Brave New World: Image Problems

Flip through almost any airline magazine and you can find pages of ads for books, cassettes, and video-tapes aimed at helping you create positive images which will assure personal success and a prosperous, flourishing business.

If you are channel-surfing, you’ll almost inevitably alight on some attractive guru or other who has discovered that he or she can gain fame or fortune by persuading viewers to follow a flawless formula for upgrading their images, whether by dropping that pesky 20 pounds, improving communication skills, or by increasing self-esteem in order to project a more sensitive and caring image to others.

The message implicit in all these promises to achieve our hearts’ desires by creating new images is that: a) image alone determines success or failure in life, and b) we can control other people’s response to us by changing our image. It doesn’t matter whether the image-mongers are selling a “great body” or a catchy new slogan with the right pizzazz to attract the “with-it” crowd to our businesses. Two “subliminal messages” are always conveyed: 1) Virtue is worthless in accomplishing life’s major goals 2) There is no ugly truth that a positive image cannot conceal. “To be is to be perceived,” as the good bishop said.

The foregoing is trite and even preachy. Besides, everybody knows that the shtick about positive images is at least partly true. Remember the “Dress for Success” man? Immensely successful. His advice evidently worked. And didn’t our mothers remind us to “Say thank-you to Aunt Mary,” “Don’t slump,” “Quit fidgeting,” and “Put your best foot forward”? Good advice, too. There’s not a thing wrong (and much right) in observing good manners — or even politely feigning the appearance of concern we don’t actually feel. Still, the venerable adages, like “Beauty is only skin deep,” “Pretty is as pretty does,” “Clothes don’t make the man,” “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “All that glitters isn’t gold,” were constant reminders that image is not a reliable gauge of truth.

There is a development on the image scene which is more ominous than superficiality. Several times in recent months someone has told me that a person or organization I respect and admire has an “image problem.”

Now, to say of another person that he has an image problem has become one of the most hurtful statements one can make. The reason for this is that the “image problem” arrow is, ironically, most often shot by those who are ostensibly in agreement with its unsuspecting target. And, what is worse: from this charge there is no appeal.

If one is charged with a concrete transgression, say, lying, it is either true or false. The accused can admit or deny the charge or make excuses for his behavior. Not so with the charge of an image problem. It “goads… like the goblin bee that will not state its sting.” If “A” says, “You have an image problem,” “B” can only say, “Who told you so?” or “What is it?” or “What can I do about it?” All of “B'”s responses obviously concede his guilt. Game. Set. Match.

But, you may ask, having an image problem is not a sin, is it? Well, the answer is, apparently, yes. The assumption is that if I have an image problem, I must have done something to deserve it. Somehow the question of whether the problem image is undeserved — in fact, may have been created by false witnesses — does not arise.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario:

Let us say that writer “A” publishes stories which, while accurate, carefully documented, and unpolemical, reveal unpleasant or even shocking and scandalous things about a powerful Catholic leader. Let us say further that “A” is known to be consistently faithful to the teachings of the Church, and loyal to the pope and bishops. Let us also say that while the truth of the stories is established beyond doubt and cannot be denied, Journal “X”, controlled by the same powerful Church leader, says “A” is “mean-spirited” for writing the stories; that Journal “Y”, well-known for regularly publishing works of open dissenters from Church teachings, terms “A” “divisive and negative”; and that Editor “Z”, who had recently printed a scurrilous attack on Mother Teresa, calls “A” “a biased and rigidly right-wing liar.”

Question: Who will suffer an image problem and be shunned by many responsible Catholics, including Church authorities, because of it?

a) The Church leader, whose actions have (at least) betrayed a trust and may have seriously harmed the faith of many people.

b) Journals “X”, “Y”, and Editor “Z”, whose editorial policies consistently undermine Catholic teaching and the authority of the pope.

c) “A”, who revealed the Church leader’s errors.

You guessed it.

Second question: Who will be deemed responsible for the creation of “A’s image problem?

a) The Church leader whose actions were documented.

b) Journals “X”, “Y”, and Editor “Z”.

c) “A”.

Right again.

Third question: Assuming that it is possible for “A” ever to overcome the image problem and to gain acceptance and approval from Church authorities, what must “A” do?

a) Continue and improve a policy of consistently and accurately reporting the truth, good or bad. Eventually this contribution to the integrity of the Church will be gratefully recognized.

b) Quietly pull in his horns, report only good news, write only upbeat stories, and never again criticize any influential Church leader or official agency of the Church.

c) Immediately publish an apology for the series and instantly adopt the style and editorial policies of Journals “X”, “Y” and Editor “Z”.

I do not have the answer to this one, although rehabilitation of one’s image is possible, as the example of former Surgeon General Everett Koop amply demonstrates. Nor do I have a solution for the mysterious process by which power and influence seem to provide a Teflon-coated image. But of this much we can be virtually certain: if you chose a) above, you probably have an image problem.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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