Last week The New York Times released an article about the ways reports of violence influence the mental health of individuals who are exposed to them. As a bit of a news freak myself, I took immediate interest in the report. It wasn’t pretty.
We live in a world where an attack could happen thousands of miles away, and anyone with access to a computer might have the opportunity to witness the event firsthand. We no longer rely on words molded into careful descriptions, or even a journalist’s photos; we have solid, video evidence, distributed directly by witnesses and without restraint. We see crimes unfold on cell phone screens, feel them as we watch in terror beatings, shootings, and the loss of precious human life. Update after update after update. Whether it be a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, police violence, or any number of traumatic events, it’s out there, and being there yourself is as easy as the click of a button.
But what does this mean for us, the hungry consumers of all things current events? I try and stay updated on the things going on around me. I consider it my responsibility as an inhabitant of the digital age to know what’s going on in the world. There is no excuse for ignorance these days, after all. It’s my duty to learn and feel and mourn with the rest of them, right?
It’s tempting to consider improved communication and access to the news an obvious blessing. When has it ever been this easy to stand up for what you believe in? If, for instance, you take issue with the way police officers treat black people, proving your point is as easy as sharing a grisly video of a black man dying at the hands of a white, armed officer. You saw it, and felt it, and that’s that. No one is going to argue that it’s not upsetting, and if they do, shame on them. It takes a special kind of person to watch a video of someone dying without feeling something. You might care more about gun control after watching a video of a mass shooter infiltrating a high school. It might be easier to form an opinion on Islam and the influence of ISIS after stumbling upon an execution video, and there is no doubt that terrorism is more easily understood when the chaotic, terrifying attacks unfold right in front of you in horrific real time. Conversely, this form of media makes listening to counterarguments nearly impossible since you’re so emotionally invested, but that’s a different issue entirely. Right now, I’m focusing on the traumatic news itself.
I can see how what I’m about to say could be misinterpreted. I was there during the censorship discussion in my high school freshman English class, and even as a fourteen-year-old I knew “ignorance is bliss” is never the answer; we were reading 1984, and if that book taught me anything, it’s that freedom to learn and understand the world as it truly is matters. I learned early on that bliss is not always a given and shouldn’t be, that knowledge and education, with its moments of confusion and darkness, is always for the best. I love living in the mass-media period of history!
But I’m going to ignore my internal tugs of “increased knowledge!” and “understanding humankind!” to say this: It’s okay if you’ve had enough.
I’ve certainly had enough.
This might be obvious, but let me remind you that you can read a headline, think about it, and move on. You don’t have to watch that video on Facebook Live. You really, really don’t have to read the firsthand accounts from terrorist attacks or mass homicides or anything that you know will bring you down. You don’t have to read a single thing on the internet, even if you feel like you should; like it’s your duty. Even if some part of you wants to hear all the details. Studies show that it isn’t good for us. It’s okay to acknowledge that.
Right now, I can walk outside of my apartment and know, with virtual certainty, that I will be safe. This doesn’t make me selfish, though I will admit it certainly makes me privileged. I can walk a hundred miles alone in any direction, and save the risk of reckless Utah drivers out to get me, the odds of being victim to any sort of crime or violent attack are minuscule. This is my real world. This is what awaits me outside of the internet and its constant feed of violence. I will drive my car and go to work and interact with the humans around me, and I will not get shot to death, or beaten by a police officer, or bombed in a city center.
I don’t live in World War II Era Europe, but I know people who did, and I’ve seen the wreckage that survives even today in London. I wasn’t around for the war in Vietnam, but I have met people affected by both sides of the conflict. I don’t live in the war-torn Middle East, but I have met refugees who were fortunate enough to flee from it. I don’t live in gang-ravaged, inner-city America, and I probably never will. I’m no soldier, and I shouldn’t have to be. I am blessed enough to live in a part of this world where I’m not forced to witness unspeakable violence every day. Why on earth would I subject myself to it on purpose?
