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Sense and sensibility

Last updated: 07 May, 2011
­Monideepa Sahu 19:30 IST

Media and emotions

Is the continuous onslaught of gory images in the media desensitising us to death and disaster? Is the media a potential monster with the power to corrupt normal humans? ­Monideepa Sahu attempts to find answers.

Imaging: Yathi SiddakatteMega-doses of mayhem assail us relentlessly from newspapers and magazines, TV and the electronic media. The terrible earthquake in Japan grabbed headlines and dominated the airwaves for a few days. We lit candles, tweeted, blogged, and posted Facebook status updates in a frenzied show of concern and self-righteousness. Yet, some weeks down the line, most of us seem to have forgotten all about it.

While sporadic news items continue to remind us of the spectre of an unfolding nuclear disaster at Fukushima, compelling media representations have urged us to move on to fresher and more exciting stuff. Some days ago, the whole country went gaga over India's win in the World Cup. Now we are tooting vuvuzelas over IPL cricket and lionizing cricketers. Soon enough, this too shall pass as we rush to hoo-haa over yet another new fad. Is this ceaseless tsunami of media coverage making us callous to violence and related serious issues? Is the media influencing our evolution into a society of people with tapering attention spans and pathetically shallow intellects?

While we can relate and empathise to some extent with victims of disasters closer home, how many of us feel a fraction of that concern for distressed people in distant lands? Remember the recent upheavals in Egypt? Are you updated on the latest twists in the Libyan crisis? If you’ve emotionally switched off to such storms raging elsewhere in the world in the rush to get ahead in the rat race, you’re not alone. A steady barrage of gory images in the media has become as mundane and accepted a part of our lives as morning coffee and idlis. The impressions we receive are fleeting. The collective public memory is far too short. Nothing seems to move us for long when violence and gore seems to be the commonplace norm.

This gives rise to deeper and ominous questions. Is the prevalence of graphic violence in print and on the airwaves generating increased aggression on our own city streets? Are sensational TRP-grabbing media reports inciting more people to explode with road rage, take the law into their own hands, and kill for ‘honour’, money or simply for the fun of it? Are we impressionable victims of subtle brainwashing, or can we, as right-thinking individuals, hope to make a positive impact?

Scholarly studies worldwide have made strong statements linking media violence and violence in society. A continuous onslaught of gory images in the media (print, TV, movies, video games, etc) can desensitise us by distorting death and disaster which doesn’t affect us directly, into prime time entertainment. Lt Col Dave Grossman, a former US army ranger and psychology professor at West Point, shows in his hard-hitting study how there is “the existence of a powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one’s own species.” He goes on to elaborate on highly sophisticated “techniques that have been developed and applied with tremendous success in modern combat training in order to condition soldiers to overcome their resistance to killing.”

Finally and most importantly, he strives to “provide insight into the way that rifts in our society combine with violence in the media and in interactive video games to indiscriminately condition our nation’s children to kill. In a fashion very similar to the way our army conditions our soldiers. But without the safeguards.” (On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt Col Dave Grossman, revised edition, 2009). Grossman cites the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Paediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry who stated before a US Congressional hearing in July 2002: “…prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitisation towards violence in real life.”

Elsewhere in strife-torn corners of our planet, blood-thirsty warlords have successfully manipulated the media to propagate unimaginable viciousness. Joshua Milton Blahyi, arguably the contemporary world’s most brutal mass murderer, single-handedly or through his militia of child soldiers, was responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 people during the Liberian civil war.

He was reported to have used violent movies to motivate child soldiers to kill. As the little boys watched people blow up and die on screen, Blahyi, AKA General Butt Naked, would tell them this was make-believe; that gory attacks did no harm. He would then screen other films featuring the same actors to convince the children that nothing actually happened if people were shot at or bombed.

He showed the children how the actors simply returned unharmed to play roles in new movies.

