We are living in an era of visual excesses driven by digital networks. Videos showing hostage beheadings by terrorists, a photograph of a model’s emaciated body to denounce anorexia in the fashion industry or, more recently, the image of a dying polar bear to call the attention to the consequences of climate change. These stories and images represent a kind of grotesque that claims to be accurate representations of our realities.
Every day, the media gives us a dosage of these grotesque images and stories — grotesque because they are shocking, disgusting or horrific. Sometimes, the grotesque is linked to the exhibition of bodily functions or a deteriorating or dead body.
I call this grotesque transparency: the strategic use of realistic grotesque images to achieve the goal of causing people to feel terror, raising public awareness about an environmental crisis or denouncing the questionable behaviour of an elected official.
Distortion and transparency
This communication strategy is somewhat paradoxical because it conveys something repulsive that could also be considered to be an exact representation of the situation (think of the image of a dying patient suffering from lung cancer on a cigarette package). The realism of the image is enhanced by its disturbing effect.
This becomes problematic for two reasons. First, it reveals something to make us believe that we are seeing the “real thing” but it is used as a way to divert our attention or hide other things. Second, it is used to justify violence (consider ISIS carefully staged executions of hostages), trivialize moral dilemmas (how far a government or a corporation can go to make the public aware of a disease or prevent it?) or even legitimize questionable acts because they are considered to be “authentic.” Followers of populist politicians — either Trump or Hugo Chávez — praise them because they are “real.”
Understanding the politics of emotions
The increase of the grotesque in the media can help us understand the politics of emotions associated with the rise of populism in different countries. For example, the video (originally recorded in 2005 and revealed in 2016) of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s dismissive remarks regarding women.
The objective of those who leaked the video was to denounce the questionable behaviour of Trump in relation to women. Certainly, the public disclosure of Trump’s infamous conversation with Billy Bush contributed to the polarization of the electoral campaign.
Despite Trump’s remarks in the video about his treatment of women, there was scant impact on the support he received from some women voters, particularly white women who favoured Trump over Hillary Clinton (52 to 45 per cent in favour of Trump).
Another case that illustrates this strategy was the video showing the late mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, smoking crack. Ford consistently denied the existence of a video and that he had used crack cocaine. Several members of Toronto City Council — and the editorial boards of the National Post, the Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star — called for him to step down.
Even after police confirmed the existence of a video showing the mayor smoking crack and making homophobic and racist remarks, Ford announced he would not resign from office. More interestingly, after the police confirmed the authenticity of the video, Ford’s approval rating rose slightly from 39 to 44 per cent, a sign again of the paradoxical impact of such disturbing disclosure.
Read more: Who votes for a mayor like Rob Ford?
Undermining the hero
The revelation of the horrific or disgusting has also been used to rewrite history. On July 15, 2010, in the middle of the night, Hugo Chávez, then president of Venezuela, announced via Twitter that the remains of popular hero Simón Bolívar had been exhumed to find the “true cause” of his death more than 200 years ago.
A few hours later, a video showing the opening of the sarcophagus containing Bolívar’s skeleton was broadcast on all of the country’s television channels. Bolívar’s traditional image is one of a hero on horseback during the War of Independence. To publicly show his remains had precisely the effect of distorting the dead hero’s image.
This strategy reinforces the impression of “authenticity,” a trait exploited by populist politicians. Such troubling images or stories could translate into active public support. Or, at the very least, result in complacent attitudes towards the behaviour of the public figure.
Algorithms desensitize us
We can expect an increase of such representations because of the increase of horrific and disgusting videos and photos. It is simple to distribute these images through social networks to capture the attention of desensitized audiences.
The development of a critical eye towards what looks “realistically” transparent — particularly in an era where the manipulation of the visually truthful is becoming very sophisticated — is more necessary than ever.
We need an ethic of seeing that puts back human dignity at the centre of the question: what are the limits of the visible? This ethic of seeing should translate into using reason to interpret what we view. This will provide us with the rational and emotional skills to temper the passionate impulses associated with these disrupting images.