The Frightening Power of Loaded Imagery

I was quite gratified that a lot of people seem to have been persuaded by at least some part of my earlier post/article on Ben Edelman. In fact, I was surprised by how mild the resistance I encountered was, given the intensity of unanimous hatred for Edelman in comments sections on the articles about him. Out of dozens of people who replied to me (both strangers and friends), only two rejected my argument outright, and even they both acknowledged the value of the article in tempering some of the furor. (One person told me I had not gone far enough in my defense.)

To me, all of this suggests the incredibly frightening power of narrative imagery against facts. Overnight, the framing of an issue through emotive words and phrases (“Lawyer,” “Harvard Business School,” “$4 worth of Chinese food,” “immigrant business-owner,” “mom and pop”) can turn a person from unknown to universally despised. That a crowd can be whipped up into such a furor with such ease, that enemies can be so quickly settled on without reflection even in a climate of free speech, has ominous implications.

I am forced to think about this problem often, given that one of my central interests is in altering Americans’ views of their criminal justice system. In that realm, it is almost impossible to get past the inherited set of phrases and images associated with criminality. One need only look at the comments sections of crime stories on the New Orleans Times-Picayune website to get a sense of how frequently “thug” and “animal” language recurs. One despairs that the facts, whatever they might turn out to be, are powerless against such deeply embedded images. ‘

Actually, this is the one point I will concede in Slavoj Zizek’s favor. I generally dislike Zizek as an obfuscator and a bullshitter who gets in the way of formulating realistic leftist proposals. But I do think there is some value in his saying provocative things like “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy,” because they might shake off some of these intractable preconceptions. Those of us who wish to see the criminal justice system in is current form destroyed still find ourselves lapsing into using inherited language. We will defend the unarmed and the innocent, because we know those push certain useful buttons. We will not take the hard but necessary step of going further, of defending the guilty, the armed, the imperfect, even though we actually believe those people matter just as much.

That means anyone concerned with major, as opposed to piecemeal, change, must find a way to transcend the cliches. This is difficult because, as we saw with the Edelman story, just sprinkling in a few terms with a lot of power (“terrorists” is another) can all but settle an issue. But given the current ugly state of discourse about criminality, at least in that area I think something more fundamentally revolutionary than, say, the weak tea of “Black lives matter” (who could disagree?) will be necessary.