Friday, December 28, 2007

A failure of the imagination

I just had to respond to a somewhat naive post on Wonkette, arguing (thoughtfully, not crassly) that seeing graphic images of the carnage around Benazir Bhutto's assassination would make the event seem more real to people. In terms of media exposure and how literally we take what we see on screen, we're way past My Lai. Here's my response to the Wonkette article:

Interesting and thoughtfully written. But I disagree that seeing graphic photos makes Pakistan's situation more real. Human beings do possess the mental faculties to imagine, without having everything spelled out or depicted literally. Mere jpegs of blood and entrails strewn in a Rawalpindi street are unlikely to make American individuals understand better what their votes, jokes, "aid", consumption of goods, etc. have brought to bear on Pakistan, much less help mitigate the crushing damage done over decades to the struggle for democracy in Pakistan. Revelations and epiphanies upon seeing jpeg "icons" are the stuff of religious stories, not global geopolitics and political empathy.

I think one reason we have this schizophrenia you describe so eloquently (watching fake violence, but avoiding watching real violence) in the first place is the absence of empathy. And we lack empathy at least in part because we don't take the time to read fiction. I've no great sociological thesis here, but I know that in my life, reading about characters, caring about what happens to them, imagining the constraints they are feeling, was and still is a tremendously formative influence. I also know that Hannah Arendt partly attributed the banality of evil to the failure of the imagination.

Are we all Eichmanns, that we fail to imagine, and "need" graphic images to bludgeon into our brains the effects our actions have on others? Frightening thought.

Sorry, no image this time. Only words.

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