with war bonds. This seems absurd to us now, but in the right context, with the right audience this rings true. It forms an association that bypasses the critical faculties and goes straight for the gut.  Batman=Awesome, Batman=War bonds ergo War bonds = Awesome Q.E.D.

The Challenge with propaganda is that you have to know your audience really well. You need to know what they feel strongly about and use that to manipulate them. When it’s effeciv, the audience shouldn’t notice, they should be on board with fist in the air before they think.

The modern propagandist moguls, PETA (People Eating Tasty Animals), have managed to nail this idea with their stream of attractive celebrities posing nude for a cause. It’s hard to get much more viceral reaction than by tying sex and stardom to an idea. I immediately went out for Mexican food after I saw this one. Not the intended effect, but you get the point.

We should, however, be grateful that not all propagandists are good at what they do. Some miss the mark and instead create outrage and invigorate the masses against their message. A specific case of this is why I am writing.

A couple of weeks ago at the University of Waterloo… MY university. Someone, or a group of someones felt strongly enough about the females on the candidate list in the upcoming student elections that they covered over a hundred campaign posters with one of their own making.

The artist in this case attempted to marry our cultural guilt and fear of the nuclear bomb to females in positions of authority. Fortunately they attempted to do this at an institution of higher learning; the backlash was fantastic.

It surprised everyone that I spoke to that there were still people that felt this way at our school. Once the initial shock wore off of how stupendously offensive this poster is to not only women, but scientists, historians and the French, there was a unanimous outcry. The reaction was so potent that criminal investigations followed, panels were formed, forums were held. The female candidates suddenly had vocal support from a campus that usualy couldn’t care less about the elections in the first place.

I believe that this poster, and those like it are important and valuable. If the idiots with beliefs like these aren’t vocal about them, we will cease to recognise that there is still a problem. The more clever people that still hold to hateful ideals will be able to push agendas forward without notice.

So in conclusion I would like to celebrate the vocal idiots for making us angry. For their work is so embarassing that no reasonable person will attach themselves to their ideals. Campus idiot, I salute your efforts; Westboro Baptist Church, keep up the offensive insensitivity; Tom Cruise, keep being crazy. With out you to embarass people with similar viewpoints, progress would be much slower.



Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. This post reminds me of a recent phenomena in the U.S. that uses propaganda (and lies) to further an imaginary agenda – the Tea Party.

    Although you can’t really call what they use “art” (but the same can be said of Tom Cruise :)), it still employs artistry of a different kind – faking turnout numbers, astroturfing, busing in and paying “outraged citizens”, etc.

  2. I wonder who their intended audience is. Please excuse me for this stereotype, but… I think that folks who might be swayed that Curie is a reason why women shouldn’t have power might also think that nuclear weapons rock because they helped end WWII faster. The whole premise seems like a contradictory message.

    And, it makes me mad. Curie organized (and participated in) little vans to go to the front lines to use X-rays to help save lives. She is an excellent example that women can be quite effective and innovative leaders! Grrr…

  3. Not to mention a simple substitution argument could show how ridiculous this line of reasoning is. I can think of a half dozen men’s names to pop in place of Curie and reverse the whole damn thing.

    @Raven: I wondered about the intended audience as well. Especially since, as Ryan said, it had the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

  4. When I see something that ridiculously offensive, I have to ask myself whether it is a parody. Although I’m sure it isn’t, it could’ve been made by an artist who wanted to bring the absurdity of misogyny to an extreme, subversively putting a spotlight on an issue in order to create the kind of backlash it actually got, thereby strengthening the support for the women in the student election.

    The reason I strongly doubt that’s the case here is that I would expect a message more relevant to the issues that might come up in a student election. Nuclear war is so far off the mark that it’s surely a distraction from discussing the real misogyny that takes place every day on college campuses, which is what a subversive feminist would want to highlight. It’s much more likely that a deluded misogynist sincerely made an ineffective piece of propaganda and it backfired.

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