October 10, 2011

Images of a Movement and the First Impressions They Create

Occupy wall street hippiesWe form first impressions very quickly, and images matter a great deal when we are forming impressions of something distant. Many of the negative reactions to the Occupy Wall Street movement I have heard from friends, family members, and acquaintances were based on the appearance of those who appeared in the earliest images from Zuccotti Park. That such images may not have been representative of the whole group is almost irrelevant; the damage is already done. This is unfortunate because it instills a negative bias against the group's message even before the audience hears the message. Might there be a lesson for atheists in here somewhere?

Hippies, Hipsters, and the Uniforms of Professional Protesters

I have spent enough time in areas with thriving hippy populations (e.g., San Francisco, Eugene) that I am quite familiar with the hippie uniform. I even spent some time in this scene during my youth, so I can tell you that there is a recognizable hippie uniform with many variations. And you know what? I've always liked it. But I know that it elicits extremely negative reactions from many people.

HipstersThe hipster phenomenon was not something I grew up around, and I really didn't encounter it until later in life. Even then, it was rare enough that I cannot pretend to understand it. I recognize the more extreme examples but others usually have to point out the milder cases to me. I have been assured repeatedly that they too have a uniform. And once again, I have found that hipsters seem to elicit the same sort of scorn and derision that many are quick to pile on the hippies.

When the news media repeatedly broadcasts images of people wearing these uniforms at a protest, those who despise the people who wear these uniforms tend to have negative reactions to the protest itself. That isn't surprising. What few seem to realize, however, is that some people who are drawn to the protest based on its message will not attend because they think they will be caught in a sea of these "professional protestors." For example, I have known several people who want to join protests but stay away because they've had many negative experiences of being surrounded by unwashed hippies at previous protests or rallies. And I have to admit that the body odor can be aversive.

Lessons for Atheists

Is there an atheist uniform? I'm not sure. Would one expect significant number of hippies, hipsters, or some other recognizable group to show up at atheist rallies, church-state protests, and the like? I don't think so, but again, I'm not really sure.

Based on my admittedly limited experience with groups of atheists, I am willing to speculate that there could be a particular sort of image which the media might broadcast from atheist events and which might be a turn off for some potential attendees. I would guess that many of the atheists who would be likely to show up and protests and rallies would have a nonconventional appearance. I'd expect to see lots of piercings, tattoos, unusual hair cuts, and anti-religious garb. While I have always felt perfectly comfortable around such people, I recognize that many would not be thrilled to be in such a crowd.

I think the main lesson for atheists who are interested in making their group or even more appealing to a wider audience is simply that images matter. Maybe they shouldn't, but they do. And we need to be aware of what our images communicate to different audiences.