Sunday, 8 October 2017

distant events, immediate screens, a middle way

Geographical distance can create a sense of increased objectivity, give rise to new or at least different perspectives. 

Electronic distance doesn't exist, unless we create it.

In the wonderful clarity of a West Australian sunlit morning, the trees and shrubs are differently beautiful from the ones at home, the birds energetically and raucously so.

And yet elsewhere two nation's leader seem to want to destroy each other's nation (we have to hope it is only"seem") and within one of those nations, a deranged individual recently slaughtered many young people of whom he knew nothing, with whom, as individuals, he had no identifiable grievance.

What am I to make of this? What is the Middle Way between unproductive distress and callous disregard? Why do I keep turning on the screens to find out more about both horrors? I am thousands of miles from both situations.

I find help in an article in a major Australian newspaper, written by DBC Pierre. Most apparently motiveless attackes, like many or most terrorists attacks on civilians, end in the suicide of the perpetrator. He quotes research* that finds that following suicides car crash fatalities increase, specifically in areas where the suicide was well-publicised. Murder-suicides were followed by rises in multi-person crashes. So under the cliché "copy-cat killing" lies something more significant; we seem to be wired to find others like ourselves, and do what they do. Brain chemistry may have a bearing here.

Pierre writes "I have a sneaking sense that by consuming all the outrage, letting the buzz of fear, wallpaper our lives, we're becoming complicit. A sense that our voracious focus on far-flung outrage is now unwittingly part of the cause."   

He goes on "the screen craze has become 24/7, in our hands, on our desks, our walls, and if the stated aim of much of it is to put us at the scene, take us live, I simply ask: do we need to go? All the time? I'm living right here where I stand. This is my sphere of physical influence and I should lose myself instead into some place where I'm fearful and powerless?"

Pierre reminds us that we contain powerful chemicals such as dopamine and cortisol. His proposition is that the feelings aroused by heavy screen involvement in terrible events we are powerless to influence may create some of the same states of mind that result in such horrors to begin with. In other words, and not necessarily in any rational or willed sense, we may, if we are prone to depression, alienation, fear and the helpless anger that comes from frustration, be nudged towards similar acts. That seems to me a bold assertion that it is worth considering seriously.

"I wonder if, by being swept through screens into constant turmoil, we are priming ourselves with the chemistry of those who cause it, as well as promoting the market for worse."

Some of the stuff that comes through screens we can do something about- at elections, for example, or when something awful happens in our locality, by direct action as happened following the Grenfell Tower fire. But much of it is geographically beyond us, beyond any likelihood of positive action. The result is surely bad for us as individuals. Nothing that is of much use comes from such psychic disturbance.

Pierre's final point is about the paradox that whilst we are drawn into distance events we are powerless to effect through screens, we are at the same time distanced from the events- hence the frustration, hence the fatigue, the possibility of callous disegard. 

Screens - just look at the virulent hatred to be found on Twitter - help us to create the Other that must be hated and destroyed. It's easier to create the despised Other when you don't have to look them in the eye, speak with them.

So a leading politician receives foul abuse daily; so a leading TV political correspondent has to have professional protection.

I don't think there's any point in being anti-screen; after all, what am I doing at present but trying to reach out to a few readers via a screen? The idea that the world is getting steadily worse is surely as useless a proposition as the idea is is that it is getting steadily better, since so much depends on what you are measuring and where you're measuring it. It seems unlikely to me that heavy screen use about current events makes many of us feel the world is getting better...

I hope I'm not just being squeamish when I say I don't want relentless updates on mass murder. I may want to know the simple fact of it. But if as a result of closely following this horror, I really feel that the world is getting more and more horrible, then I'm doing two things.

Firstly, I am ignoring history and much information about the contemporary world, so that I am out of balance. My view is inaccurate, yet I am relying on it. I am a victim of confirmation bias, the tendency to "search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."

Secondly, I've lost the middle way. That is, the way that asks useful questions such as:
  • How much do I need to know about this? 
  • What if anything can I do about it? 
  • How significant is it in the local, national, world view of human life and its possibilities? 
  • In what ways should I care, in what ways should my compassion be engaged rather than my fear and hatred?

It is easy to be continuously outraged, enraged, depressed about the world we live in. It is harder to be grounded enough in the realities of this moment in this world to bring about positive change.

I'm going to turn off all screens for a bit now and get a little gentle morning sunlight into my soul.

*Influence: the psychology of persuasion, byRobert B Cialdini

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