T-shirt messaging brooks no dissent (National Post, Oct. 22, 2003)

T-Shirt Messaging Brooks no Dissent

Barbara Kay, National Post

Published: October 22nd 2003

Like other writers, desperate for grist to the mill, I am a practiced eavesdropper in public places. You never know which overheard remark will spark a reflection on the North American [begin italics] zeitgeist [end italics]. This past weekend in picturesque coastal Maine I was in a restaurant when just such a moment occurred.

The table next to us was occupied by two female and one male twenty-somethings, all wearing “Say No to Casino” t-shirts, from which I inferred that they were volunteers in the local referendum campaign on this issue. I approved of their mission. Casinos are a regressive government tax on the dumb and the weak.

T-shirt messaging is such an efficient communications shortcut that I was halfway to thinking these were my kind of people, when the more attractive and dominant of the two women said: “…and the first thing I ask anyone I date is if they are pro-choice. If he is, great. If not, [begin italics] out he goes [end italics]…”. This statement was accompanied by an air-shoveling gesture, a pantomime of the hapless pro-life suitor’s swift ejection into the void. The others nodded endorsement for her policy.

At that point they were no longer my kind of people at all, but the very opposite: dogmatic ideologues resisting compromise on a divisive national issue. I wondered if, when she isn’t campaigning against casinos, Ms Pro-Abortion (“choice” doesn’t cut it for me) wears her other opinions on her sleeve, chest or back. Given the militancy on abortion that I overheard, it’s quite likely that she has an entire “issues” wardrobe.

Anti-globalizationists angrily call it “branding” when criticizing The Gap for flooding the world with their instantly recognizable name and look. But I am sure they have no problem with hundreds of thousands of students branding themselves as anti-American in their “Bush = Terrorist” t-shirts.

It all began with Vietnam. The peace symbol branded a whole generation of young people – the Boomers. At first it wasn’t so much a specific political protest as the announcement of a new way of thinking. It was a casting off of the Old Order. Revolution was in the air, a new world dawning. The universities evolved into training camps for “jihad lite”. Activists were soon fascinated with symbols, or markers. Political markers for students became the equivalent of sponsors’ logos for athletes.

Advertising has proved that unrelenting logo bombardment works, and the commercial paradigm has been adapted by political marketers. A yellow ribbon means you support the troops in Iraq, but hints at a whole range of other conservative opinions. A kaffiyeh on a non-Arab student is code for his support of violent anti-Zionism. Cause messaging on t-shirts is pandemic, and our eyes are assaulted by a million cotton billboards every day.

In commercial branding, the purpose is to attract, to seduce, to convert. C’mon over and try me is Coke’s message. But in political messaging, the point seems to be to rebuff, even to intimidate the unconverted. I’m a case in point. After 9/11 we put a bumper sticker on our car: “United against Terrorism.” It isn’t there to invite discussion. It’s there to shame terrorist apologists.

To return to my feminist eavesdropee - take her (probable) “A Woman’s Right to Choose” t-shirt. It announces for abortion rights, but is not an invitation to debate the issue. Rather it subliminally warns pro-lifers not to waste time in an approach. This pre-selection shortcut effectively narrows the wearer’s field of relations to viewpoint clones. How can she choose relationships on individual merits, if she can’t get past t-shirt identity?

When I was at university, forming relationships and finding one’s identity were more nuanced processes. Opinions were worn under one’s skin, so you were a blank slate to others. In that less politicized era you discovered your own and others’ convictions over time, through long coffee house discussions and impassioned debates in smoke-filled student lounges, and most importantly, through exposure to[begin italics] diversity of opinion [end italics]. It took me years of contact with every conceivable viewpoint to find my own on social and political issues. I can’t reduce what I learned to a t-shirt motto.

Nowadays academic gurus –virtually all left-wing – do the R and D on theory, download it into their students as packaged, sloganized positions and these eager acolytes, superficially empowered but context-deprived, market them in demonstrations and marches. They in turn are applauded, not for their intellectual rigour, but for their mindless passion.

To stoke the mass fervour of ignorant foot soldiers, entire ideologies are dumbed down to a single marketable rallying cry. T-shirt identity is more about narcissistic emotional investment in other peoples’ causes than about the individual’s painstakingly researched and profound beliefs. Politically messaged t-shirts are an invitation to global “eavesdropping”. The message is delivered but horizon-expanding dialogue is neither anticipated nor desired.


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