No one is forcing any of us to read about the latest attack. I mourn for France and Turkey and the dead black people and policemen in my own country, but you know what? I don’t have to read every single article to feel bad about those things happening. I’m not egotistical enough to assume I can do anything about any of this; how could absorbing all of this news in detail do anything to solve the problem? It’s more likely to hurt me than help anyone who’s been personally affected.
Because that’s what that New York Times article explained: witnessing violence, even through social media, has been found to cause a degree of post-traumatic stress. Anxiety rates go up, paranoia abounds, and a sense of powerlessness begins to take over our collective lives. This is what the bad guys want, you know. They want us to fear our own communities, and project those fears onto others. They want us to succumb to all the anger and hatred going on around us, but I won’t give that to them. My dignity and my happiness belong to me, and not even the most upsetting of news reports can fully take it away, not for the long run.
I remember moving to central London literally the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. A lot of my fellow study abroad students expressed fear about exploring the city, especially with such a violent act of terrorism happening only a couple hundred miles away. My professors’ response? Do it anyway. Explore this beautiful, historical city. The odds of anything happening are tiny. If, God forbid, something were to happen, we couldn’t have truly prevented it anyway. There are some evil people out there, but we can’t let them control our lives in the real world, through the internet, or otherwise.
I am not afraid. I’m not going to convince myself this is the end of times. I acknowledge that sad, terrible things are happening all over the world, and that makes me angry and worried, but I can’t let that affect my day-to-day life. I may see constant evidence of violence every time I look at my phone or pull out my computer, but I don’t need to subject myself beyond that. I mourn with those that mourn, but I also carry on with my safe, happy life; isn’t that the best possible form of rebellion?
If the news has you down, read a good book or listen to a beautiful piece of music. Spend time with a child or take a hike with a friend. Spend time with your family; they love you, even if you aren’t voting for the same wretched presidential candidates. Go to church and talk about something other than the evils in the world and the end of times (PLEASE, CHURCHGOERS, YOU CAN TALK ABOUT OTHER THINGS, I PROMISE). Remind yourself of the goodness around you, and remember that humans are pretty great at bouncing back – we’ve been doing it since we first started killing each other eons ago. Don’t ignore the evil in the world, but don’t necessarily engage with it either. Until I feel unsafe in my real, tangible life, I’m not going to let violence in the news get to me, and I suppose that requires the tiniest bit of ignorance and perhaps an uncomfortable degree of selfishness.
But we have got to carry on. Don’t give up hope, and don’t let recent events change the way you feel about people around you, especially those with a different ethnicity or religion. It’s the people in your life that matter the most, not the scary, evil men in the news.
I am aware that long before I became a consumer of the news, it didn’t claw its way into every free hour of people’s lives. Maybe it arrived on the doorstep every morning, and it could be found on TV a few times a day if you were interested, but it wasn’t all-encompassing. It didn’t live in your pocket at all waking hours of the day, and your nightstand while you slept. It rarely came to us live and we didn’t share our opinions about it on social media. It was very much a conscious choice.
Maybe this “raw footage” trend is an overall positive thing. Maybe it’s helped break through bias in the media. I suppose constant access to the news – both good and bad, but mostly bad – has a fair amount of benefits, but maybe it’s time we try and cut back a bit. I think it’s time we overcome the guilt associated with the “ignorance is bliss” conversation, and strive for just a little more bliss. Let’s practice our right to choose by not clicking every single distressing headline that flashes on our screens. Let’s be selective about what we expose ourselves to, if that will make us happier.
Victims, I weep for you, and perpetrators, I feel anger and disgust when I think about your actions. I also have a life to live and whether I become a victim someday or not, I might as well carry on as normal. It’s not an easy task, but it’s all I can do. Normalcy is the enemy of chaos; let’s give this fight our best normal we possibly can. Let’s relish in our safety. The bad guys are bound to hate it.