Your brain on rape, murder, outrage

I have a confession to make: I don’t read the news much. Sometimes a fortnight will go by before I wonder what the nation is up to. Most days, if you ask me what’s making headlines, I won’t know. The world spins on.

Till last year, I spent four years as an editor at a digital publication. It was part of my job description to know the best and worst of the country’s goings-on. At points, I had Google alerts set for terms like “death toll” and “rape murder” and “student suicide”. Evidence of humanity’s most atrocious capacities would fill my screen hour after hour — and none registered as particularly atrocious. That’s changed, I just discovered.

This week, I glanced at Twitter before a night-time walk. I saw some difficult words — “charred body”, “victim ablaze”, “encounter”. The accompanying images were even more difficult. I closed the app quickly, played a song I like, and set out on a path I’m familiar with, where I roam many nights in secure solitude. That night, though, I couldn’t. Every group of laughing, loitering men I encountered — groups I’d smile at otherwise — felt threatening. I cut the walk short. Later, I headed to a friend’s place and — deep-inhales-long-exhales — sent him a link to track my Uber ride.

As an editor, my reactions to tragedy were clinical. I’d chat with colleagues about how we should cover the incident, what position we should take, what readers needed or wanted to know. Underlying these questions was a more shameful one: what will work right now? “Work” as in — draw readers. It was intuitive to us that bad news for the world is great news for page views.

There’s truth to that intuition. In 2014, researchers at McGill University found that most of us are inclined to pay more attention to negative news stories than positive ones. They wondered if it might be an evolutionary tic — that we’re most vigilant about information that threatens our survival and safety. Scaring a reader means hooking them. Hence the classic journalism dictum: “If it bleeds, it leads.” With so many outlets in competition, news sources rile us up with shocking headlines, flames licking the bottom of the screen, dramatic music, shouting anchors, horrific images of violence, bloodshed, and cruelty, to win our attention. Guess who loses?

Unsurprisingly, being plugged into 24-hour cycles of dramatised brutality isn’t good for our minds. Studies have found correlations between excessive news consumption and heightened anxiety about calamities, and between exposure to violent media and stress, anxiety, and PTSD. One psychologist told Huffington Post that after seeing disturbing images, we “are more likely to pick out things in our environment that are potentially negative or threatening.” Like the men on my walk.

I know all this. But this week, I couldn’t look away.

In her 2003 essay, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag accuses us of being drawn to images of others’ suffering — “There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching,” she writes. “There is the pleasure of flinching.”

When I typed the Hyderabad rape victim’s name into Google, the first autocomplete suggestion — meaning, what most other Google users searched for in conjunction with her name — was “burnt image”. This is a horrifying fact. It is, nonetheless, a fact. It’s who we are now.

Cringing at myself, I clicked. Then, curiosity satiated and replaced by shame, I clicked away.

Confronted constantly with new evidence of humanity’s monstrous potentials, we’re left anxious, angry, with an urgent need to do something, fast. Consider how much idiotic, destructive reaction is spurred by this near-mad state — mob lynchings in response to untruths in WhatsApp forwards, calls for public castrations, millions of otherwise reasonable people cheering for murder at the hands of police.

At its most benign, our manufactured sense of urgency is harnessed into making us click “share” or “retweet” or “forward” on calls for justice. Our principles of justice, meanwhile, are at their least reliable. Every place of strong emotion is necessarily a place of weak reason, and it’s that weakened reason that settles for high-tenor sentiments like bloodlust and public shaming where the less sexy slogs of research and personal reflection and structural change are called for. Without the gruesome details, without the name-calling of the accused, without the videos of weeping parents demanding vengeance and the anchors shouting “hang them!” and the enraged celebrity sound bytes, maybe we’d have the mental space to grapple with the implications of our new knowledge, meditate on how to use it to improve lives we ourselves can touch. Instead, morally disoriented by noise, we believe our obligation is to add to it.

The difficult truth is: none of our Instagram stories will bring rape victims — or the unjustly killed rape accused — back to life. None of us can undo the brutalities that unfolded in Hyderabad this week. Or in Unnao. Or in Malda. Nor can our opinions, expressed once, however rousing, prevent those that will unfold next week and the week after that. This is a particular affliction of the twenty-first century news consumer — stuck between manufactured urgency and cosmic helplessness, we settle for outrage. Then, rage released, we move on, jonesing for our next hit of fury. Soon enough, the whirring media machine supplies it.

“Let the atrocious images haunt us,” Sontag wrote. “They perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing… Don’t forget.” In 2019, her call might sound like: don’t get distracted.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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