Friday, August 26, 2005

amusing ourselves to death

A message board I frequent had a posting from someone really distressed after a 'friend' showed them a video of a beheading, wondering how anyone could regard watching such things as fun.

Seeing execution as entertainment is certainly not new, in fact it's a long-standing tradition we've only recently abandoned.

But that doesn't mean watching videos like that is done for the same reasons. A couple of hundred years ago death was way more in your face, people would've seen relatives die already, whereas now a serious proportion of people, myself included, have never seen a real dead body.

How removed we have become from that essential and inevitable part of life. At the same time, we've shed our religions that make us believe in afterlife, we've shed strong sense of community, and we've developed a strong sense of individuality.

Individuality is made worthless by death, so we are, by and large, shit scared of it. Hence the development of the idea of medically prolonging life as much as we can irrespective of its quality, and hence our having death as entertainment.

We've all seen tens of thousands of pretend deaths in movies and on TV, lots of it billed as 'family entertainment'. We think little of kids playing with toy guns, whereas if there were a toy rapist kit on the market we'd be up in arms about it. We have to trivialise death to try to tell ourselves it's no biggy.

Also, as the mass media gives us information about so many other people and places we get overwhelmed. There isn't space in our heads to accord so many people full human status. The concept of that many other people belittles us, and the flipside is that those other people are also something insignificant, something that slips past on your screen like an advert.

If we really felt that, say, starving people in Niger were as fully human as the people in our street or workplace, we would be out there doing something rather than sat here now in front of computers.

'Sure, your robot self can get you through the day, but be careful - or the person in you who does the dishes or drives on automatic pilot may easily become the same one who brings up the children. And then where would we be? Touched by absolutely nothing at all. So when you watch the News at 10 and the dead bodies are just a drag... be afraid, be very afraid.'
- Julian Cope

But we can't help it, it's too many people for us to consider and be concerned about. From there, it's a small jump to seeing the suffering as not just insignificant but as entertainment.

I don't think it's right, I don't think it's justified, and anyone who showed me a beheading video would not be counted as a friend afterwards. But I do think there's reasons for it.

However, those who engage in it should really be pulled up short on it. Taking pleasure from the suffering of others is a good working definition of the word 'cruelty'. It's not where we want to be going, personally or culturally.

We have to try to maintain as high a level of humanisation of others as we can, and seeing suffering as entertainment is clearly going in the direction of dehumanisation.


Jim Bliss said...

... anyone who showed me a beheading video would not be counted as a friend afterwards

Hmmmm... I'm a little confused by this. Would it not be possible to argue that a beheading video is at the extreme end of a scale that also includes, for example, images of extreme injuries such as a weightlifter prolapsing through the strain of his exertions?

You draw the line at beheading videos, for example. But isn't it a little unfair to criticise those who just happen to draw the line a little further up the scale than you do?

I dunno really... the fact that it's death rather than extreme injury may make it different in some way, but I'm not 100% sure that it does.

Just food for thought.

Anonymous said...

if we had the answer(s) whom would listen?


merrick said...

Jim, you asre right about finding the picture of the weightlifter who'd blown his ass out funny being basically the same principle.

I think I wouldn't have found it funny if it had been video footage that showed pain, or if it had resulted in death. Though, of course, it must've been painful and who knows may have been fatal. It was unquestionably dehumanisation to get comedy value from it.

Thinking about it, the same principle applies to the Darwin Awards, each one of which does result in death of real people.

Would we find those things as funny if we were shown video footage rather than just being told the story in a pseduo-fictional tone?

zoe said...

further dehumanisation