Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

A Picture is Sometimes Worth Very Little

The toughest challenges any nation faces are usually systemic. And most are out of reach of  filmmakers or photographers.

The familiar saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is one of those aphorisms that is so self-satisfying that we know we are never going to be challenged when we say it.  But its not only wrong, its inverted.  In fact, a picture is sometimes worth very little, and—at times—a distraction that costs us dearly.

Nearly a century ago the philosopher Susanne Langer made the obvious but profound observation that images are presentational; they easily reflect a piece of the material world back to us. Presentational media allow immediate and nearly universal access to all that can be seen, aided by the fact that–unlike texts–we don’t have to learn how to “read” images. To be sure, we can become visually more astute. But some visual content like the human face is instantly ‘readable.’  Even infants have this capability.

To be sure we need images: perhaps to inspire us, or maybe to simply figure out which slot of an electrical outlet is the “hot” side. But as Langer pointed out, language goes where visual artists can’t.  It’s often the only suitable vehicle for expressing ideas, beliefs and values.  And though we may doubt it, all of these are generative: they are among the first causes of why we think as we do:  what we cherish, and what first principles we value.

Imagine you are putting together the 6:00 o’clock edition of a local television news show. In the competitive world of commercial television the last story you want to cover is one that needs an extensive verbal explanation.  Your survival depends on showing rather than telling.  In most cases news-gatherers are going to prefer blood on the pavement to sociological explanations that account for an increase in a city’s crime rate.  Similarly, the same preference for the visual will devalue a story with an advocate explaining, say, the advantages of a single-payer medical system.  The subject would make most video producers blanch. Other than a “talking head,” there’s nothing to show other than old “B” roll footage of patents sitting in medical offices, or perhaps a doctor taking someone’s pulse. A problem with television news is that its disparate and continuous search for interesting pictures distorts our attention.   First causes are hard to show.  So we may see patients describing the hardship of paying for out-of-pocket medicines.  Their fears and anxieties work well in presentational media.  But we are less likely to see a video analysis of American healthcare, or the parity-violating idea of rationing it. The uneven denial of some coverage—our de-facto system for all but the very rich—needs a rhetorically adept explanation. And if an expert goes before a the camera, they will be asked to keep their explanations very short. Think seconds rather than minutes.

Systems of belief can hide from the camera.  Hence we may never give them the scrutiny they deserve.

Here’s the problem, and its a huge one: the toughest challenges any nation or community face are usually systemic.  That is, deeply embedded problems arise from old and rarely examined attitudes, ideologies, procedural traditions or group fantasies that must be described rather than shown.  They are beyond the reach of even a talented video producer.  In our ocular-centric world we can indeed see the effects of our worst problems: for example, urban poverty, poor schools, serious crime, industrial pollution, and so on.  What can’t be reached with a camera are the fixed ideas–our ideological roots–that perpetuate them.

Consider a final brief example. Industrial pollution sometimes happens because industry lobbyists sometimes provide the legislative language for lax government regulations. But we don’t see that. There’s really nothing to show.  The real action is in the almost invisible transfer of regulatory power from elected officials who are too close to the regulated, a significant slight-of-hand that does not make very interesting pictures.  A competent political journalist or academician can explain these suspicious legislative alliances.  But a reporter doing this kind of story will have to beg for screen time.

The effects of news driven by the need for interesting pictures is that we are often only moved by portrayals of feelings.  That’s fine, but it often comes because we have a enfeebled tolerance for the discursive detail of print on the page or screen. Images are emotionally involving.  But ideas require literacy and our willingness to use its tools.


The Agentic Personality


Milgram’s work is a reminder that too many of us depend on responsibility-avoiding locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

The recent film Experimenter (2015) dramatizes the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who was interested in the seemingly fixed tendency of humans to shift responsibility for harmful acts up the chain of command.  Milgram is well known for his “shock box” experiments at Yale University in the early 1960s.  In this iconic study volunteer “teachers” were recruited and instructed to ask true/false questions to unseen “learners” in an adjoining room.  Any wrong answer given by the learner was to be followed by electric shocks administered by the teacher.  If the volunteer teachers expressed alarm over the shouts of pain coming from the next room, they were instructed by the white-coated experimenter to proceed.  This was usually followed by a reassurance that the researcher would take responsibility for the entire process. And so over two thirds of his volunteers proceeded to inflict seemingly lethal doses of electricity on the learner.

Of course the learner was not actually hooked up to the shock box.  He was an actor.  But the teachers did not know that, nor did they understand that they were the experimental subjects. Milgram was testing their willingness to carry out instructions issued by a superior, even when the effect of the shocks they were supposedly administering were harmful.

No Institutional Review Board at any university in the United States would ever allow this kind of research today. Volunteers cannot be put in this kind stressful state. But the Milgram studies remain as stark testimony to the willingness of seemingly decent people to comply when credible authorities take responsibility for indefensible actions against others.

Milgram was one is a long line of thinkers and researchers on the origins of German acceptance of the exterminations going on within the Third Reich.  All wondered why otherwise decent people could be so easily induced into lethal compliance.

Agentic personalities may assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. 

The short answer is that we seem to regard higher authority as a kind of shelter:  they can be responsible for decisions that they want to enforce. One effect is that questioning the morality of a “job duty” seems to get lost in the comfort of just “doing the work,” “doing what I’m told,” or “respecting the decisions of my bosses.”

Luckily, most encounters with mid-level functionaries do not come with such lethal risks to others.  But we can still imagine the urge to comply that so easily happens within the middle of the chain of command.  And so Milgram’s work is also a cautionary tale of how many individuals spend their working lives dependent on locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

He calls individuals who find comfort in these caveats “agentic personalities.”  They assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  And so paperwork must be filled out before an emergency room patient who may be bleeding out can be admitted.  An office supervisor insists on a performance review for a person who is about to retire. Or a pre-9/11 trade school registrar never thinks to inquire why a man wants to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but not land it.  Functionaries in these roles find a degree of psychological shelter in the belief that they are acting in accord with their required job-role.  After all, it’s “the boss” who is really in charge.

But here’s the kicker.  In the Milgram study there was no requirement to comply.  Volunteers could quit if they didn’t like what they had to do. Even so, most stayed to the bitter end.