Closer home, we wake up daily to reports and graphic images of violence served up with our breakfast. We share leisure time with friends and family watching violent movies, TV programmes and news reports. Where are the safety nets for the young and impressionable? They are constantly tempted to associate violence with the pleasures of eating and being with friends and loved ones. What protects them from considering violence to be as acceptable, normal and fun as munching on tasty snacks while watching favourite TV shows?

Is the media a potential monster with the power to corrupt normal humans into killing machines? It assaults us daily with images of floods, earthquakes, riots and rebellions, which routinely share space with fresher and more interesting, ‘fun’ news such as the latest shenanigans of the gods of the glamour world. It’s as though the world needs new images of horror on a regular basis, served along with and therefore subliminally equated with, our daily dose of entertainment. And of course, the media is keen to procure these and keep up TRP ratings.

When heart-rending images are flashed and changed continuously, they can sway our emotions and make us react without pausing to rationalise. Why are some disasters such as the Holocaust remembered again and again, while others like the Bengal famine rarely mentioned? Why does the world choose to deny by a resounding silence, 15 years of civil war in Liberia or the existence of Darfur? Can we afford to be selective in offering compassion or censure, and then move on to the next disaster as though seeking variety and novelty?

Before rushing to denounce the media as the root of all evil, we must remember that it is a creature of human invention. The media merely reflects the violent streak which humanity has displayed through the ages, since times long before the media was invented. Sacrificing humans and animals to appease higher powers was a feature of many ancient cultures. Cannibalism existed in some societies. Atilla the Hun, Genghis Khan or Mahmud of Ghazni did not need exposure to media violence to spur them on to bloodthirsty conquests. Famished lions mauled gladiators to death in ancient Rome as huge crowds looked on and cheered. In ‘civilised’ Europe, ‘witches’ were routinely burnt at the stake and people were crucified and guillotined before huge public gatherings.

In our own country, honour killings, bands of murderous thugs, and female infanticide happened long before the media came on the scene. Young women were burnt in the funeral pyres of their dead husbands with the full blessings and participation of entire communities. Today’s media merely mirrors these sinister human tendencies when it depicts explicit violence to grab higher TRP ratings and loosen the advertisers’ purse strings.

The media is but a tool in human hands. Its widespread influence and accessibility can be utilised positively by people like you and me. The wider electronic media is no longer the sole stronghold of vested interests such as big businesses, mainstream TV channels and newspapers, music barons and other coteries of influence. The internet is emerging as a global social platform where ordinary people from far corners of the country and the world can work together effectively and cheaply. The hectic pace of living in today’s cities leaves us with little time or energy to know our neighbours in the next office cubicle or apartment. Yet, many of us routinely interact and collaborate on projects with people from the other ends of the world. And it is through these exchanges enabled by the media that many of us can put human faces and connections to news flashes from faraway places. Through an online writers’ group I subscribe to, noted Japanese writer Yuko Tsushima shares her powerful message:

“All of us, all of lives are connecting, we are all together in this world... I think now we should act as one… for our planet and all of lives on this planet… Please, tell your friends ‘No more Fukushima!’ in India. Please, give your voice ‘No more Fukushima!’ to me, I will send it to my friends, the novelists, the poets and so on all over the world.
With deepest love, Yuko Tsushima”

Media images of violence in Egypt remind me to check in on a writer friend there. Her husband posts messages on Facebook to reassure all friends that she’s back safely home in the US. We’ve never met in person or even spoken to each other, but that doesn’t dilute the warm rapport we’ve built up over years of electronically exchanging our writing.

As Pope Benedict said in a recent sermon, great advances in technology have improved life for humanity. They have also increased possibilities for evil, and recent natural disasters were a reminder that mankind is not all-powerful. This may be a wake-up call to revitalise our relationship with God.

If the media can contribute to rising violence, it can also empower and make us more sensitive to the concerns of others. Today, ordinary citizens are using the media to mobilise public opinion in support of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. Tomorrow, let us hope more such positive thrusts will follow. We have the power to turn this force into a monster or saviour. It’s up to us to use the media in the right way.

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