Using GIFs for Social Action and Dignity

Last Friday Tracy Chapman released a collection of what she considered the best songs from her 25-year career. In anticipation of Tracy’s Greatest Hits album, Hermione Hoby wrote a character profile of the shy musician. This interview, and other recent interviews with her, is important because Chapman last released an album in 2009 and she likes to keep a low-profile. Hoby, I think, asked all the right questions. I was most interested in her take on digital technology (autographs are no longer valuable to fans; selfies matter now).  When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Chapman replied:

As a black person in America these last two years are no different than, you know, the last forty nine. Technology has changed and now these acts of abuse are being documented, we have evidence and it’s not something anecdotal. But as long as I have been conscious and alive, I myself and every black person I know, has experienced racism at various levels. So, yeah, the conversation’s changed, that’s what’s different. The sad truth is that these acts of abuse have always been going on. And even with a black man in the White House this country is no further along. If anything, I actually think that since President Obama’s been in office, the discourse about race has become less civil, it’s coarser. People actually feel like they can be overtly racist in a way that they think is acceptable and it shocks me. But I think that it’s important that has been revealed.

I resonated with Tracy Chapman point about revealing abuse, bringing a visual weight to the stories documented solely in words. Digital images and videos spread across social media platforms do help us have a broader and deeper discussion on racial discrimination and the eroding of civil rights, but at the cost of showing just how deep our insensitivity to and ignorance of racial tension runs in this country.

There is indeed something gross, shameful, and heinous about The Daily Beast tweeting the GIF of a Black man’s murder from 16 bullets fired by Chicago police officers. The visual itself indicates that we haven’t figured race out. Three hundred years, several Constitutional amendments, multiple Supreme Court cases, and ongoing anti-discrimination lawsuits and still race baffles us. The GIF was not just a GIF. It was a metaphor:

This image reminds me of other images of Black bodies. Our skin is a symbol that always means something to other people, and how we move and what we say and even how we die adds to the interpretation of our skin, for good or ill. We–both black and white people–have a reason to cringe at the news of yet another unjustified death captured on video and plastered on every social media platform. Our iconophobia is justified,  for the sake of bringing dignity to a man’s life. But we also have reason to fear the image because it is just another reminder, just another prompt to reveal our ideologies.

The GIF as an image genre is often used for comedic expression, irony, sarcasm, or to put a period on a point in the midst of a serious debate.  At least, my experience with GIFs has always been in that context. So when The Daily Beast tweets the GIF of a Black man’s execution, we have every reason to be astounded; they have indeed trivialized a death.

At the same time, I want to return to Chapman’s notion that digital technology both proves and reveals something about America, and that it’s important that this thing about and in America has been revealed. I’m thinking of other moments in American history were the image was a productive genre to inspire and continue protest. I thinking back to the Vietnam War when television (if I remember my US history correctly) played a central role in making American’s aware of the grizzly war their government had sent their sons into. I’m thinking back to Emmett Till‘s mother Mamie Till who insisted her son lay in a glass-topped casket so the world could see what those white men did to her son’s body.

These images reveal something about America. Many hated those images; we don’t want to see it, just as we don’t want to see a GIF of a Black man’s execution. And we must hate it. If we don’t see these gruesome images, then we have nothing to hate(or at least the hate won’t be as strong) and if we have nothing to hate, we have less reason to address racism and police brutality in this country.

We lose the fight when we hide the tragedy.

I think the GIF for social movements have great rhetorical value. There’s something about the repetition of movement in particular that draws power, that makes powerful emotional appeals. And not the GIF alone, but other iconic image genres that expand the Internet, such as memes. My thought stems from Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology” where she argues that race is more than a biological and cultural entity, but rather a tool for productive action. The immediate response to this idea is, “Ah, the race card.” No, I think the race card is more subscribed to individual discrimination (housing, jobs, etc.). What Coleman gets at is wielding race as an actual thing. In fact, going along with my idea that we use GIFs and other image genres for social action, Coleman uses the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers as an example of “strong visual filmic effects” (180). In Coleman’s words, “If race as we know it is an “algorithm” inherited from the age of Enlightenment, reprogramming its function from inheritance (a form of destiny) to insurrection provides the possibility of new formulations.” Using race as a tool ensures agency or control.

Most of the tragic images we’ve seen happen as news, but what happens when we purposely gather these images as rhetoric, as argument, for social action?

But we have to find some kind of standard if we use the GIF to combat racism and other social ills. If we expand the GIF to including the tragedies that strike people of color  in an effort to address racism, to address police brutality, then we must give dignity to the victims while giving credence to the fact that the victim’s circumstances results from a systemic trend in this country.

One way is how we present the image, and the other, which I’m more prepared to think further about is respecting the wishes of the victims’ families. I think Emmett Till’s mother is a good example. The choice to place him in a glass-topped casket wasn’t made by newspapers or television stations. Till’ mother made that decision herself, because she wanted people to feel hate, to feel remorse, to feel anger, to feel something.

Let the family decide if they want that image in our social media platforms, in a movement for racial peace. No, we won’t like it. We will be disturbed and angry and we might look at the family in confusion, asking, “Why would you do this?” The answer might come back in a whisper, “Because it’s necessary.”

Work Cited

Coleman, Beth. “Race as Technology.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24 70 (2009): 176-207. Print.

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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