31 March 2010

Political Outrage, 'Moral Shock,' & Images

Last Weekend The New York Times ran this story in their 'Week in Review' section about anger and political movements in the U.S.; I found the following part especially interesting.
"Protest groups that turn from loud to aggressive tend to draw on at least two other elements, researchers say. The first is what sociologists call a “moral shock” — a specific, blatant moral betrayal that, when most potent, evokes personal insults suffered by individual members, said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine . . .

This shock may derive from an image: the horrific posters of tortured animals published by animal rights groups, or of aborted fetuses by anti-abortions organizations, which speak for themselves. It can also reside in a “narrative fragment,” like the Rodney King beating, which triggered a riot all on its own.

Perhaps the best available candidate for such an outrage today is the Wall Street bailout, Dr. Polletta said. “The message there is rich people being rewarded for bad behavior,” she said. “That’s going to hit home, especially if you’ve lost a job, or know someone who has.”

The second element is a specific target clearly associated with the outrage. A law to change. A politician to remove. A company to shut down. “If the target is too big, too vague — say, the health care bill, which means many things — well, then the anger can be hard to sustain,” Dr. Polletta said. “It gets exhausting.”"
Pointing to "the second element" - that political protest thrives with a focal target - is a platitude. However, the claim regarding "the first element" - about the impact of images - is less so and, I think, potentially important. Here are some obvious questions, though: Can images actually convey 'moral shock'? And, do images of any sort "speak for themselves"? I am dubious about both claims. The latter seems to me to be simply false. The former is at least questionable. But the theme is worth pursuing.



Blogger Hariman said...

Although "moral shock" sounds a lot like the term "compassion fatigue," which is a good example of a very bad concept, it still has a lot of resonance for me. The term captures much of my first experience of holocaust photos and lynching photos. I haven't read the sociological literature on the term, however, and the idea of "personal insults" seems to go in the wrong direction. The shock I experience is much closer to a direct sense of evil in the world; it is an unmaking of the world you had been in before seeing the image.

03 April, 2010 01:00  

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