As a young boy, I used to watch a lot of television – maybe too much television. There were two things that interested me the most: cartoons and the war in Iraq. The former was an entertaining and exaggerated version of life: your favorite characters don’t die, good conquers evil and the “heroes” beat the “villains” and save the world. In short, cartoons made the world seem beautiful, colorful and safe. It was God’s heaven on earth according to Spacetoon and all those Disney films I have watched. But when the cartoons time was over and I had to switch to Aljazeera in order to see the latest news, the world view changed drastically. In fact, it was the reverse of everything that I had previously watched on Spacetoon.
If the cartoons showed the world as beautiful, colorful and safe, the Aljazeera news stripped it from all its illusions and fantasies. The real world, I discovered while watching the endless display of suicide attacks, car bombs, marching tanks, etc, was a brutal and merciless one. It was hideous, colorless and extremely dangerous. People dropped dead like flies by the hundreds everyday because they were caught in the net of international political games. As soon as they were dead, they metamorphosed from the realm of human beings into that of figures fed to some breaking news headline at the low side of your television screen. It was a poignant expression of Josef Stalin’s cold words: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”
Indeed, they were mere statistics: all those people who had lives, lovers, families, friends and dreams. The statistics piled up day after day. They were 35 people dead on Monday, 46 on Tuesday, 70 on Wednesday, 12 on Thursday, etc. And they were from all over the world, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Palestine. It happened every day, every week and every month. You woke up in the morning, expecting to turn on the television and see the most recent of suicide attacks and car bombs. Even the words themselves (suicide attack and car bomb) become usual words, empty from any significant meanings. Hearing “suicide attack” and “car bomb” was like hearing “Tide” or “Pepsi”. The words were worn out from excessive usage. Your ear became so familiar with those words that your mind failed to remember what those words really meant.
As I grew older, images of wars and destruction were so recurring to the extent that they became normal – worse even, they became the standard. War was no longer a shocking phenomenon, but something ordinary, almost natural. I was once astonished one day to see that there was no mentioning of any suicide attack or car bomb in the news. I thought that something went wrong in the world. There was supposed to be a terrorist attack somewhere, people were supposed to be killed in it, and most importantly, I had to watch it. I started thinking that maybe the anchorman forgot to mention it or maybe the footage of the attack didn’t reach the T.V station yet. Anyways, I waited the whole day to look at the fatalities and the damages caused by that day’s terrorist attack – but there was none!
Today, when I watch the civil war in Syria, the mass shootings in the U.S, or the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, I don’t feel distressed or disturbed. I look at all those events with indifference. Why is that? The shortest answer to this question can be the fact that I see those “tragedies” every day. They are not rare or unusual occurrences. One is bombarded with the images of ruined landscapes in Syria, starving children in Yemen, and the scattered dead bodies of some massacre somewhere on a daily basis. Therefore, this daily spectacle of death and devastation loses all significance and power to move us. The formula is very old and basic: repetition normalizes everything. Even the most shocking and vulgar pictures become normal and tolerated if one keeps looking at them repeatedly.
We often forget that the principal and ultimate aim of television is to entertain. True, television can be used to educate and raise the awareness of the masses about different social issues. However, television is primarily a tool of entertainment. We turn it on in order to distract ourselves away from our endless tasks. Television, by turn, understands our needs, and makes sure to offer us easy, simplified and entertaining products. In the words of Mortimer Adler: « The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. » (How to Read a Book (1940), p. 4)
Now, where does “the news” fit in this analysis and where can we see the “apathy” that the title suggests? In order to answer this question we have first to understand that what the mass media offers is not news, but entertainment, “which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” (W.H. Auden). Although “the news” puts on a more serious face and pretends to be holy and important, it functions in the same manner as soap operas, comedy shows and sports events in the sense that they all seek, first and foremost, to entertain. For television, world tragedies are market items for sale. Consequently, “the people who die in television do not die in vain. They die to entertain us.”(Kurt Vonnegut)
Furthermore, the fact that we watch all those tragedies and disasters on television plays a crucial role in the way we think about them. Through its techniques of representation, television makes everything appear both close and far away at the same time. In this way, when we watch human disasters on television, we don’t really comprehend the full scope of what we see, hence we fail to connect or react properly to what we see. This is because, in a sense, everything that we see on television happens in Televisionland. The medium of television itself divorces the previously mentioned disasters from their context – i.e. reality.
When we watch television, we, consciously or unconsciously, resign from being intellectually active or emotionally engaged. In a word, we decide to become passive. We treat everything on our screen with indifference because as long as it entertains and distracts us, it is good enough. In “Can Television Teach?” (1979), the Italian writer Umberto Eco had the following to say “A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis.”