Deceptive Equivalences: Why Six of One Does Not Equal Half a Dozen of the Other
I saw this billboard campaign at Bond Street the other day (at 0608 in the morning, as you can see from the Central Line’s helpful info board). It really struck me as being politically insidious, and not just because it was promoting The Economist. The basic premise is, as you can see, one billboard with a list of reasons why social media should not be censored, and another with reasons why it should. The fact that we’re even having this debate is worrying enough; however, what I is think is important is not the content (which you can’t even see on my photo), but the form of the advertisement.
Let’s think about what one’s reaction to this advert might be. As you make your half-asleep way to work, this advert would seem to imply a set of finely-balanced political scales, each with the same ‘amount’ of merit. This is the only possible way to read it, of course: it seems doubtful that the advertising regulators would allow an advertising campaign that came out on one side or another of a dicey political debate. The advert necessarily implies that there is as much logical reason to be in favour of censorship as against it.
We can see that the advert promotes a specific physical figuration of political discourse: that of the balanced scales. Even the colour scheme reinforces the essential equivalency of the two billboards: the two arguments are opposite, yes, but each is also an equivalent tracing of the other. How, then, does ideology figure in this conceit? For there are undoubtedly people who hold views either for or against social media censorship. Really, it comes down to a question of where one ‘stands’ (to use the billboard’s own term). Of course, where one stands in the immediate context of this advert is entirely arbitrary: more often than not, where one stands on the tube platform is dictated by finding a space between other people. Taking a ‘stance’, then, becomes a product of a negative and childish wish to differentiate oneself from others around one: it is impolite, an attempt to engineer an advantage through sly and insincere means.
The ideal position, the billboard maintains, is somewhere in the middle. From there, we can see both sides of the political discourse clearly (unlike in my photo). We remain safe in the knowledge that no possible argument can outweigh ours, because we have none. From the middle, we can remain authentically ourselves, unlike those on the left or right, whom we can only imagine as equal and opposite mirror images of their doppelgangers. There is only one of us in the middle: no shadow self, no creeping suspicion that we might not be right after all; that all debate is pointless, that rhetoric is the only surplus value, that there is no distinct content to political convictions, just continuous points on an arbitrary scale.
I don’t believe this. I believe that certain things are better than others. I believe that the physical figuration of left-right is a means by which people are psychologically undermined into lacking the courage of their own convictions, a way of making people believe that desiring collective control of the means of production is somehow a mirror image of being anti-immigration, sending your kids to private school, and believing that striking during the Olympics should be illegal.
It’s not, it’s bloody different, it’s better.