The Media, Moral Rage and Moral Condemnation

044857436-president-barack-obama-signs-aReading the letters of old writers and poets from previous centuries, you get the sense that they knew the ‘big events’ happening in the world at the time. These days, those “big events” are screened into our houses everyday, yet somehow we seem less capable of taking it all in. It is as if in the frequency of hearing the happenings of the world our minds have shut down their capacities and we are unable to comprehend and in that sense, absorb, what we are being told. In that absence we resort to a dull hum, merely echoing what we’ve seen and heard but not engaging or rationalizing or understanding it. Simply repeating, like we’re the news broadcaster, like the news only needs to be broadcast, and not discussed properly by the people.

When we look back at discussions, even as close as the 1980s, we hear rational and quite comprehensive discussions about one of the major events of the day, Apartheid in South Africa. Intellects such as Hitchens (see video below) who were admittedly profound in their capacities, would discuss at great length what exactly was going on in these landmark events of the time.

And yet our new over-saturation of news and media seems to have led to the reverse trend, of focusing more inwardly on the events happening in, or near, our direct range of perception. Australian news broadcasters in particular are guilty of focusing on Australian stories first, and world news second. This occurs even when the happenings of the world are much more significant than the events occurring in our own backyard (which, let’s admit it, is a frequent occurrence).

The small rumour mill of previous centuries – that brought over rumours, then books, of happenings overseas, focused the efforts of the elite intelligentsia on the landmark issues of the day, whereas now the sheer amount of content disperses the intellectual thoughts of a population in many different directions at the same time.

There are certain issues that we, as a society, are not dealing with – and it is questionable whether the preponderance of media to focus on the trivial, the insignificant and in fact the irrelevant, of daily life, has something to do with it. When oversaturated there is a tendency for us to shut down all responses to the situation. This in some sense,  is similar to our reaction when we are confronted with an overwhelming number of choices – a kind of paralysis of choice, discussed by the psychologist Barry Schwartz.

The Moral Rage:

On the flip side to a non-response to media is a  kind of blind, irrational moral outrage.This is an instinctual -first reaction- to what occurs when we see it on the news. We get angry when good things happen to bad people, when bad things happen to good people, and when bad things happen to people we do not yet know are good or bad. The classic example here is the media perception of those accused of crimes, who are often crucified by the media before having their day in court.

And yet moral outrage itself can cause a wrong, to the person on the receiving end of it. The latest craze is to destroy people for what they say on twitter – so that a person’s entire life, morality and character are judged by a single 140 character message. It is the ultimate in logical fallacies to ignore all context for a statement and simply judge the statement itself. And yet, the New York Times recently looked at how tweets ruined the life of Justine Saccos.

In Australia, a more recent example has been the sacking of Scott McIntyre for his tweets opposing the glorification of war on Anzac Day.

The  moral outrage that is directed towards others can itself cause moral wrongs. When we destroy someone’s life for a simple, small “error” or “opinion”, we are using a disproportionate force against them, and proposing a disproportionate “sentence” for the crime. This is one of the greatest problems with the internet. The sheer capacity to reach so many people at the same time, risks the backlash from each of those people individually; en masse, causing a disproportionate response. A few million people unleashing moral backlash against someone can easily ruin their life, unlike a one-on-one response.

Here a note of caution is necessary: Be careful how you judge other people, and be careful when coming to quick judgment. Slow, deliberate, thought is usually better than  anger and hostility. Anger and hostility is usually our first reaction, but often, not the most wise or rehabilitative, for the person on the other end.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

i-have-decided-to-stick-with-love-hate-is-too-great-a-burden-to-bear-dr-martin-luther-king-jrIt seems absurd to think we can “fix” someone by hating them, or hating their 140 character messages.

I’ve yet to come across an example where hating someone has cured them of their wrongs.