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Tragedy, Collective “Grief,” & Media

When tragedies like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School occur, I always wind up feeling guilty. Why? Because while many of my friends family express profound grief and sorrow over such a heinous event, I usually feel very little. Sure, it disturbs me, but mostly it just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps this means I lack empathy, but I doubt it. When grief strikes my family, friends, or community, I usually respond with a good bit of emotion and empathy. And that’s just the difference. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their children. I don’t know their community. And after all the tears of my friends are wiped away, those parents and those children and that community will keep weeping. This has all made me think about two things, and then a third.

First, I have been reflecting on what Charles Taylor has called the modern “social imaginary” – the way in which we collectively and reflexively experience our connection with other people in our modern open access society. For Taylor, this involves public space, public action, and what he calls a “simultaneous mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each one of us as we act that the others are there, as witness of what we are doing, and thus as co-determiners of the meaning of our action” (A Secular Age, 481). This is perhaps the way in which our modern society preserves some pre-modern forms of religious ceremony. We have collective experiences through things like rock festivals. And indeed, we experience collective grief (think Princess Di’s funeral). ¬†And these moments of collective action stand in contrast to (perhaps a therapy for) modern atomistic and dis-engaged Western individual existence.

Second, I have been reflecting on the role of the media in our modern collective experiences. Collective grief is more complex that common excitement at a rock show. We don’t plan for it. It just happens – usually as served through news-media. In the recent tragedy, it would be difficult to describe the networks’ reaction to this as much different from the “play by play” mode of reporting that is common in professional sports reporting. “it was this boy.” “No it was the other one.” “His mom worked there.” “No she didn’t.” “It was 10 kids.” “No, it was 20 kids.” It is important to come to grips with the fact that the news is an entertainment medium. The music which opens the news is indistinguishable from that of a game show. And the developments in our world that the news reports are not those which are most important to our lives, but the ones likely to get the most viewers – and therefore most likely to gain the biggest audience to watch the commercials which fund the programs themselves. This is the nature of most television, internet, and newspaper reporting. Neil Postman spoke about “the news of the day” as a modern genre of information. There are many important things going on in the world, but exceptional evil and the sex lives of celebrities sell. I’m observing more than I’m judging. Like many people, I’m quite sure I have found myself curiously clicking on a link featuring some detail of Taylor Swift’s private life when I could have been reading about recent grain developments in the third world or about local political issues which directly affect me.

And so a third and final thought. At the end of the day, these are illusory and transient experiences. Our faculties are designed to respond to evil with grief. And it is a natural human response to want to “do something” when these tragedies hit. And digital media has made us to feel a part of these events. The schoolhouse, grief-striken parents (etc) are all in our living rooms. But again, this is illusory. We’re far away. We don’t know them. We usually can’t help them. And again, we will stop crying very soon. They will not. They will never “get over it.” They will find a new normal. I might send up a nameless and faceless “air prayer” and then get back to whatever I was doing before. I don’t mean to denigrate our prayers or our emotions, but it seems to me that they are (in many of these cases) a servant to modes of receiving information for which are faculties were not designed. And even if we actually “do something” in light of the information, we did not receive the information because we can do something, but because it was a “good story.”

And so I’m ambivalent. I have moments of sadness. But it is surprisingly easy to forget. And that, too, is normal. In a way, it almost seems almost disrespectful to feel “a part” of this tragedy. It was given to me by a dispenser of “good stories” because it was more interesting than any other number of things that could have run that day. But many real families in a real location in real space and real time are forever really changed. I am not. I can pray for them, but not like their neighbors and families. Perhaps this seems unfeeling, but I can only imagine that if (God forbid!) something similar happened to me, I’d look with bewilderment at the NBC van but with longing at the comforting and tearful grasp of my real neighbor.