Making meaning out of mayhem

My life is full of disasters. Most of them are not my own, but those that are brought into my life by the media, especially TV. I would think that watching all that horror and suffering should have made me a basket-case by now. On the contrary, I find that the more I watch them, the more I crave them.

Violence as a spectator sport is not new to the human race. Gladiator fights and circuses at the Roman Coliseum, as well as crowds at public executions have always highlighted man’s bloodlust. And in these more ‘civilised’ times, television, movies and the internet have taken the place of live events. When they watch horror and bloodshed, people are at first shocked. But they are in their comfort zone, a movie theatre or their home, and this soothes and reassures them. In fact, their enjoyment of violence is reinforced by the presence of their favourite snack and drink, and the presence of their friends. Meanwhile, they are not aware that they are losing their sensitivity to violence.

Many studies have shown conclusively that the more violence or horror we watch, the less emotionally affected we are. This conditioning or desensitisation increases our threshold for tolerating violence, and results in the loss of empathy with the unfortunate victims. A more benign form of conditioning happens while watching tragedies unfold.

Cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis are inevitable occurrences on Earth, and as man has populated nearly every nook and cranny of it, people are equally, inevitably, affected by them. However, the more we watch these happen, the more inured to them we become.

Man is essentially a creature beset by curiosity. Let us face it — if our ancestors hadn’t been curious, we’d still be content hunting for food. This curiosity has led to, amongst other developments, the evolution of mass media to gather and disseminate information from around the world. Most people living at the time of the Spanish Inquisition didn’t know that their contemporaries were being tortured and killed in the name of religion.

But Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews didn’t go unnoticed, thanks to the presence of newspapers and movie reels at the time. Similarly, when the island of Krakatau in Indonesia blew itself up, causing giant tsunamis and weather phenomena around the world, not many people were aware of it. But with all-news-channels, telecommunication satellites, YouTube, Facebook, Google, blogs and Twitter, can there be many people living now who do not know about Japan’s tsunami? To be fair, media, especially television and the internet, has increased our knowledge base tremendously, educating and informing us on all aspects of events that occur. No longer do we think that natural calamities occur because the Gods are angry with us, or believe that we are helpless in their hands.

But of course, nothing ever happens without side effects. Mass media, which started off as a useful device, has now become ubiquitous, and as close to the definition of God as possible, in that it is omnipresent, it thinks itself omniscient, and it strives to be omnipotent. What started out as a tool to chronicle events and human behaviour has actually begun to dictate them. One of the behaviours it encourages is short attention span.

We have all become little kids who cannot focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time, and need constant stimulation. That is why we watch the news which gives several snippets of information than documentaries that give a lot of information on a single topic. And when one story is in the danger of fading out, it is quickly replaced by another, more interesting current event. That was what happened when the story of Japan’s tsunami began playing itself out, and the audience started losing interest.

There were just not enough graphic visuals or earth shattering news to capture the audience, and the media decided to replace that story with the next big thing, the cricket world cup… until the next big disaster, that is. In the world of news reporting, a normal day is a slow news day, while a disaster is big business.  What is horror and heartbreak to some is prime time viewing for others. What’s worse, the more horrific the violence, and the more heartbreaking the disaster, the more entertaining it is.

The other effect of the media is that it has taken the human tendency to air opinions to all and sundry to new heights or depths. Give us a calamity or a serial killer, and watch us at the water cooler or the coffee shop or the next party. If we didn’t have those talking points to show others how cool we are, they might discover that we actually have nothing to say for ourselves!

The recent tsunami in Japan brought home to me the extent of my own desensitisation. It was a disaster of epic proportions that destroyed many, many families, and brought a proud nation to its knees. However, I have to confess that I’ve been watching the events unfold with fascinated horror, not just for the news aspect or the scientific perspective, but for the vicarious thrill it gives me to watch that ominous line of water sweeping relentlessly over the land with Nature’s fearsome indifference. Oh, on one level, I knew the extent of tragedy that was unfolding, but it was somewhat like watching an animated sequence, something disconnected with reality. But I know that I woudn’t feel the same if I had had some personal memory of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I know this, because I have connections with another great tragedy.

One of the most barbaric and violent acts of the 21st century was the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC. As if the story itself was not enough, the visuals were graphic and breathtaking enough to make the whole world stop to take a look. I was living in the United States when it happened. On the 9th of September, 2001, my husband had travelled to Washington DC for a scientific conference, and I was home in Montana with our infant daughter. I remember watching the Pentagon burning and wondering if he was okay. It turned out that he was never in any danger, but the roiling anxiety and fear are so burnt into my memory that, to this day, I have to turn away from pictures of that tragedy.

So, personal involvement takes the fun out of watching other people’s suffering. So does empathising with the victims. Impersonal reporting has a way of killing this empathy and turns the human condition into a spectator sport. We have to remember that once compassion is dead, our very humanness is at stake.

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