Violence: The Spectre of 2012

As 2013 approaches, the casualties of the past year continue to pile up. The 23-year old gang-rape victim from Delhi just passed away, and a public official is a victim of the violence-protesting riots. The historic Israel-Palestine conflict escalated this year, and with it, the Israeli and Palestinian deaths piled up: in the November 2012 bombings by Israel, nearly 200 Palestinian casualties were reported. In the Syrian civil war, the number of casualties approaches 50,000. Drug violence in Mexico, Kenya invaded Somalia, rebel violence in DR Congo and especially shocking for Americans, the Sandy Hook shooting…. If the names of the victims of international violence in 2012 were carefully compiled, it could easily fill a book.

If there is a time to reflect on this year and its violence, its becoming part of our past is as good a time as any. In his book,The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker discusses the statistically proven decline of violence. Though the number of victims of violence may be down, the impact that global violence has on our lives is much more acute. 2012 provided a great deal of evidence for examining this impact, with more technological variety than ever before.
This violence was pushed upon us from every angle by the media, and by this I am referencing not only journalism but film, talk shows, and sometimes art. We were subjected to countless photos of dead children in Syria, a 14-minute trailer of a film deemed anti-Islamic that has been awarded responsibility for outbreaks of violence in Libya and Egypt, countless articles, television and radio conversations, op-eds, blog posts, and memes.

Thinking about how violence is portrayed, and the impact the various methods of portrayal have on our behavior is important. Doing so may not have any direct impact in preventing or moderating an act of violence. Yet long-term, indirect impacts, while difficult to quantify, are significant.

Some, like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, are calling for journalists to more carefully consider the potential their work can have for instilling compassion, thereby bringing about change. So many in the media are talking about how we can inspire people to bring about change by flashing tear-jerking images or powerful metaphors, or, as Kristof says by just finding some small, powerful piece which can make us concerned about larger issues. The media is doing everything in their creative power to get us to care, at least enough to read another article, but in practice, do they earn more than a fleeting “Oh, how terrible…”, or “How sad”? Perhaps with the bombardment of information, that’s all we can afford. If we permitted ourselves an emotional reaction to every sad story we heard, we wouldn’t be able to live our lives.

If we could be more active recipients of these tales of violence, would we learn and grow more as citizens with a now global responsibility? Perhaps part of the reason that violence has seen the decline Pinker describes is because we’ve illuminated it. People now feel the pressure of a lurking film camera or scribbling journalist, impacting their decisions. The media in many ways has made it easier than ever to receive information. Even if violence has declined, it seems that the remaining violence is not impacting us to say or do anything about it despite the wealth of information available about it. Next time we hear a story about an international massacre, shooting, war, genocide, etc. that strikes us, maybe we can think a little harder about what is actually happening there, and what we can do about it.

The fault is not with the journalists, and not necessarily with the reader. I think that if the reader met the news purveyor with a more willing and active ear, more would ultimately be done to resolve them. If we, as outside observers, met them halfway and stepped up to an article, film or talk show with a critical and thoughtful eye, maybe we’d demand more change or donate more money or talent to helping those living in a violent situation, and thus infinitely less fortunate than so many of us. Just reflect on how little impact a million thoughts of “oh, how sad” has on the world – I think we can do more. Two heads are better than one, and a million compassionate and thoughtful hearts are better than none.