Four years ago, I was chatting with someone on Skype who got me to watch ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ and demanded to watch my reaction, which consisted of hyperventilation between screams of “fuck you, you sick fuck”. Afterwards, I watched Youtube clips of people watching and reacting to it, and getting their parents and grandparents to watch and react. This was exceptional because most people would not post their reaction of watching any other extreme porn of their choice. Like Goatse before it, the key driver of emotion was surprise. Yet some didn’t think it was a big deal. “Meh, I’ve seen worse”, my brother said. “I’ve seen one where dudes mutilate their dicks while a rock cover of ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child plays”.
Recently, I was reminded of this same visceral sentiment when I watched Youtube confessions and saw Facebook statuses regarding the Game Of Thrones ‘Red Wedding’ episode, the final episode of Breaking Bad Season 4, various gruesome character deaths in the Sopranos, and a twerking meme. Pieces of dramatic suspense and shock moved people to share their feelings via social media. Similarly, when we see a promising young man or woman as the victim of sexual violence or murder in our city our country, we react emotionally via social media. The exception is a lack of emotional investment when it comes to real conflict and violence abroad, despite that we have the obvious capacity for it.
The British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis produced an excellent segment for Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, titled ‘Oh Dearism’. Curtis contends that media and activist coverage of conflict in the developing world from the 1960’s to the mid 1990’s focused too greatly on a narrative of absolute good and evil. Bob Geldof’s Live Aid emphasised consumerism through charity as the solution rather than focus on the political and economic forces – both national and international – that cause and sustain conflict and poverty.
Gradually, the truth about our support of brutal regimes became evident, often admitted to by Western Governments. In South East Asia, the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 was assisted by Nixon’s mass bombing of Cambodia to attack the Vietcong supply lines, which helped turned public opinion against Cambodian President Lon Nol. After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, American and British Governments – both opposed to the Vietnamese invasion – began arming and training the Khmer Rouge in jungle camps throughout the 1980s. The parallel rise of Cold War fodder action films such as Rambo II and III, Rocky IV, and Red Dawn portrayed geopolitical conflict as absolute good versus absolute evil. The Khmer Rouge example was not isolated and US actions contradicted this. During the 1980’s the CIA and Reagan Administration engaged in arms deals with Iran, and armed and supported drug smuggling Nicaraguan Contra rebels, Salvadorian death squads, and Afghan Mujahadeen. The latter consequently assisted the rise of the Taliban and other unsavoury warlords who are part of the current Afghan Government.
As Cold War truths were reveled and the threat of nuclear annihilation has drastically subsided, the public narrative has become more accepting of the notion that conflict is not clear cut. Curtis claims that the post-Cold War environment made it impossible for simplistic narratives about good versus evil to continue:
“The kind of news reporting invented in the 90’s made no sense. Because the news had given up reporting them as political struggles [Rwanda, Bosnia], it meant there was no way to understand why these terrible events were happening. And instead, political conflicts around the world from Darfur to Gaza are now portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race about which nothing can be done, to which the only response is “Oh dear” ”.
There are emerging alternatives to mainstream formulas are challenging media boundaries. The Russian-based news channel RT – despite some blatant pro-Moscow narratives – provides an English-language mainstream challenge to American geopolitical narratives and readily publishes material that addresses complexities of conflict. During coverage of the Syrian Civil War this year, RT posted cellphone footage of public beheadings by Islamic fundamentalist rebels. Here, two men – one apparently a Syrian Orthodox priest – are decapitated using long knives, surrounded by the public, and their heads displayed in plain view that easily resemble props from a movie workshop. This video shatters the image that Syrian rebels – or at least all of them – are wholly noble, raises important questions about the consequences of a possible Syrian intervention, and fosters a real emotional reaction. The internet especially allows more than ever accessible alternatives to simplistic narratives.
We can take comfort from public reactions to internet shock memes and brutal scenes from modern TV shows because their popularity reveals that we have not become desensitised to violence in the media. They confirm – as much as ever – that we are viscerally roused into feeling disgust, anger, empathy, and sadness. Popular plot driven shows Game of Thrones and The Wire – both HBO shows – address complex intrigues of political machinations, self-interest, and resulting violence. Notably, The Wire emphasises the interconnection between actions and consequences between politics, public institutions, criminal elements and vice versa, and that the line between good and evil is grey at best. Comparatively, the more recent public backlash against Kony 2012 is a sign of the rejection of the Bob Geldof/ Live Aid formula and is a win for challenging political, institutional, and economic interests that sustain conflict and poverty. Mainstream news coverage still focuses to a lesser extent on conflict through good vs evil or mindless violence narrative – the latter can incidentally portray brutality as a ‘Third World’ problem. Perhaps the mainstream news media perceives that people cannot understand nuance. People are probably smarter than that.