“The ethics of criticism requires pointing out the faults in a colleague’s thinking.” (Jeffrey Di Leo, Chronicle Review, June 13, 2010)
I was at an education conference recently when the first plenary speaker – a highly regarded researcher, writer and speaker in her field – popped a slide containing the image at right with the caption “you never see an unmotivated baby” on the screen at a transition point early in her presentation. It had the desired effect. The (predominantly western) Canadian audience, which comprised mainly elementary and secondary teachers, laughed, and the slideshow moved on. My SmartPen recording provides evidence that I did not laugh. But I could not get this image or the audience’s laughter out of my mind. And then there were the questions.
Why had this image been used to illustrate the idea of an “unmotivated” baby? What would I, you or anyone, need to “know” and “believe” in order to “see” an “unmotivated” baby in this image? What other knowledges and beliefs would someone need to temporarily silence in order to see and give in to the pressure to respond as expected in this social setting?
During the coffee-break, I mentioned my emotional and intellectual discomfort to a colleague who teaches in the Western Canadian elementary school system. She too expressed some concern about the choice of image and the possible cultural stereotypes that it drew upon and deployed. Later, a Google search revealed a PDF of a plenary by the same researcher delivered in 2010 with the identical image. It was my turn to be surprised – not by the fact that busy globetrotting academics recycle their presentations – but that in at least three years of giving this presentation, the image had remain unchanged and, at least in the context of the most recent presentation, had not been seen as a problem to many.
Let me state at the outset that I do not impute any intent by the speaker other than seeking to generate a positive affective and behavioural response from the audience that perhaps would place the audience and the speaker in a more relaxed state for the main argument and points of the presentation. Nor do I consider the image to be “offensive” but rather ill-thought out, ill-chosen and unnecessary. My intent in discussing this particular image is not to name, blame or shame anyone. However, I also take Di Leo’s position seriously, in that I believe that there is an ethics of criticism which requires us to make our professional colleagues aware of faults if and when we become conscious of them, even such seemingly innocuous ones as a single image presented for no more than a few seconds for levity in a public setting. I also believe that responsible critique and debate do not have to humiliate, brutalize or belittle others or their scholarly efforts to be effective or educative.
To see an unmotivated baby
In order to code this image of a baby as “unmotivated,” various elements must be attended to and combined. The visual cues of the (pan-African) colours of the headwear, the stylized marijuana leaf, the possibly hand-rolled cigarette and the reddened droopy eyes must be combined with a cultural knowledge, awareness or belief in marijuana or cannabis’s negative effects on motivation – what has been termed “amotivational syndrome” and which is frequently portrayed in so-called “stoner” or “pot-head” Hollywood comedies. In short it is a stereotype of the apathetic stoner adult of popular culture which must be transposed onto the image and idea of the infant. This visual blend and the discrepancy between what the viewer is believed to know about healthy babies and “weed” culture create the source of the humour (there’s also likely a neurological basis related to seeing images of babies and adult smiling). Indeed, with the large number of cues signifying that this is the meaning I am supposed to make, it is not that hard to make it seem funny.
To accomplish this coding however, I simultaneously have to ignore what I know about the symbolic history of the colours of the headwear and the cultures, nationalities and religions with which this colour triad has come to be associated and in which it is valued. I also have to ignore what the scientific evidence says about marijuana use and amotivational syndrome viz. that the available evidence does not support the claim that the former causes the latter (see, for example, “Cannabis, Motivation and Life Satisfaction in an Internet Sample,” 2006, or Cannabis and work in Jamaica: A refutation of the amotivational syndrome, Comitas, 1976). Given that I attach strong positive valences to these individual bits of prior knowledge, it is not easy to deliberately choose to ignore these meanings in this setting. The difference between what I know and what I have to ignore is the source of my dissonance.
The bigger picture
In another quiet moment, I begin to wonder what would happen if some of the coded features of the image were altered. Would I then be able to see an “unmotivated” baby? For example, if the infant’s complexion and facial features were those associated with stereotypical ideas of members of minority and historically oppressed or exoticized groups, one could quite easily make the case for cultural if not racial insensitivity. If, instead of wearing the pan-African colours associated with the Ethiopian flag (among others) and Rastafarians, the infant had been wearing the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, or the Confederate flag, and if the emblematic marijuana leaf was instead a maple leaf or bald eagle, and if the cigarette had a filter or was replaced with a fast-food wrapper, television remote, icon of a social network, credit card, pharmaceutical product– would these images also convey the idea of an unmotivated baby to the intended audience? Would it still be funny? Who would be among the intended audiences for such images?
There are ideologies at work in the image actually deployed in the presentation and the ones I imaginatively constructed above. By deliberately drawing upon and deploying specific and culturally encoded iconographic emblems that are closely tied to specific and perhaps valued identities, the images I construct are rendered explicitly political and reveal something about my personal politics of the visual, which is often to trouble static, singular and not taken as seemingly unproblematic representations. The plenary speaker’s choice of image is no less political, and here we come to what is perhaps the main issue – power.
Images are powerful. They communicate more than the sum of their individual visual components. In the image of the infant smoking a (marijuana) cigarette as used by the speaker is the power to infantalize (literally) and commodify some of the resources of less dominant and perhaps less socially or morally acceptable cultures for the humourous purposes. Again, let me be clear that I do not believe that there was any such intent on the part of the speaker, but nonetheless such power is at play when the image is deployed by an individual performing a socially privileged role in a public educational setting.
In other educational settings, such images may also contribute to the conscious or unconscious psychological force exerted by the phenomenon labeled “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon that can affect individual members of some groups and has been linked to under-achievement in certain academic settings. (While this was not an academic setting that would be followed by a test, I did find myself distracted for a long period after the presentation of the image and the complicity of the audience’s laughter.)
A Google image search for this image at all sizes turned up just under 1,000 instances of its use, mostly on blogs, photo-sharing and social-network sites and in a variety of conversations in several languages. The image is tied into an already existing and dense network of relations in the online realm. It comes into the educational conversation, then, not only as a source of humour but as something that already has meaning.
No image is “neutral” – this too is partly why they are used – and there are often foreseeable tensions when any singular image is used as a proxy for a complicated social concept. Given the increasing diversity of audience members in education, a greater degree of awareness of some of these foreseeable tensions and greater cultural sensitivity may be needed where humour is involved, especially where there are historical inequalities of power at play. In practice, not every utterance requires visual translation or elaboration – and often the audience’s own imagination can be leveraged for a more individual and powerful source of humour (or horror) through allusion. It may be time to take another look and reconsider some of the visual representations in our presentations.
I approached the speaker to express my concerns about the image after her talk. She seemed genuinely surprised that I had attended to the image but did say she would think about it further and reconsider its future use. This is probably as much as anyone could hope for under the circumstances, apart from offering a short commentary and continuing to discuss the issues raised by images in academic presentations publicly and compassionately.
Steven Khan has taught at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, and will begin a postdoctoral fellowship in mathematics education at the University of Calgary later this year.