Campaigns: When Provocative Becomes Problematic

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It’s a season of “campaigns” – in real life and on social media (which, arguably is just as real as real life), and the onslaught of images, sound bites and hashtags have taken over much of our lives, particularly in terms of the way we receive information. Some are helpful and even informative – selfies of quotes or comments, images of hoodies and raised fists, #blacklivesmatter or #icantbreathe t-shirts, newspapers with pictures of masses gathered standing and/or laying down on the ground – at least, raising the awareness that we are not living in a post-racial America, and that certain lives have continuously been deemed less valuable and worthy. And how this needs to stop. Now. In the last year, these kinds of campaigns have certainly provoked me to investigate, interrogate, and question much more, not only the nation-state, and my local community, but my church, and most importantly, myself. For me, personally, the stakes are rooted in Desmond, Anna, and Oswald, and many may be able to relate to the context in which the impetus to pursue justice is connected to parenthood and pastoral ministry. But, not everyone, and that’s ok, because we’re still all in this together, right? Whatever drives us to pursue this kind of justice?

And yet, there’s the question of the how. As always there’s heat when there’s any new method of consciousness-raising and organizing, which we saw with the criticism of hastivism. Then there are movies and marketing campaigns, and while the intention is to stop people in their tracks – whether through satire or shock – more often than not it’s more startling to see the way certain images are tied to specific issues, and how that ends up communicating much more than the original message. This is part of the problem with the latest One Great Hour of Sharing, and others have already articulated (Traci Smith) the major issues in public forums and Facebook. For non-Presbys Bruce Reyes-Chow offers a quick rundown here. Like Bruce, I love my church, and it’s because of the connection and commitment that we speak up. What bothers me here is the undeniable link between the medium and the message, and how these days we prioritize the former – the way, the how, the medium – and opt for the slick equating it with a necessary spark for conversation or for the clever equating it with being conscientious and thoughtful. When, in the end, it dilutes the credibility of the people behind the campaign – the leadership, the staff, the organizers – because it breaks trust. It emphasizes image over real issues, and focuses on data (how many people will see or respond) over dialogue. This isn’t about transformation, then – it becomes more about the institution – in other words, maintaining the status quo through the pursuit of capital.

I’m no marketing person. I’m a regular consumer. And yet, I do produce in many ways, too. I write, I tweet, I cook (though that’s a bit of a stretch these days with most of our meals being cereal and PB and J), I speak, I preach (again, rare), and I teach, etc. I blog. I know the power of click-bait and edgy, and I get that they are helpful for getting at least a foot in the door of people’s oft-closed minds and spirits. But what’s the cost? And is it worth it? I do feel encouraged that there has been a response from the staff. And I hope that this dialogue will shed light on the necessary processes that need to be implemented for better work in the future.

Because when this kind of thing is done at the expense of the people we are called to serve, minister to, advocate for, and it ultimately relies on shady rhetoric and stereotypes to be “edgy” then ultimately it ends up hurting more than helping – it’s less “provoking to good deeds” and more problem. And, we are the ones that become more than just a part of the problem. We are the problem.