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What's Wrong With This Picture? When Juxtaposing Past and Present Sends the Wrong Message

When we juxtapose how it was then with how it is now, we dismiss all the time in between as irrelevant.

If you've been on the internet in the last two days, you may be aware that many people aren't too happy about North Carolina voters' decision to approve a constitutional amendment that strengthens the state's existing ban on gay marriage. And true to internet form, that sentiment resulted in plenty of memes, quotes, tweets, and GIFs.

Above is one form of expression we see all too often: the old image comparison, juxtaposing how it was then to how it is now and dismissing all the time in between as irrelevant. Then. Now. Bad. Still bad.

These particular photos compare a decades-old protest against interracial marriages at the North Carolina state capitol with a days-old demonstration (I assume, anyway; one problem with these image mashups is that you lose the information about each photo) against same-sex ones in the same spot. But the general theme is not new: Every time a case of social injustice bubbles up in the internet age, we find ourselves making these comparisons. Comb the archives of news sites, then attach that archived image to the contemporary one. The message is one of two things: Either things are wildly different—worse, that is—than they used to be, or they are just as terrible as they were. In either situation, the underlying point is the same: We really fucked up, and it's simple to see how and why.

The idea behind such comparisons is to shock us into learning from the past. We made this mistake, let's not make it again, and everything will be ok. It makes a lot of sense to liberals like me. But growing up in flush-red Wyoming taught me that tactics like this rarely change minds. The juxtaposition doesn't work on conservatives, because they don't see the problem with the images.

Social conservatives tend to oppose any changes in their worldview—that's why they romanticize the "old days." A fair number of the people in the lower picture are likely opposed to interracial marriages as well. They also probably don't approve of people getting divorces. Or women having children out of wedlock. Any "radical" change that has happened to "their" America just stokes the fire. And those who don't oppose marriages between people of different skin colors don't see the connection between the two images in the first place.

Slamming together two incongruent images in hopes of changing even one mind doesn't calm the storm, it opens up new patterns of destruction, intensifying the ideological polarization that wreaks havoc on genuine attempts to make our flawed world work a little better. Distilling entire philosophies into a simple coupling of images fails to convey the complexity other human beings—seeing how they live, love, fight, struggle, grow, and die. Showing injustice through time makes it feel that much more painful, rather than cathartic or motivating.

As someone who believes in the power of images, who's dedicated my life to communicating messages visually, I find the oversimplification upsetting. Ideas, even unjust ones, aren't simple. When we look at the two photos and think “This is bad. How can these idiots still believe this shit?”, we foresake any attempt to understand how they could have come to these conclusions. We strip out the context by forcibly evaporating all the history between the two moments. That's not where visual and social consciousness should lead.

Sometimes words, written or spoken, convey more than images can. Sometimes actions go further toward instilling a sense of humanity. Injustice warrants frustration (which I'm sure is what led to the image pairing in the first place), but it also polarizes positions. Justice requires discussion, at least hearing each other out. Instead of bad and still bad, maybe we can get to bad and better.

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