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Listening, watching…and forgetting

Sina Odugbemi's picture

People watch TV through shop windowMore and more of us these days consume news in a multiplatform manner, and every week, every day even, we learn about a fresh outrage that has occurred somewhere in the world.


The news media stay on each outrage for a while. A plane crashes. Why? How? The pilot flew the plane into the mountain? Goodness! Why? How did the airline miss his descent into madness? And on and on they go. For a while, it is a frenzy of analysis, fresh angles, scandal-hunting, scapegoats-sniffing and so on.

Eventually, the media move on to the next outrage. What is interesting is that we tend to move on before the media do. There is a lag before the media realize that we are bored with the story, that we are mentally blocking it, and that the readership or audience numbers are no longer sky-high.

That moving on from the intense coverage of the latest outrage that we do is what I find fascinating. For we don’t just move on, without conscious effort we try to forget about the outrage because we have to get on with our lives. We are naturally good at forgetting. The question is: why do we practice forgetting so skillfully?

First, I suspect that the fact that there are so many outrages happening around the world these days, and we learn about them all in great detail as soon as they occur, is taxing to the very limit our capacity for compassion and empathy. I cannot make the point more elegantly than the great philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume says:

We have a lively idea of every thing related to us. All human creatures are related to us by resemblance. Their persons, therefore, their interests, their passions, their pains and pleasures must strike upon us in a lively manner, and produce an emotion similar to the original one; since a lively idea is easily converted into an impression. If this be true in general, it must be more so of affliction and sorrow. These have always a stronger and more lasting influence than any pleasure or enjoyment.

In other words, we all have ‘a lively idea’ of what the victims of terrorist and other outrages are going through. You see parents driven insane by pain because terrorists went to blow up kids in a school. You think about your own children, and the pain you seen on television strikes you ‘in a lively manner’. Or a pilot drives a plane into the Alps deliberately and I think about how many times I have flown over those majestic mountains, watching enraptured as they are bathed in sunlight, and I realize that I could have been on that kind of flight. A shiver goes through me each time I think about it. The problem, I suspect, is that our empathy bandwidth is not capacious enough to handle the demands being placed on it these days. It is all getting to be too much.

Secondly, as these outrages come one after the other, true empathy can be paralyzing. For, true empathy easily morphs into a call to action. You become aware of so much suffering, some of it on an epic scale (like those fleeing the Middle East wars perishing in the Mediterranean Sea in great numbers) and you wish there were something that you could do to end their suffering, to fix the root causes of the displacement of so many millions of hapless souls. But what are you going to do when even the Great Powers seem paralyzed, unsure how or if to intervene?

Thirdly, the spate of outrages can raise discomfiting philosophical and theological questions. For instance, what does your religion, if you have one, say about what is going on? If you don’t affirm any of the main faith traditions, what does your philosophy of life say? Are we all resigned Stoics now, watching the mayhem spread with ‘philosophical calmness’? At bottom, what we are confronting is the problem or the reality of Evil. Every day brings news about the terrible, horrific deeds of men – and they are mostly men – who are willing to act without any ethical restraints. That is the very definition of evil. But what do you do about evil?

Finally, these well-covered outrages challenge that optimism that we need to function.  We all get up in the morning, greet our loved ones, set about the day and its projects, plans, meetings and so on because we believe that somehow things will turn out all right, that we will not be blown up by terrorists, that our plans will ripen in a stable world, that our kids will grow to adulthood in this same world, that the airplanes we board will reach their destinations safely and so on. Positive thinking is the very elixir of our lives. So, if you dwell too much on this blazing succession of macabre outrages all that optimism is in doubt. We don’t want that; for, we cannot live like that.

So, we listen, we watch, and then we do our level best to forget.

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Photography by Martin Lissmyr, via Flickr

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