A few days ago, there were some people handing out free cupcakes on Library Mall. I was delighted and took one. Before I took a bite, I noticed that there was a single candle on the cupcake and attached to it a label that read: “A cupcake for the first birthday of an aborted child, who will never have one.” I felt duped. What was worse was that the cupcake was smothered with a layer of dark reddish jelly. I was not sure whether red was just one of the colors, or if the people really wanted to remind of the gory image of an aborted fetus.
That was the second anti-abortion campaign I encountered since coming to the University of Wisconsin. The first one exhibited gigantic pictures of aborted fetuses on Library Mall and coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit to the university. I walked past a sign that read, “Genocide pictures ahead.”
I am not concerned about the arguments made by these campaigns. However, I am concerned about one aspect of both campaigns which is a common tool in the conquest of influence – imagery. Why imagery? Images are powerful. Imagery has a greater sway on our minds because it is easier to think pictorially than semantically.
Think about the safety of air travel and car travel. Intuitively, air travel should be less safe. However, this is not true. In fact, many more people die in road accidents than in air crashes worldwide every year. Still, people generally think air travel is more dangerous because each road accident is a minor event and doesn’t garner much attention in the news. On the other hand, every plane crash becomes a big news story, and the horrific pictures of mangled smoldering steel make an impression on the mind. As a result, we associate the emotional gravity of airplane crashes with the danger of air travel, even if it is no more dangerous than driving to the grocery store. That is how powerful imagery is.
Therefore, the fact these anti-abortion campaigns used imagery to make a point, as disgusting as these images were, must be deemed a rational decision. They know people in general are more easily influenced by strong imagery. It is more efficient than other methods such as giving lengthy speeches or writing articles.
I am nevertheless troubled that anyone or any group is resorting to this path to support something they believe to be right. Imagery invokes a reaction of emotional instinct. Our horror, disgust and awe at these images are innate within us. It is an evolutionary instrument that enables us to avoid danger and filth. A consequence of this is we react automatically to such images. When we are unwittingly made to see gruesome images, it is a subjection of our thought.
Furthermore, this exploitation of our emotional reaction to pictures goes against the spirit or the pretense of advocacy. Advocates generally want people to believe in something because it is a conclusion that should be reached by any rational being. They frequently argue on the basis of a universally agreed upon logical structure, either instrumental, moral or philosophical. Thus, to advocate for a cause by using gory images is akin to taking an unenlightened shortcut. More importantly, resorting to the use of imagery lessens the need for logical reasoning on the behalf of the advocates.
The problem with the use of gruesome images in anti-abortion campaigns is the messages delivered by such images are distinct from the proclaimed rationales of the campaigns. Pictures of aborted fetuses have nothing to do with the moral arguments frequently used against abortion. If the purpose of a campaign is to convince people abortion is disgusting, by all means use the pictures. If not, tear down those repellant posters for the sake of reasonable dialogue.
Heikal Badrulhisham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin.