“You’re kidding, aren’t you?” said our friend. “What if it were your kid who got shot? Don’t you feel for their families?”
“They’re not my family,” he said. “It wasn’t my kid. I didn’t know them. If it wasn’t plastered all over the news, I wouldn’t even know about any of it. It’s in Connecticut, a thousand miles away from here. Might as well have been on the other side of the world. Am I supposed to feel a bunch of unnecessary grief just cause some stupid news anchor or politician tells me to?”
It’s not the kind of conversation you want to have at a warm and cozy Christmas party. But it did make me wonder. I myself didn’t know what to think. I was feeling stressed about it, I knew that. But could I call it grieving? And should I really expect him to?
One of us was a teacher. She said that her school had to go on lock down all week.
“That’s retarded,” said the acquaintance (he’s not exactly a close friend). “What, you worried bout copy cats? When has that actually ever happened? You know an autistic kid with a mom who stockpiles weapons and subs at your school who watches CNN and is smart enough to copy all that?”
The teacher friend couldn’t handle it. She made a demonstration of going to another room.
“You know what I care about?” he said. I was anxious to hear. “My son has a friend named Jacob. Jacob’s mom just shot herself and his dad is in prison. Now Jacob is going into the foster care system and probably going to get molested by strangers. That’s upsetting to me. Not somebody getting killed I don’t even know. That’s just news. It’s news that’s upsetting my son, though. Which upsets me too.”
My mother-in-law was there and I couldn’t tell how she was reacting. “I agree,” she said. “I remember the day Kennedy died, I didn’t find out about it until much later. The teachers refused to tell us anything about it. There were whispers, you know–‘did you here? Somebody shot the president’–but it wasn’t until I got home that night with my parents I found out for sure. You know, there have been studies that show it traumatizes children to hear that over and over again. We should protect them.”
We all went home feeling pretty depressed. Was it the party? Was it the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting? I wasn’t sure about either, so I decided I’d explore the subject in my own way here.
Seeing there ≠ being there
When, in 1837, Samuel Morse, the frustrated American historical painter, gave up painting and conducted the first successful experiment with the single-wire, electrical recording telegraph system, he forever ruptured time and space.
Before, if you had a message to send, your best options were the Pony Express or passenger pigeon–a footed or winged carrier. Of course American Indians had long used the more sophisticated smoke signals, though Morse failed to notice this line-of-sight way of carrying messages until he saw the Parisian semaphore lines, or “optical telegraphy.” Now, you didn’t have to “be there,” or anywhere near there, to get the message.
Photography–an invention Morse discovered in Paris through his friend Louis Daguerre’s “proto-photo,” the daguerreotype–ruptured something else: the unity of the naked eye and its object.
Photographs are very manipulable.You can zoom and isolate a particular detail, add soft focus to obscure, or combine effects to emphasize whatever you want. You can, in effect, cage and tame an object. What you see is what you get, but it is not what was there to begin with.
Now tape your edited pictures together to make a moving picture, counting on psychological effects such as the persistence of vision and beta movement, throw on an optical soundtrack, and voilà, magic. You can now mass produce a film for the viewing pleasure of people world-wide. But you still can’t be there. There never was a “there.”
We’ve come so far with information technology that science fiction cannot keep up. In fact, all mass communications far surpass what science fiction has predicted, while the genre’s predictions for mass transportation are practically nonexistent. Traveling overseas by plane, thanks to Homeland Security, nowadays is a terrifying prospect. Most of us stay home and go by car.
But anybody who has ever ventured on a plane and flown across the Atlantic to Paris can attest, no play-by-play documentary or Google street-map photography can compare with the actual experience of casually walking the Seine and talking with a shop owner–in French–on St. Germain.
There is today a great divide between information and transportation. Seeing there ≠ being there.
Mass production and human emotions
In the room where I write, I can think of only one thing that wasn’t mass-produced–my bookshelf. It came from a specialty shop here in Austin, Texas, a beautiful seven-feet tall, dark-stained pine bookcase. It wasn’t built for me, but it may be the most intimate thing I own. Mountains of identically manufactured cheap objects I’ve steadily acquired sit on that bookcase, and on other surfaces all around my room, threatening to avalanche and swallow me without even stopping to ask me, “Paper or plastic?”
During the 1950s and 60s, Charles and Ray Eames and Mad Men advertisers taught us how to live the good mass-produced life.
Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, wrote that “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway…”–but only halfway. In our time, it appears the most profitable commodity (think IKEA) is a packaged compromise between mechanical reproduction and individualized and sentimentalized objects.
In fact, Ray Eames added this quality of artistic originality to every one of her husband’s mass-produced offerings. The best example might appear in Charles’s slick American propagandist film (“Glimpses of the USA”) shown to Soviets in Moscow. Ray’s addition, at the end of the picture, of the perfectly translatable Forget Me Nots is said to have made Nikita Khrushchev get teary-eyed with emotion.
Can we now mechanically mass produce or manufacture human emotion?
It may be doubtful that films, at least, move us that much anymore. We’ve seen far too many of them. We know the machinery and how it works. If anything, we feign emotion (consciously or unconsciously) from the social compulsion to impress our date.
Factory defect, recall
Well, fine, that’s the movies. What about real-life TV news coverage? Shouldn’t we exhibit some emotional reaction?
Wait. Before you unwrap your prefabricated, pavlovian emotions, be aware, there have been a few factory defects, and the factory has issued a recall.
iMediaEthics (“Media Mess-Ups: Who’s Who of Sandy Hook School Shooting Reporting Errors, Part 1“) shows:
1. wrong killer
-Reported “Ryan Lanza,” corrected to “Adam Lanza,” his brother
-Recalled by CNN, the Associated Press, NBC News , the Daily Record, etc.
2. wrong photos
-Posted photos from Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page, corrected by removal
-Recalled by Huffington Post, CNN, UPI, etc.
3. wrong person killed
-Reported Ryan Lanza dead, corrected, Ryan not dead (and, remember, also not killer)
-Recalled by CNN’s live blog
( iMediaEthics is working on further reports on how the media covered the Connecticut shootings.)
Granted the shooting was a tragedy, it is nonetheless embarrassing to be angry at the wrong killer, to have the appropriate emotional reaction to inappropriately Facebook-lifted photos, to mourn the loss of someone who didn’t actually die.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar posited there is a limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social contacts. The social networks he was talking about (back in 1992) were relationships in which you know who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.
Dunbar said, “This limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size and that this in turn limits group size.”
We, like primates, stay in touch through social grooming. Social animals–who live close to each other–bond and reinforce social structures, family links, and build relationships. Social grooming also is used to reconcile and resolve conflict. Mutual grooming usually happens between two people and usually in the bedroom.
You probably can’t realistically apply this to your X to the Nth power of Facebook friends. First, we often substitute talk, or language, which Dunbar says is a cheap (albeit crucial) form of social grooming. Interestingly, though, social media software often uses Dunbar’s number to help them design their sites. Dunbar himself is helping them.
Dunbar proposed a number–“Dunbar’s number”–between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.
So if all this is true, can we legitimately say that we can achieve any kind of bond with victims we don’t know in another state, even another country, and clearly not in our network of social grooming, upon which to base genuine grief? We obviously do feel something. But what is it exactly, if we are to believe Dunbar’s number? Perhaps the more troubling question: Is it healthy to extend ourselves like this? Can it actually be psychologically debilitating?
Auto accidents and human emotions
According to Car-accidents.com, “the original social media forum for crash victims worldwide”:
There were an estimated 6,420,000 cars involved in accidents in the US in 2005. The cost of these accidents exceeds 230+ Billion dollars. There were about 2.9 million injury cases and 42,636 car accident deaths. An average of 115 persons die each day in motor vehicle crashes in the United States — one every 13 minutes. According to the World Health Organization about 3000 people die in crashes each day worldwide.
These are staggering numbers amounting to a grand-scale massacre. An unspoken war.
Yet the majority of us probably don’t think about this or grieve on a daily basis for the victims–men, women, and children–and their surviving families, unless, of course, we knew them personally. We tend to rationalize: Cars are here to stay. They come off the line by the minute. They are part of modern life. Walking is of course a much safer way of going places, but it is impracticable and slows progress. Yes, cars could be safer, but it’s not currently economical, and we all have to go to work.
We could blame drunk drivers, except the numbers simply don’t add up. Numerous sources point to a 20-year study, from 1989-2009, which actually indicates that alcohol-related fatalities have drastically plummeted (arrow going way down), while non-alcoholic deaths have risen exponentially (arrow going way up)–much, much higher. Negligentdriving.com argues the following:
The intersection of high-tech, in-car gadgets and busy, sleep-deprived people who speed off to work while multitasking has created a perfect storm of highway risks that is reflected in ever-higher traffic fatalities.
To effectively turn the tide on highway deaths, the nation must view traffic safety within the context of negligent driving. Negligent drivers-whether they are speeding, drunk, distracted, or overly fatigued-put themselves and others at risk, often vastly underestimating the danger posed by their behavior.
There is often a disconnect between the public’s perception of the danger of various actions, and the actual danger correlated with them, resulting in millions of unknowingly negligent drivers cruising the roads at any given moment.
This last phenomenon we might call “Man in the Machine.” Phenomenologically, from an outsider’s viewpoint, during the act of driving, we can easily forget the cars around us even have people in them (it would be sensory overload when we should be focusing on the road–our peripheral vision narrows to near nonexistence) until the man or woman in the car reaches out to give us the finger. In such cases our sympathetic propensity goes literally out the window.
Just maybe it’s not all our fault. All-about-auto-accidents.com says, “Sorting out liability and other key issues is a tough task after any car accident, but it’s all the more challenging when the accident was caused–either wholly or in part–by hazards in the roadway, such as potholes or debris…Sovereign tort immunity can limit the government’s liability considerably, and in many instances the government will still be entirely immune from suit.”
Many auto deaths are likely a direct result of faulty city planning and urban design. It is not mere coincidence that many deaths occur in the same intersection or the same strip of highway, or, as in Austin, to ever-increasing numbers of cyclers and pedestrians. Bogotá, Columbia, has cleverly helped solve this last problem by putting bike lanes between sidewalk parking and sidewalks.
Cause-and-effect aside (every death has its cause), considering Dunbar’s number of 150, once again, is it humanly plausible–or healthy–to grieve sincerely for anybody and everyone? Isn’t it enough stress just keeping ourselves safe? It might arguably be highly perverse to show Americans montages of auto deaths day after day, strap us with personal guilt, and twist factory-made, pressurized social grief? Could there be any reason compelling enough to justify inflicting even one more innocent person with unnecessary pain?
Special providence and gun control
The devout judge and businessman Samuel Sewall and puritan minister Cotton Mather were eating dinner together one night when lighting struck the house breaking the dining window. Both pious men fell straight to their knees, groveling before God’s almighty hand, and begged that he show them their sins which could have brought such a devastating sign.
Are Americans reverting back to our puritan superstitions by imposing upon ourselves some great public sin a random, distant shooting spree? We constantly ask after any natural catastrophe–and a mass shooting by a fellow human being, as a natural phenomenon, can be called a “natural catastrophe”–what did we do wrong? It is the puritanical notion of special providence at work even today. We cannot accept a disaster as merely a disaster. Rather, we by heritage rely still upon a nebulous higher moral power–the State–which, against better evidence, invokes special providence in our modern, liberal, secular age. We have been trained to feel dreadful guilt over a televised tragedy, which whether we like it or not, occurred as naturally and beyond our control as a lighting storm.
Whether or not gun control is a rational answer to mass violence, the idea of calling for mass guilt and an act of contrition over such a random act amounts to a good old fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon.
Flash mobs and private sympathy
NBCNEWS.com reposted a heart-warming story by PhillyBurbs.com correspondent Dan Perez:
More than 150 people [the bold is mine] took over Shady Brook Farm in Lower Makefield on Sunday to remember the victims of the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.
Lauren Reed from Falls and Kaitlyn DiSantis from Bristol Township used Facebook to organize a flash mob to spread a positive message and help people in a difficult time.
“We wanted to bring the community together and do something good to honor those people affected by the tragedy in Connecticut,” said 27-year-old Reed.
About 40 adults and children stood in front of a Christmas tree stretching 20 feet in the air and sang the Michael Jackson song “Heal the World” while holding up 26 signs, each bearing the name of one of the victims from the tragedy at Sandy Hook. More than 100 onlookers sang along and some teared up during the rendition.
I am very sincere when I say this story is heart warming. It is, by all counts, a very appropriate reaction for a local community to mourn and show sympathy in this way. It is here we see clearly the benefits of social media, but also how it truly works. The nation did not show up. This was not a national mass-media mourning. This was a local community network privately honoring their own neighbors. It was Dunbar’s number. We are reading about it via mass media–maybe there is video footage–but we were not there. We were not included in the 150. Nor should we have been.
Straight from the mouth of Lady Grantham
Maybe my friend was right after all, though he didn’t make his point as eloquently as something else I watched on TV, when every major channel (i.e. CBS, NBC, Disney, News Corp) wasn’t focused on the school shooting–an episode from PBS’s Downton Abbey, written by prim Englishman Julian Fellows:
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She was very upset by the death of poor Mr. Pamuk.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Why? She didn’t know him. One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.
To support mother and father, to cherish wife and child and to have a simple livelihood; this is the good luck.
The best inheritance a parent can give to his children is a few minutes of their time each day.
— M. Grundler
Of course if you like your kids, if you love them from the moment they begin, you yourself begin all over again, in them, with them, and so there is something more to the world again.
— William Saroyan