December 6th 2014

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Articles from this issue:

SOCIETY The wealth of nations depends on the health of families

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Latest federal push for same-sex 'marriage'

MARRIAGE LAW Can state parliaments legislate for same-sex marriage?

TRIBUTE Famed Australian bioethicist who never sought public honours

CANBERRA OBSERVED Palmer party Senate split stymies government agenda

EDITORIAL Behind Obama's unfriendly behaviour at G20

ENVIRONMENT US-China climate agreement a cynical political ploy

AGRICULTURE Hope Dairies' big export venture to China

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS Lesson of Japan's debt-free economic stimulus

EUROPE Will Ireland be the next European nation to ban surrogacy?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Cross-strait ties remain Taiwan's biggest challenge

OPINION Has 'quality' education for girls rally come to this?

CULTURE Visual media crucial for conveying truth

BOOK REVIEW A battle between titans

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Visual media crucial for conveying truth

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, December 6, 2014

If you rummage around the Internet, you’re likely to come across infographics. 


Infographics express information in a visual way. They distil their points into their simplest forms and the express them as clearly as they can. They are a way to express an argument so that it can be understood by as many folk as possible. And they bring with them exciting possibilities for acting in the public square. 

There is a tendency to dismiss marketing and advertising as little more than propaganda or lying. We are familiar with the way that business gains custom by selling fantasies that result in our buying things that don’t fulfil their promises; or the way that politicians, when they speak, wriggle around the truth. We’re familiar with propaganda as a means to shape peoples and their attitudes. 

As a result we tend to be sceptical of the “selling” of ideas. Rhetoric is a bad word, and “empty rhetoric” is seen as a tautology. Facts speak for themselves, and when they’re not accepted, that’s a sign of how well the Other Side has manipulated the Common Man. Style is the enemy of substance, and elegant design is the sign of a con job.

Moreover, we have an ambivalence about the ideas themselves. On the one hand, we think that the intellectual with the over-elaborate phrasing has nothing to say, and says so with too many words. On the other, when faced with a simple and direct argument that is contrary to ours, we claim it’s simplistic, and even that the other side is not able to understand our point of view. 

There is a problem with these attitudes. They mix up the content of an idea with how that idea is expressed. These are two distinct, but intertwined, things. Getting an idea right ensures the rightness of an idea, but not the impact it might have. Being able to convince others doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a confidence trick.

The classical world of antiquity was well aware of this. It is because of this that they privileged oratory and the arts. The ancients considered Truth important, but just as important was the ability to convey that truth. Once the philosophy was done, it needed to be passed on to others so that they could pass it on themselves. 

Rhetoric, therefore, was not empty. It was the toolkit that one used to bring others around, and was crucial. There is a subtext here — if you can’t get your opponents to accept your reasoning, you could be doing it wrongly. The challenge today is that, whereas the ancients shared a number of “givens”, nowadays we don’t. This is where the arts come in.

Art — or, more properly speaking, poïetic art — is the means by which we convince others by appealing to deeper things. Catharsis, which Aristotle identifies as the aim of the poïetic, literally means affecting an audience in their guts — that is, inducing in them a visceral reaction which they cannot resist. 

This is why popular culture still, so often, values things that are, for want of better words, “conservative” or “traditional”. Popular culture has to appeal to as many people as possible, and we are attracted to such things as fidelity, honour, courage and justice. 

Ideas need not be expressed with words. They can be expressed in images. Medieval and Eastern churches tend to be heavily decorated. This is not because people like pictures, but because pictures can present truths in such a way that they can be easily grasped. 

Expressing ideas through images and diagrams encourages clarity of thought. It forces us to strip our thinking of the unnecessary and to focus on the essential. It is no guarantee of success, but it ensures impact. 

Infographics have become a common way to do this in the internet era. They mix facts and figures with striking visuals, leading the viewer/reader to an inevitable conclusion — or simply presenting statistics in such a way that they are simple to understand, all the while implying certain conclusions. 

There is an art to crafting an infographic, and the results can all too easily be rubbish. But those that are good are not rubbish, and tend to be shared and discussed at great length. 

These are the methods adopted by many contemporary social movements, and they are ones that work even better for a movement that is genuinely for the Common Good. 

If what we have to say is true, then all we need worry about is how to express the idea so that it reaches others. 

Not all ideas lend themselves to a simple visual expression, but if we recall that Saint Patrick used a shamrock to communicate the Trinity to a pagan audience, and succeeded, then we shouldn’t consider it impossible.

If the Other Side has successfully sold lies to the masses, then maybe it’s time for someone to sell them the truth. 

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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