There has never been a time in human experience where ready, global access to the news has been more pervasive. Not only do our radios continually adumbrate a caricature of the sum total of human experience, but there are dedicated news channels, print newspapers (yes, people still read them), Google News, and countless other means by which we can keep ‘up to date’ on all the goings-on of our effectively anonymous fellow travelers in this life. For all of the seemingly infinite variety of content, one would be hard-put to argue with any success that the news is generally uplifting in its content and presentation. In point of fact, it is exactly the opposite and the mass of negative and depressing content can be broken into two broad categories: that which deals with the propensity of human wickedness and that which deals with the generality of human suffering. Positive or uplifting news is so rare as to be practically anomalous. Why then, do we relish our time with the news so?
Immersing ourselves in the news generates multiple palliative effects, the chief of which is that the news presents to us a means whereby we can gaze unremittingly upon the failings of others rather than confronting our own failings. For the vast majority of us, the poor souls who are marched across our television screens, our computers, and our newspapers in a macabre parade of human suffering are far ‘worse’ than we are. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves, either explicitly, or what is far more common, implicitly. This is a prime reason why personages such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolf Hitler are so prominent within our collective consciousness: they serve as the ultimate litmus test against which we can gauge our own deeds, whether by our action, or by our inaction. No matter what we’ve done, are doing, or are not doing that we should be doing, we can always rifle through the Rolodex in our minds and pick them out as being much worse than we think ourselves to be.
In weighing the scales of our goodness against the evils we see, we are ineluctably drawn into the judgment of our fellow man, an activity which can be so very gratifying, especially when we are lax in our duty to judge ourselves. I almost said that it ‘satisfies’ our need to judge, but I don’t think it satisfies anything, just as recreational drugs don’t ultimately satisfy the true need which they are merely acting as a diversion from. If even a few minutes are spent perusing the comments section attached to any news item which involves a sensational crime committed against another, a fairly steady progression of comments that speak of nothing but disdain, disgust, and hatred for the perpetrator will be manifested within hours of the report. Well, not nothing but; there’s usually a heavy dose of those who speak of their incredulity about how one human being could behave so terribly, or those who state that they would never commit such an act themselves. The perpetrators are judged to be not worthy of human companionship, sympathy, or love, because in essence, they’re not really human at all. They are simply monsters which have no soul and which should have rightly been killed prior to birth.
Another effect of the news is that it acts as a salve to our conscience, and we are therefore, in some measure, unburdened. We all know that when a weight has been lifted from our shoulders either physically, mentally, or spiritually, that there is a concomitant sense of relief, in fact a good feeling that comes, even if nothing that could be explicitly interpreted as positive has happened. When the negative is removed, that is counted as a net positive, and hence, when we see proof positive before our very eyes of how much better we are than another, we actually end up feeling pretty good about ourselves by comparison.
There is also the good feeling that invariably goes with diligently keeping up with all the latest, and this provides no shortage of opportunity to congratulate ourselves that we’re doing what we’re ‘supposed’ to be doing. i.e. every good citizen keeps up on the news, if one is not up on the news they’re not informed, not interested in the world, etc. “Hey, did you hear about horrible event X? No? Why ever not?!” Keeping ‘up’ on the news has become so ingrained in our culture, that if you happen to state that you neither read the newspaper, nor watch the news on TV, you are regarded as some sort of curio or relic from an age past. To be clear: I am not here speaking of ignoring the truly important events which rarely come to the fore of the news, I’m speaking of shunning the daily avalanche of irrelevancy with which we allow ourselves to be saturated on an almost hourly basis.
Furthermore, as we recline on the couch, sit at our desk, or recline in an EZ chair, with rare exception, there is no action required on our part as we passively imbibe the news, and this goes hand in hand with our tendency to be rather apathetic, or to put it more directly: uncaring for our fellow man. Occasionally, we may engage in limited discourse with a companion about the news item and nod our heads in agreement regarding the horror that is before us, but other than that, the faces and lives which we see materialize and just as quickly fade, have nothing to do with ours, and like all media, are consumed and discarded in an endless cycle of self-absorption. Rarely, we may pause for a moment or two to reflect upon the victim, and benignly commiserate with them, but the next news item is perhaps juicier than the present one, and so the thought passes.
In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis made a keen observation regarding the almost sole media of his day, i.e. print, that reading the news was the lowest form of reading possible, and of those who do:
They never, uncompelled, read anything that is not narrative. I do not mean that they all read fiction. The most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know. But this makes no essential difference between him and the class next above—those who read the lowest kinds of fiction. He wants to read about the same events as they. The difference is that, like Shakespeare’s Mopsa, he wants to ‘be sure they are true.’ This is because he is so very unliterary that he can hardly think of invention as a legitimate, or even a possible activity.
As reading is largely dead in this generation, I think it’s fair (if not awkward) to refer to those who mainly ‘stick to the news’ as the most ‘unliterary’ of media consumers, no matter what the particular medium may be. Those who mainly ‘stick to the entertainment’ are not much better off, and shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory for preferring to watch the latest network sensation over the news. I say ‘no matter what the particular medium may be’ because of the very human tendency that no matter how overwhelming the evidence may be, no matter how convincing or convicting the argument may be, and no matter how applicable and analogous an example may be, if there’s the least chance of evading serious thought or the least bit of culpability, the stock response will be to find the smallest point of contention which doesn’t precisely fit, and thereby reject the entire argument. The tapestry of life is not so simple as to be able to indiscriminately subject it to the semantics of propositional calculus. So, whether we are speaking of reading the print news or being immersed in it via 3D glasses, the Lewis’ diagnosis sticks, and it sticks well because at its core it has nothing to do with the news in and of itself, or the medium by which it is delivered, it deals with our human nature.
