I am surprised that even having read Sikivu Hutchinson’s detailed and eloquent denunciation of the American Atheists’ billboard featuring a vividly depicted bound African American slave beneath a Bible verse endorsing slavery, a fair amount of people still don’t seem to understand quite what was so wrong with it. So, below the offending picture, I’m going to do my best to explain what I see as so problematic about it.
I do not closely watch television. I usually have the TV yammering on in the background while I read or blog but my eyes are not fixed there. And even when I am looking at it, during commercials my mind wanders and does not pay close attention to ads. So, quite frequently I have heard a commercial dozens, even hundreds, of times without registering exactly what it’s about or what its plotline is or (even) what it’s supposed to be advertising. Sometimes I have the song from the commercial stuck in my head for days without figuring out what the commercial is about.
Like right now this lyric “somebody left the gate open” has been on an endless loop in my head since, like, December. And I even saw a CNN news segment on the real life renowned rock climber who acted in the commercial. I actually read a bit about her on the internet. And even after all that I c0ntinued half-watching the commercial another several dozen times, heard bits of narration that I know by heart, saw clips and heard music I had heard at least a hundred times, and then finally a few weeks ago, after all of that, I got the joke. She’s supposed to be into stereotypically feminine things like pretty shoes and an engagement ring but the “new shoes any girl would want” in her case are climbing shoes and the “rock” she wants is not a fancy diamond but a giant rock to climb and conquer. The commercial is challenging dainty conceptions of femininity ironically. Three months to get the gag. And I have a PhD.
But I didn’t get it. Partly because I didn’t think in terms of the assumed stereotypes they were inverting, so it didn’t register that there was something winking in her saying “what girl wouldn’t want new shoes?” referring to climbing shoes. But mostly the point was I didn’t care enough to pay the least bit of attention or think about what I was watching or hearing and so never processed it.
And I’m not unusual in this, advertisers know very well that it takes multiple viewings for even the point of their ads to get across, let alone to actually persuade anyone to buy anything. This has got to be especially the case when you are dealing with a billboard on the side of the highway. Drivers really cannot often give long lingering looks at billboards. They see them peripherally, they glance at them quickly. They process simply. They get back to the road. Half the time they don’t even start to see them until they’ve almost passed them. Many a billboard I have craned my neck to puzzle out as a passenger. A driver cannot even take that try most of the time.
And political ads are a primary vehicle for message transmission like the kind the AA was attempting. They are not quickly passed billboards but 30 seconds to say whatever they want. But they are remarkably short on substance and detail. They send basically one message per ad, in my experience.
ROMNEY IS A FLIP FLOPPER.
KERRY IS NOT REALLY A WAR HERO.
OBAMA WANTS TO EAT YOUR GRANDMOTHER IN A KENYAN FEAST.
They’re not subtle, they’re not fair, they’re not nuanced. They trade in fear mongering or sell hope. They know what they are doing in making this choice. They know that ads are not places to successfully challenge people’s assumptions. They are places to appeal to people’s assumptions.
Ads of all kinds—message or otherwise—trade in familiar associations. The hot blonde woman is assumed to be an object of desire. The schlubby looking husband is assumed to be hapless but well meaning and in need of his smart and put together wife’s help in picking the product that will meet their household needs. (He also probably needs her help tying his shoes.)
Religious iconography is meant to signify wholesomeness, tradition, holiness, and virtue. References to Bible verses are assumed to be appeals to moral authority.
So, now there you are, an average person, not already an atheist or particularly thoughtful about religion. You are driving down the road and you casually glance out—not looking for a billboard, not expecting any sort of sophisticated challenge to your hermeneutics for reading the Bible, not really paying close attention to anything but the road to which you will very shortly have to return your focus—and what do you see? An enslaved African American, shackled like an animal with a Bible verse in all caps. “SLAVES OBEY YOUR MASTERS.”—COLOSSIANS 3:22.
You’re not going to think, hmmm, let me pull over to the side of the road so I can puzzle out the fine print on the billboard and consider its ironic message and how it might show me that my epistemology is inconsistent and that my religion is wicked.
Even if you are not one of that vast majority of Pennsylvanians who consider the Bible a moral authority, if not the moral authority, you’re likely not to know what “Bronze Age ethics” is supposed to refer to or what point there is in putting a clearly outdated Bible verse up on a billboard with a degrading picture of a black man. It will strike you as sick and disrespectful to blacks and to the Bible. You are (presumably) the target audience, you are not already a passionate, movement atheist. This is how you are going to process the message. It’s a totally botched message that makes atheists look sick, shallow, and cheap.
And now, non-African American readers, let’s engage in just a bit of empathy. Imagine you are a black American. Zooming down the highway barely processing what you are seeing, you briefly glimpse a Bible verse justifying slavery paired with a symbol of your ancestors’ systematic brutalization, dehumanization, and oppression. Your panicked thought as you are jolted and suddenly think some racist fringe group is putting up billboards promoting slavery is that you are being threatened and targeted, and that the racism you endure personally and see growing on the national stage is escalating. Your thought is probably something like, Holy Shit! The racist backlash to Obama’s presidency and to illegal immigration and the racism I encounter on a regular basis in my town and the local racism all over the local news is now culminating in billboards advocating a return to slavery!
And then it turns out that it was just that the American Atheists—those predominantly white, know-it-all obnoxious people bashing the religion which probably forms a significant part of your identity—were just taking Bible verses “out of context” to try to change your whole worldview. That terrorizing scare they carelessly gave you by “ironically” threatening you with an appeal to the Bible and a depiction of your enslavement was just an attempt to get you to change your hermeneutics! Because, you know, that’s so important to you and that’s such an easily emotionally processed message, Average-Black-Person-Who-Was-Innocently-Driving-Down-The-Highway-In-Your-Racist-Country.
I’m sure that to you it’s going to be perfectly fine that white people who disrespect and trash your religion are trying to exploit the bondage of your ancestors, using vivid iconography of their debasement, for their ideological messaging which you reflexively disagree with.
And even if you’re not laughing about how they got you good with their clever irony that put a chill in you for a second there, and even if you’re not taking some time alone to reexamine your epistemology and hermeneutics of the Bible (you know, like normal people do after reading a billboard), at least you should not be so obtuse or hyper-sensitive as to assume the worst of what must be well-meaning white people who think nothing of prominently displaying a symbol of your humiliation for leverage in an argument. I mean, why assume they’re racists? They probably don’t have fangs or purple fur or belong to the Ku Klux Klan like “real racists”. They probably are goodhearted folks who love black people but just have a bad messaging department.
I’m sure that’s what you’ll think. Or should think. Unless you’re being all unfair to white people. Oh you black people, so super-sensitive. Can’t you take a joke?