Saturday, 9 September 2017

Slanting the Facts: infographics misrepresenting the past and the present

Infographics. They appear quite often in our social media news feeds. Sometimes they seek to be informative. Sometimes they seek to be humorous. Sometimes they seek to obfuscate. Sometimes they seek to do all three. Yesterday, I created one which does just that.
As an historian I find the moral judgement of the past by modern standards infuriating when done in earnest, but when it is done as a joke, I find it hilarious, and my newly designed infographic was designed thus. Years ago, quite possibly even a decade ago, my younger brother and I started joking about how members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, you know, the ones who often get naked) would react if they travelled back in time to the Graeco-Roman period. As often happens when we start such discussions, we followed through to the most absurd outcome, in this case to what degree they would despise Heracles. I joked that I'd buy a shirt which featured that joke.
This private joke has continued between us since then, and having recently concluded a major research project I decided to devote some time to art, and decided the time had come to bring this old joke to fruition. While I was obviously always going to include the Nemean Lion, Lernian Hydra, and Stymphalian Birds, I knew I had to decide not just what to include, but what to exclude. I knew I couldn't include all twelve labours, as not all of them led to the maltreatment of animals, and this was meant to be something that could work as a t-shirt. 
I had always wanted to include Cerberus because I was amused by Robin Bond's depiction of the French Maid character attacking Dionysus dressed as Heracles for being so mean to "that poor puppy" in Aristophanes' Frogs. This posed a problem. If molesting animals (which I'm sure PETA would include) was to be included, I would have too many examples to include. I needed to reconsider the Twelve Labours more critically. As this wasn't an academic paper, I checked out Perseus Project's Hercules, Greece's greatest hero online exhibition
I had forgotten completely about the Hind of Ceryneia, and decided to include her because she was Artemis' pet, and Heracles did shoot her. When I reacquainted myself with the Cattle of Geryon, I came across a character I had never noted before, Orthros, Cerberus' two-headed brother, whom Heracles killed to take the cattle. I made the tough decision to abandon Cerberus for his ill-fated, less famous brother. None of the other animals in the labours were killed (I am a Harry Potter fan and know what happens to those who consider centaurs animals), so I decided to add the snakes Hera sent to kill Heracles as a baby. So I ended up with six examples; a good size to fit on a t-shirt or infographic.
When I drew the Nemean Lion, I had unintentionally made him look happy, so I made the decision to try make these creatures look as harmless as possible. My hydra looks quite cartoonish, with one head looking particularly quizzical. I drew the Stymphalian Birds in flight deliberately to reflect the practice of duck hunting where the birds are shot while in flight. I based the hind on a sitting red deer doe to suggest even more timidity, and the open-mouthed head of Orthros was based on my own dog, Pompey. Given my deliberate attempts to downplay the potentially monstrous natures of these animals, I based Hera's snakes on corn snakes, the least scary snake I could think of as an Australian. 
Once my drawings were completed, I needed to figure out my text. While I still like the idea of mocking PETA, I decided to make my infographic more general for two reasons: they get enough attention already, and they would consider the majority of the labours as animal abuse. While I think the attribution of anachronistic moral approaches to history would fit especially with PETA, similar anachronistic approaches to the past occur all the time online, so it still fits the joke to give a more generic description. I also decided to use the name Hercules, instead of Heracles, as it is more widely known thanks to Disney. I then decided to consider each of Hercules' actions in chronological order outside of their proper context with the intention to make him look as bad as possible: 
  1. Killing small creatures at a young age has become a stereotypical indication of a potential psychopath, so I described him as a "natural born killer".
  2. Wearing fur was PETA's excuse for naked photo shoots, so I highlighted this element of the Nemean Lion story.
  3. If you consider the Lernian Hydra as an animal instead of a monster, you realise that it is the only one of its kind, and thus its destruction can be described as an "extinction event" by modern standards, and is something rightly decried against by myriad environmental advocacy groups worldwide.
  4. Any pet owner would find hunting a pet abhorrent, and thus hunting the Ceryneian Hind which was Artemis' pet seems a horrible act.
  5. Bird shooting continues to be protested annually in Australia each duck season.
  6. Dog lovers hate the idea of dogs being killed. Consider the negative attention police forces worldwide have been receiving for shooting people's dogs when executing warrants, or even chasing fugitives.
So I finished designing this infographic and potential t-shirt design yesterday.

When I showed it to my brother he burst out laughing.
Yes, I made it as a gag. Yes, I'd wear it on a t-shirt. No, I don't know if anyone else finds it amusing.
But the humour belies a potential problem in today's online world of infographics and listicles: 
While I have deliberately misread the past for comedic effect, I understand how this is a flagrant act of misrepresentation. Without that comprehension viewers will see that Hercules was all these things without any consideration to his proper cultural background. That approach to history is something I get into arguments about online. 
It isn't something which has a huge societal impact, but just remember the next time you see a similar infographic, it is very easy to slant the facts to generate a bias in its audience.


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