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December 2007

Graphic Violence

In the days after the beginning of the current gulf war (before the days of this blog) I remember talking to several friends via email about the radical difference in the coverage of the war on the mainstream US news networks and what one was being shown and reported in the rest of the world, specifically in middle eastern news outlets. Because of the internet it was now possible to find and see some of that coverage. Due to language barriers the TEXT was often not easily accessible, but one thing that stood out immediately was the PICTURES. The US versions were cropped, sanitized and heavily censored. Usually not by any governmental authoority or anything, this was self-censorship by the major media outlets. You would look at some middle Eastern news site covering the results of some bombing and you would see blood and gore and mangled body parts and pictures that were often downright horrific. Horrific, but obviously reality. On CNN or the like you would see a close up of someone crying or whatnot, but you would rarely see the horror and gore that surrounded them.

I felt that this was dramatically distorting how we viewed this war, and conflicts we were involved in generally. (I felt the same thing by the way on the more explicit pictures of the September 11th aftermath.) The various bombings and casualties inflicted by us might well be justified. And perhaps some of that can be viewed by observing the results of the attacks ON us and balancing them in some way. But one can not make an honest deliberation on that by just looking at “X number were killed today”. Yes, it is a number, it is a measurement, and measurements are important. But they allow one to gloss over the reality of what is actually happening. Actually SEEING it, and seeing it directly, without filters or sanitization, gives one the real picture. It is much easier to say, for instance, that collateral civilian casualties are “unfortunate, but necessary” when it is just a number than when you actually see the remains of the child that was killed with all the mess of reality. Now, it may sometimes actually STILL be truly a necessity for some larger important goal… but if one is to make that judgment, one really needs to do so with one’s eyes wide open, staring that reality straight in the face, rather than hiding from it behind numbers and euphemisms.

Wonkette has been mostly useless and annoying since Ana Marie Cox left, but in the last couple of days Megan Carpenter has taken up this exact topic mentioned above in a “snark free” way, and it brought me right back to those thoughts I had back in 2001 & 2003. Her two recent posts:

This is of course in the context of the Bhutto assassination and some of the pictures taken there. The first post has a gallery of some of those pictures, unsanitized.

Now, basically mainstream news in the US is almost completely useless at this point. Definitely TV news. Except when big breaking news like this happens the front page of for instance is usually filled with meaningless uninportant crap. (I mean, even now with Bhutto still leading the news, above the fold on CNN are stories about the Tiger escape in California, something about a murder/suicide in PA, a freak accident a toddler was involved in and some other random stuff that may be interesting from a sort of perspective, but which in no way is actually important or informative on larger issues.) Some of the newspapers are still a bit better, but are a shadow of what they were decades ago. It is a shame.

But in any case, they are showing the cleaned up stuff because they can tell you the facts, but not have the sort of image that would potentially make someone upset and change the channel (or decide not to buy the newspaper again the next day, or go to the website, or whatever). And of course because kids might be watching and we want to protect the kids. Yeah, OK, whatever. But it also doesn’t really give the full reality of the situation. Of whatever happened. It doesn’t make you as mad, or as upset, or care as much. It lets you sit back fat dumb and happy, looking at things clinically without understanding or caring about the human reality.

Now, if every day we saw graphic images from the wars we are involved in (or for that matter other wars, or just plain crime scenes in our own cities) would we get completely immune to it and still not care? Maybe. And maybe most people would just decide to look away because they would rather not see the reality. But perhaps also it would just enable us to have a better perception of the reality of situations, and be better able to evaluate the consequences to what we are doing. Because we would take away the soft focus filter and be able to see something a little closer to “truth” (whatever that is).

Of course, there are still issues of such things distorting things in other directions… the horrible thing we have pictures of suddenly being far more vivid and consequential than the horrible thing for which there are no available pictures, or which aren’t even capturable in pictures…

And sometimes seeing the full reality of a situation can just inflame people’s emotions and lead toward further escalations, when perhaps a little careful censorship could keep a lid on things by just keeping people a bit calmer…

So there is no perfect answer.

And hey look, I don’t WANT to look at the extremely graphic pictures of human beings killed or maimed either. It is not pleasant. It is horrifying. But I think when trying to formulate opinions on events, it is IMPORTANT to see that reality ANYWAY. And I think every time the media blurs something out of a picture, or crops it to not show the “disturbing” bits, or chooses not to show anything at all, they are doing a massive disservice… because they are letting their viewers/readers/whatever develop an internal viewpoint on the events that is cleaner and less horrifying than reality… and which therefore is a fundamental misrepresentation of what is happening… and therefore results in opinions and viewpoints… and then actions by decision makers… that are fundamentally divorced from the facts of the situation. And while there may of course be exception cases, and of course nobody can ever have a complete omnicient view of all of the facts and reality of a situation… it seems like willfully excluding a significant part of the reality of a situation from the picture is not the way to produce eduicated viewpoints that can lead toward good decisions on the right course of action.

And you know, no, it is not good enough to just say something was horrible or horrific. That just does not have the same effect as SEEING it. It is important to SEE these things.

Now, in this particular case, the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination, does it fundamentally change or alter my opinion on the events in the region? No. Perhaps not. But does it give me a better and more complete view of what went on? Yes. I think it does. Is it worth it? I think it is.

At least these days with the wealth of sources available on the Internet, one gets to see events like this from many different perspectives, including some more graphic than others. It is no longer the case that if the big media outlets don’t say it or show it that it becomes a lot of work to find alternatives. This is a very good thing.