Last week, a friend posted a link to “amazing, emotional photographs.” I assumed I was in for a real treat of evocative, inspiring images. Instead, much to my horror, most of the photographs displayed terrible acts of human cruelty. Yes, there were some positive images peppered throughout (alas, I kept thinking beauty would reign), but I was left distraught, some of the images burned into my brain. Only the passage of time will quell the burn, along with the self-soothing mantra “It’s not me. I’m safe.” I’m also reminding myself that the vast majority of human behavior is kind, generous, and loving. Otherwise, our species wouldn’t have survived this long.
But what burns me more than anything is that someone would package these photographs together, and that others would share them. Sure, some images were taken by professional journalists on the job, but most disturbing were the amateur snapshots taken by sadistic murderers. Trying to horrify us? Not cool. Demoralize us? Done. Perpetuate cruelty? Not okay!
Do these horrifying images inspire us to do better? Photographs can spur social awareness and progress. But this offending package of images revisits events that happened decades ago, in foreign lands, during war, or under exceptionally rare circumstances. The empathic viewer is left distressed and helpless to undo the suffering that was endured. As such, viewing these images inflicts trauma.
What we must do better is push for more sensitivity with regard to displaying, viewing, and sharing violent images, including the news, documentaries, fictional TV shows and films, and video games. We already regard blatantly sexual images as vulgar and sharing them as bad-mannered, so why don’t we hold a similar standard for blatantly violent images?
Here’s what we know about the effects of exposure to violence:
Here’s what we know about how people’s brains are affected by exposure to violence:
What to do?
Perhaps we can learn from the editorial decision followed by the Newtown, Connecticut local newspaper after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Curtiss Clark, the long-time editor of The Bee, worried that coverage of the shooter’s life, his downward spiral, his apparent motives, and his method would encourage other men to follow in his footsteps. Quoted in The New Yorker, he says, “It’s not that so many men commit these acts, but the press follows them down the path, making it wider. It forecloses other outlets for anger.” In other words, let’s not poison our mirror neurons.
As our society becomes more intent on addressing mental illness and nurturing brain health, each of us can play a vital role by refusing to drink the poison. Don’t view or share violent images, stories, TV shows, films, or video games. Don’t censor-- boycott. Be mindful of how witnessing violence and cruelty influences the human brain, and especially protect the developing brains of youth. I invite you to become a part of the village it takes to stop exposing our brains to violence and cruelty, and imagine a world brimming with respect, kindness, and compassion.
The Curtiss Clark quote is taken from Rachel Aviv’s article, Local Story: A local newspaper covers a national tragedy. The New Yorker, March 4, 2013, pp.24-9.