Walking through the Diag this week to the graphic display of anti-abortion propaganda, and even weeks to the blatant racist and homophobic preaching of a radical evangelist has certainly instigated dialogue amongst students. A particular conversation in my political science class made me think even further about whether added shock value to a social or political message is an effective strategy.
Some call the tactic cheap and easy. Captivate people’s attention and reel them in knowing you probably won’t convince them totally, but will at least inspire a few thoughts and questions—perhaps doubts of their own beliefs. After all, a student is much more likely to take a look at a 5 by 5 billboard comparing ‘genocide’ to the abortion of fetuses (no matter how appalling the trivialization of that term is) then they are to a happy family portrait whose mother chose life. Obnoxious? Incredibly. Ingenious? Maybe.
Lady Gaga has been known to pull similar tactic as a performing artist and social activist. Appearing to an outfit of raw meet at the MTV Video Music Awards to communicate her position on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban—namely that “anyone that’s willing to take their life and die for their country is the same. You’re not gay and dead, straight and dead. You are dead”—certainly raised a stir, as did her appearance in an egg at the 2011 Grammy Awards with the intention of communicating that regardless of sexual orientation we are all the same because we were all “born that way.”
The tattoo on Lady Gaga’s left arm is a quote by German philosopher Rainer Mari Rilke, and reads:
“Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?”
It really is quite remarkable how much we value the Freedom of Speech in the United States, and it’s clear from Lady Gaga to extremist protestors how well people put that right to practice. So the audience is American society and the purpose is social change, but perhaps the true question should not be what tactic is must effective, but rather what tactic enables an individual to communicate him or herself in a way they believe is most expressive of their values.