In large part, the news also acts to bolster the stereotypes that all of us carry. Rarely does ‘the news’ shake up or challenge our conceptions about people with whom we are unfamiliar or places we have not visited. We desire comfort, not only physically, but, perhaps even more strongly, intellectually and spiritually. The news provides the latter in abundance. So much so that we have a surfeit of material from which we can choose to reinforce almost any uncritical belief we hold. Most things which deviate from our conceptions about the norm are to be shunned for the plain and simple fact that when our preconceptions or biases are challenged, our pride rears up and demands action. Action which takes effort, a commitment to truth, and a willingness to change. Why not just avoid the ordeal altogether and change the channel? Because of the homogeneity of material and views presented, this drastic step is required only on rare occasion.
The other broad category of the news alluded to at the outset is that which deals with human suffering sans intent: suffering caused by accident, natural disaster, disease etc. In the absence of forces which serve to pervert or squash it, most of us, when presented with something (regardless of the medium) that portrays a human being who has suffered as a result of one of these, feels something within which can only be described as compassion. While it doesn’t have the personal touch of the other category previously discussed, the effects are just as inimical, albeit in an opposing sense.
G. K. Chesterton, in his essay The Vote and the House, presents one of his usual cogent arguments in consideration of the impact that habituation to anomalies has upon us:
And this for a reason that any one at all acquainted with human nature can see for himself. All injustice begins in the mind. And anomalies accustom the mind to the idea of unreason and untruth. Suppose I had by some prehistoric law the power of forcing every man in Battersea to nod his head three times before he got out of bed. The practical politicians might say that this power was a harmless anomaly; that it was not a grievance. It could do my subjects no harm; it could do me no good. The people of Battersea, they would say, might safely submit to it. But the people of Battersea could not safely submit to it, for all that. If I had nodded their heads for them for fifty years I could cut off their heads for them at the end of it with immeasurably greater ease. For there would have permanently sunk into every man’s mind the notion that it was a natural thing for me to have a fantastic and irrational power. They would have grown accustomed to insanity.
In our day-to-day lives, accidents of nature, accidents of carelessness, etc. are anomalous. In the presentation of world-wide events, they are not. We witness, at the minimum, every day, the worst that the natural world can throw at mankind, the worst that poor planning or execution wreaks in a person’s life, and the worst that disease can do. Many of these events we would never have been conscious of if not for mass communication: disasters that only occur in certain climates, cultural (and by proxy, technological) manifestations that lead to disaster, and diseases that afflict one in a million, if not one hundred million.
Analogously, we have all heard of the battle-fatigued medics who become inured to the death and misery which surrounds them, or the hardy souls who have witnessed and survived the horrors of living in a region torn asunder by cycles of war which seem to have no end and take it all in stride. Surgeons and doctors whose life mission is working with terminally ill people become desensitized to the death of their patients, for if they didn’t, they would constantly be encumbered by grief. So one anomaly is substituted for another. These are sweeping generalizations to be sure, but in the main, they hold. People in such situations are certainly to be forgiven for a certain ‘lack of humanity,’ although, I hesitate to use such a phrase because of its condemnatory tone, and I also think that it would be inhuman not to be deeply affected and changed to some extent by such experiences.
Aristotle stated that the reason we enjoy tragedies is because the evocation of pity and fear serves to purge these emotions and hence it is ultimately pleasurable (cathartic) to us. The real-life tragedies which we silently, anonymously, and passively witness via the media serve a very similar purpose, but with an insidious side-effect. There are not many people who watch the news with unfettered relish who would be willing to admit that they enjoy seeing other people suffer. But, if these tragedies are not enjoyed per se, and they don’t serve some purpose to us or others, then why do we return to drink from these poisoned wells again and again? It certainly isn’t because it’s important to be informed and up-to-date about the vast majority of these events.
Aristotle’s perspicacity about literary tragedy lends itself to this as well. Just as the dramatization of fictional events serves to temporarily alleviate us of certain emotions, so do the events transpiring around the world serve a similar function. The difference between the two is subtle, and open to philosophical debate, but the core difference between the two is rather prosaic: the former is recognized as having its basis in fiction, and the latter in reality. So in consideration of the motives behind our fondness for watching them, the two are very similar. However, in the case of the latter, there is no suspension of belief which takes place and hence, the insidious side-effect mentioned is that there is a necessary detachment which takes place, all in the absence of an actual manifestation in our lives or community. Hence, while the battlefield medic’s ‘inhumanity’ arises from a need to survive, our inhumanity arises from our addiction to the purgation of emotions. In short, we become callous to real suffering to the point where things that would properly bring forth strong visceral reactions, manage only a sigh and a resignation. And it is here that the inimical effects bring forth their worst fruit: by being accustomed to switching off suffering and misery, we tend not to react as we should towards events that actually are occurring around us and which we could have some positive impact upon.
The West is mired in apathy. Even our most ‘heroic’ efforts for ‘tolerance’ and ‘equality’ are anemic utterances shrouded in concern for others when the reality is they serve only to keep alive the dream that our own comforts and life choices won’t be disturbed in the least. Until we understand that the time wasted on the media in general, and the news in particular is much more than a simple waste of time, and that it is effectively rotting us from the core out, we will continue to grow in our lack of utility to our fellow man and such a people will evoke no fear in the hearts of their enemies.