I read this article by Will Self recently where he links Western passivity in the face of the Iraq crisis with a mindless consumption of entertainment violence. It's an old argument that violence on TV desensitises us, making us indifferent to the image of others suffering and it is invoked whenever something horrific happens and we want to explain how we let it happen. But I think it's one big red herring, brought on by a sense of Western guilt: A disgust with our appetite for violence and meaningless entertainment which might be causing plenty of problems but is not necessarily to blame for our attitude towards war.
If we look at it, it seems violence is a natural component of society. Go back 1000 years, across Western countries, violence was commonplace: duels, tribal feuds, slavery, torture, capital punishment and disease made life cheap. Comparatively speaking, by now we live in sterile, orderly societies where we have swept up all that violence and put it on our TV for entertainment. We can't really imagine that going back to any time where we had more violence on our own streets and less on TV that we had more empathy for others on far away shores?
But let's suppose the argument is correct: violence on TV is impairing our ability to empathise. What is the solution? To ban certain types of violence in entertainment? But where do we draw the line? Entertainment is not our only source of TV violence. We also get it from the News. When I saw someone falling to their death from the Twin Towers I remember thinking that it wouldn't have been shown a few years before because it would have been considered disrespectful. Recently a reporter covering the downing of flight MH17 said they couldn't show some footage from the Ukraine crash sight because there were dismembered bodies. How long before it's okay for that to be shown? I guess the violence for entertainment argument is that if we didn't have violence dished up for fun, we would be suitably shocked by the violence dished up by the News. But wouldn't we also become desensitised to that? How do we expose people to shocking things and keep their sense of shock at the same level? You have to keep getting more shocking.
The most shocking thing I have seen on screen is a picture on Facebook, which I clicked on by accident, showing a scene in the wake of an ISIS massacre, including the image of a beheaded child. It seemed unreal to me, like I was looking at a large, discarded doll. I probably thought of a doll because that's the only way I can relate to such an image. There's a theory that all information we receive we automatically and can only understand in relation to what we already know. If this is the case then is it possible that unless we experience something shocking first-hand and have it thrust into our psyche, we can never muster a suitable reaction to shocking images, instead only relating them, inaccurately, to our own references? I think we have a built-in mechanism to block things out - it's probably necessary for our sanity - imagine if you could picture all the pain and suffering at any one moment in the world? Maybe it's that protective mechanism that makes some images too shocking to process and the viewer click away.
However, I did see some images recently that brought me to make changes in my life: those contained in food documentaries. Suffice to say I'm only buying organic meat from now on and I'm going to try to avoid makeup tested on animals. So why did these images have an affect? Well, I'm directly involved. I'm the consumer supporting how a product is made. Also, I know exactly how to help: I can stop buying those products. In contrast, when it comes to war, I think there is a sense here in the safe zone of helplessness. Not because we trust our Western governments' promise to "fight terror" on our behalf, but because we don't trust them. Hindsight shows over and over that the bodies charged with upholding our moral code are demonstrably corrupt - this inevitably becomes a factor in our reaction.
So I am surprised to hear the old TV violence argument being rolled out to explain our collective apathy when it comes to the Iraq crisis. It's over-simplifying the matter, a red herring and is a culprit in another argument.