Learning through images

Armstrong Williams
Posted: Nov 10, 2003 12:00 AM

No longer do we learn through subject and verb, but rather through a verbal hybrid of images and slogans designed to spare us the rigors of closely examining issues for ourselves.

Our preoccupation with television imagery has helped make this generation curiously artificial and particularly susceptible to the counterfeit. Essayist  Michael J Arlen has called it "The tyranny of the visual." And countless other critics have lamented about the perils of images supplanting words in this culture.

It has also made us susceptible to a new kind of bigotry. Television images have become remarkably successful at distilling complex issues into the broadest and most knee-jerk dimensions. This is particularly true of political programming, which has perfected the rapid fire style of discourse that leaves little time for thoughtful analysis.

My concern is that political debate regarding race has come to rely on images more than words.  Our televisions are regularly studded with discussion of affirmative action, reparations, voucher programs, and other issues that have a particular relevance to the black viewing public. Yet the responses offered by the guests usually have only the most dubious relevance to the issues of race. More often than not, the rat-tat-tat style of the talking head format leads guests to perform-rather than talk.  (In fact, I was recently told by a Network News producer that they probably weren't going to have me on as regularly in the future because I didn't yell and pump my fist enough). These purported experts on race simply don't have enough time in a given segment to discuss incredibly complex issues. So they take to throwing out charged terms like "racism" or "Uncle Tom" or whatever it takes to quickly shock the viewing audience into paying attention. This isn't political discourse. It's a quiz show!

The same black guests are trotted out to defend affirmative action. The same white guests are trotted out to oppose quotas. Any variance in that pattern and the other guests are on you like an animal, tossing out terms like "racist" or "race traitor" like popcorn to pigeons. TV debate gives us reality personified, and lumped into quickly identifiable categories designed to make it easy for the viewers eye's to absorb what's going on. Finally, the television viewing audience is left to judge serious issues like race not based on thoughtful discussion, but on a barrage of visual constructs.

A recent example: I appeared as a guest on "Live at 5:00 with LaToya Foster," a DC area radio call in show. One of her listeners phoned in and accused President Bush of being a racist.

"Why would you say that?" I asked.

(10 second pause) "Because Bush is a racist," he responded.

That's a serious allegation. Do you have any evidence to back it up," I asked.

(7-second pause) "Bush is a racist," demanded the caller.

I opted for the high road and offered the caller a brief recap of the Republican Party. I explained that the party was formed out of the abolitionist movement, and that they announced the total elimination of slavery as part of their official platform during the first Republican National Convention in 1856. For this, the Democrats derisively dubbed them, "Black Republicans." In the 1950's and 1960's, Republicans helped push civil rights legislation into the mainstream. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to enforce the court's desegregation ruling. And despite the myth to the contrary, a far greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964-a fact that kept the bill from being filibustered by those southern Democrats who relied upon race baiting to stay in office.

"Does that help clear things up," I asked.

(10-second pause) "But Bush is a racist," he responded with the consistency of the recently brainwashed.

We are constantly bombarded with images that reduce complex issues of race into the most easily identifiable symbols. These images condition us to make immediate visual connections: black equals liberal equals opposition to affirmative action. Television isn't reality. Its reality personified. Black, white, Hispanic, Republican, Democrat-they're all distilled into the most easily digestible image.

And a public that has grown up learning more through images than words just swallows it whole, then spits it back at one another in a passive form of racism-the sort that leads us to visually sum people up without ever bothering to listen to what hey might actually have to say.