I don’t remember the design of the shirt. I don’t really remember much about it at all, beyond the slogan plastered across the front of it. I do remember the girl wearing it, for a lot of reasons – none of them good.
The year was 2005 or 2006. My hunch says ’06, because this was a little further along in my studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It was a writing workshop class, where you sit in a giant “U” shape with the teacher at the front of the class and everyone passes around their stories to get butchered with useless feedback from other kids who think they know what they’re talking about. And if you weren’t the subject of feedback on your terrible story, you had to bog your days down reading somebody else’s terrible story. They were all terrible back then.
I remember the girl because she showed up in a lot of my classes. When you are a writing major, the same kids tend to end up in your classes a lot. She was the stereotypical College Student English Major: short-cropped hair, glasses, a bit of a grating and self-important personality. Like many English majors (male or female), she took pride in her own knowledge, preferring to throw around her opinions in classes as if she was somehow more experienced than the rest of us.
She walked into the classroom wearing a bright shirt that caught the eye. Maybe it was the shirt itself, or it was just the yellowed-brown hue of the classroom. All English classrooms from high school to college had that hue, because you don’t need updated equipment and facilities to read books and talk about them. That’s why science classrooms got all the latest technology and English classrooms were filled with creaky old desks from the 1960s.
The shirt cut through all of that. It had a drawing of a smiling Jesus, captioned with the phrase, “Jesus was a Republican” on it.
At first, I was taken aback by the shirt, merely because I wouldn’t have pegged this girl for anything close to a Republican. After all, she was the girl who – for no reason at all – inserted a “bukkake” reference into one of her stories (don’t Google it). The entire class called her out for that one, which was rare, because college English majors reveled in writing dirty stuff in their stories because they were never allowed to in high school (see also: college theater majors who swore a lot in their plays).
We never talked much, but she noticed that I was staring at her shirt, and we made eye contact. Being a conservative Christian guy, I gave her a weak little fist pump. It was an awkward “right on” from a guy who couldn’t be cool if he tried to be, but I wanted to at least show my support.
The girl gave me an awkward smile and said, “Actually, it’s supposed to be ironic. I’m making fun of it.” That was the end of the conversation.
I’ve thought about that exchange many times in the fourteen (!) years since, and my reaction has never changed: How are you making fun of something if the thing you’re making fun of isn’t aware of it?
Is your message clear?
The reason this exchange comes to mind so often to me is because I see it on a regular basis in today’s protest-heavy, everyone-listen-to-my-opinion world.
Whenever someone wants to get a message across, they seem content to think about how to get the most attention… and then stop there.
Get a bunch of people together and march. Scream and shout insults. Kneel when everyone else is standing. Make a big, bold sign. Wear a type of hat, even. Run around topless.
Inevitably, the act gets attention, and people start talking about it. The person with the message seems happy to have gotten all this attention. But is it serving any purpose?
The debate is almost always about the action. It’s rare that a discussion engages what the person is trying to convey. In my opinion, that’s because the person trying to send the message isn’t being very clear about it.
This little article is not a criticism of these messages themselves. It’s not about a political side or anything like that. I have my own views and opinions, and I rarely discuss them online, because I don’t think it’s all that productive. But if you have a protest or some kind of awareness you’re trying to bring to the world, is it clear?
Yes, a topless woman running onto a stage at a political event grabs attention. But does it draw attention to the protest or the protestor? I would argue that it’s the latter.
We live in a world today where everyone has an opinion, and we’re all vying for attention. But because the battle for attention is so cutthroat, nobody seems to think about what to do with that attention when they grab it.
It’s the same in writing and in marketing. Yes, your funny commercial got attention. But is it going to lead to new business for your company? If your book is supposed to get people to think deeply about a political issue close to your heart, is it clear enough?
If your message isn’t clear enough, it doesn’t exist.
Back to the t-shirt.
As a conservative Christian guy who described himself as a “Republican”, I was absolutely, 100% in the crosshairs of that girl when she wore the shirt to school that day. She was making fun of me and other people like me. It was designed to mock my beliefs, my faith, and my view of the world. Ideally, she wanted to anger me and others who thought like me.
When brought face-to-face with that shirt… it had zero effect on me.
When she explained it while looking me dead in the eye… I just shrugged my shoulders.
You may be tempted to think that it bothered me, considering I am talking about this almost a decade-and-a-half later, but it actually didn’t. There’s this odd public opinion that “finally” Christians get bashed and have their beliefs thrown at them today, and a lot of people think they are rebelling against the system when they do it. But it’s nothing new. As far back as I can remember, Christians have been made fun of and mocked. It rarely gets a rise out of me anymore.
But what bothered me so much about the shirt was how unclear it was. Even putting a stupid “…NOT!” on the back of the shirt would have been better. I didn’t see the point in it at all. It would be like me trying to raise awareness for, let’s say, irritable bowel syndrome and wearing a t-shirt that said, “PFACFIBST”. Only I know that this acronym stands for “People For A Cure For Irritable Bowel Syndrome Today”. But if nobody else knows what it means, then what’s the point?
As I look at today’s culture of sending messages, especially sharing them on social media, I wonder how many are actually considering the effectiveness of the message they are trying to convey.
In my opinion, the sheer fact that everyone has an opinion and is sharing it loudly, yet there isn’t a whole lot of convincing going on, tells me that nobody’s messages are clear.
Before you write something, before you make an argument, before you put any action out into the world – and you think that this particular thing has something to say – think about how clear the message is. Start there and then work your way back to getting the attention.
Otherwise, you’re just wearing a t-shirt that makes fun of me to my face… and I still won’t get it. And that’ll just make you look dumb.