Seeking the Truth Behind the Image
A couple of months ago I wrote a post inspired by a quote from J. B. Priestley. That quote and others by him reminded me of The Image Men, a book I read many years ago. As I said at the time, the book stuck with me and the quote created an itch. I wanted to visit my old friend again. So, off I went to the library. They didn’t have a copy. What! I guess I’d read it even longer ago than I thought. Is the book outdated? I had to know, so I poked around until I found a copy on Amazon.
I’ve re-read it now – all 677 pages of small print. It was a hard slog toward the end and, truth be told, I pretty much skimmed the last 50 pages or so. By that time I could anticipate what was coming and just wanted to get on with it. It’s a rare story that can justify that many words in today’s sound-bite world. However, all in all, I enjoyed the book. For one thing, Priestley is a pleasure to read. His word choices are clever, his social observations wickedly sly, and his sense of humor makes it all go down painlessly. Most of all, though, I enjoyed spending time with the delightfully quirky characters he used to tell his story. The book is satire and, like all good satire, frequently hit home. I often found myself laughing out loud, even though I knew the barbs were aimed at me.
As the title suggests, it’s about images and how superficial things influence our perceptions of people and events. All too often we form opinions based on small details without taking time to check for substance behind the style. How often have you heard someone say, “I always trust my first impression”? If you’re anything like me – very often. More importantly, how often do you judge people by the image they present? This book pokes gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) fun at that tendency. The Image Men of the title are Professor Cosmo Saltana and Dr. Owen Ruby, a philosopher and a teacher of English Literature. Bored and down-on-their-luck, they found The Institute of Social Imagistics – and are amazed at its success.
As far as I know, The Institute of Social Imagistics doesn’t exist, but we do have that amorphous and ever-growing thing called Social Media. It’s not always easy to peel away the layers surrounding a core idea or to separate a person from the way they look, dress and speak. Human nature being what it is, this has probably always been true, but I think social media has multiplied the tendency. We are constantly bombarded by images and ideas that titillate our senses and we have the means to pass them along by a light tap on a key – a temptation that is hard to resist. Not that I’m against social media. I’d hardly be writing this blog if I were. However, I’m increasingly aware that many of my opinions are influenced by sources that have not been verified, which are, in fact, almost impossible to verify. So … shouldn’t somebody do something about this? If so, exactly who is that somebody? Much as I hate to admit it, the onus of verification is on me. The responsibility of being sure a statement is correct before passing it along or, to use the current term, sharing it, is mine. Easy to say. Hard to do. Maybe hard isn’t the right word. There’s a lack of instant gratification. Fact-checking takes time. Hitting “share” is quick and speed is the essence of social media. The lure of being the first of your circle to share a pithy statement or image is strong.
Back to the question I asked when I discovered that my trusty library didn’t have a copy of The Image Men: is this book, first published in 1968, outdated? I don’t think so. It seems to me that now, more than ever, we need to look behind images and search for truth. How do we do this? How do we keep truth alive in the brave new world of social media? How do we stop rumors from becoming accepted as fact? Discipline? Restraint? Research? Perhaps a bit of all those?