Incontinence and Intolerance
‘Have you seen the public awareness posters in the U-Bahn about people who suffer from incontinence?’ a friend asks me yesterday.
That’s a funny question. Or is it?
Yes, I’ve seen them all over Berlin. A man stands uncomfortably in a public space surrounded by others observing him critically. It’s entitled: Menschen mit Stuhlinkontinenz sehen die Welt anders (People with incontinence see the world differently). One ad features an elderly man and another an elderly woman.
‘But did you notice something strange about the poster?’
No, what is it?
My friend is more perceptive than I am: ‘Both the incontinent man and woman in the posters are white but almost all the people observing them are ethnic minorities. Two black men, an Asian woman… I certainly don’t see that kind of diversity every day in Germany’.
We spent some time discussing whether the poster is racist or not.
It places a white man under scrutiny the same way minorities would feel scrutinised in a racist and monocultural environment. If one’s a little ironic about it, it could lead to some surprising conclusions: ‘Only white people are incontinent’, ‘Only minorities notice incontinent people’.
But, more seriously, what is its message? Being generous, one could argue, ‘Incontinent people feel like discriminated minorities’? Or is this in fact a slap in the face to the grievances of visible minorities: ‘You think you’re observed, but white people can be too’.
Or is this mise-en-scène simply a savage advertising technique, playing off underlying prejudices in the (majority white) target public––forging sympathy and solidarity between this presumed public and their fellow white person? A sense of identification is created with the scene of reverse racism. I don’t think one can imagine these posters being effective in a more multicultural society, since the sense of conspicuousness that burdens incontinent people is not just suffered by white people.
I am not convinced that the best way to raise awareness, in this case, is to use one social issue to accentuate another. My sense is that a disservice to one is achieved in favour of the other. But I am still thinking about it, and cannot decide whether these ads are just awfully clever or just awful.