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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Media Moment: Misappropriation Nation

TW: Images of racism, slavery, animal cruelty, and genocide

There are a good number of you that know I have written a ton of papers on religion, atheism, spirituality, as well as the media portrayals thereof. Myself, I do not believe in any gods or goddesses presented before me, but I do have great respect for our planet, revering it in the way many people may view whatever they may believe in.

I am also a critic of many organized religions, their texts, and the way in which adherents use belief to either better their existence or make that of others intolerable. I am well versed and I do have opinions of religions. In my eye, some make more sense than others, some condone brutality whereas others view an ant as sacred, some subjugating women whilst others celebrate them.

I do primarily have problems with Abrahamic faiths. As ones I have been exposed most to, I will describe my experiences with them, their followers, and their founders. Sometimes I will even use text to point out what someone else may use to base their own bigotries on. With theoretic acceptance of rape, racism, genocide, infanticide, slavery, and more, men of the past and present have indeed used the Bible, Torah, Talmud, and Qu'ran to justify their reprehensible actions. I can most certainly ponder and write about these things and discuss them amongst my peers.

Naturally, religious groups aren't the only gathering of like-minded folks. There are clubs for gay people, motorcyclists, vegetarians, hockey fans, and quilters. And there are those too for atheists, so imagine my dismay when I opened a message from American Atheists linking to a piece on this billboard.

Needless to say, I was shocked. I could not understand how anyone would view this as acceptable. While it is absolutely true that the bible was used in the defense of slavery in the political arena, it's also true that not all of those who owned slaves were of the Christian faith. Moreover it's cruel to use imagery that cuts far too deep. Needless to say, this billboard does not speak for this atheist.

Seeing this print ad certainly made me feel, I'll give it that, but the emotions that come to mind are disgust, embarrassment, but mainly, serious sadness. It made me feel as bad to be atheist as when PeTA used this image as part of an installation back in 2003 when I was considering vegetarianism. The exhibit toured for 2 years before PeTA finally pulled it and issued an apology. I went veg a year later and it had nothing to do with PeTA.

Use of shock, be it in print or on the airwaves, has a tendency to actually repel your potential audience. Instead of accolades, you may receive negative consequences for the ignorant way in which you voice your message. You can lose listeners, readers, potential members, clients, and your respectability when you engage in such thoughtlessness, and in my opinion, you should.

Freedom of speech does not grant you immunity from the ramifications of said speech. Just as you are allowed to say what you wish, others are permitted to feel shocked, horrified, and exploited, and use their voices to convey disagreement with your choices and opinions.

With precedents like the one just above, American Atheists should have known that misappropriating an image of a horrible tragedy would upset people. A degrading image was used to shame others, and in kind, the display humiliated every atheist I know.

Terrible events have marred human history. There are well-known tragedies and some stories yet to be told. However, these events are autonomous- they're to be remembered with respect and not used for political or social gain, whether it is comparing Obama to Hitler or today's Christians to racist slaveholders. We shouldn't have to tell people that doing this is wrong, but in our self-centred and thoughtless world, we sometimes to have to check the behaviour of others in our group and say "That's not okay. That doesn't speak for the rest of us. Knock it off.".

 You cannot gain respect unless you give it, and once you have it you can lose it with one disgusting deed. American Atheists stole history from African-Americans, and even if they only did so for a scarce few days, they have brought a backlash against all atheists and religious critics. American Atheists used history as a weapon and it backfired, and as someone inadvertently caught in the smoke cloud, I'm downright pissed.


  1. It may repel a potential audience, but shock does get people talking. The internet will blow up with people saying "did you see this disgusting ad?! [link]", driving people to go to the organization's website or view a shared copy of the ad (free advertising!). People will talk about it on the streets. It's an easy way to re-enter public discourse. And increasing familiarity, even if it's built off negativity, builds interest. This has been PETA's advertising scheme for a while (including the most recent hipster-ish "domestic violence chic" video ad, claiming sexual super powers for vegans), and so far it hasn't hurt them enough to make them disappear off the map. I agree with you that it's an abhorrent practice. I personally ranted online about the most recent PETA ad. But unfortunately, despite how these ads personally make us feel, it also seems to be an effective way to advertise.

  2. "American Atheists should have known that misappropriating an image of a horrible tragedy" ... [perpetuated for years by reference to a book] ... "would upset people" ... [who would still not blame book or its advocates for this crime].

    Not to mention those who like to pretend it never happened, or that the slaves were happier, or that people are sheep (Xtian) or natural born slaves (muslim), or just plain inferior and aren't their pictures like this in children's versions of the bible?.


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