Like me, you may have seen Monday that another unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, was shot and killed by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thanks to cameras in a police helicopter and on the dashboard of a patrol car, the fatal incident was captured in a video that diffused rapidly by way of traditional news sources and social media. Many of the details of the story sound familiar amid the continual string of police shootings against black men in the United States: Even with his hands up and outnumbered by police officers, Crutcher was met with deadly force. One officer on the scene is reported to have said that he “looks like a bad dude.” Such violence makes my blood run cold, and I imagine many compassionate people feel the same way. I have not yet gathered the courage to watch the video of Crutcher’s shooting.
This is not the first time I have been unable to inform myself fully of a news story that elicits heartbreak. Though I typically pride myself on keeping abreast of important developments in the United States and around the world, I regularly find myself scrolling past articles and videos portraying the Syrian civil war, the related European refugee crisis and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. Obviously, my very ability to look away from these terrible happenings points to my vast geographic, racial and economic privilege. But as an informed citizen of the United States with a stake in global affairs, what kind of ethical obligation do I have to immerse myself in every bit of news possible in light of the emotional toll it will take?
The first word that comes to mind when I consider this question is “desensitization” — the notion that after having been exposed to violence for long enough, people begin to feel less strongly in the wake of trauma. After each new report of a school shooting or terrorist bombing, I sense a general feeling of numbness and an accompanying anxiety about why we do not feel more intense grief or anger. I am not a psychologist, but I wonder if these reactions, rather than being evidence of desensitization, suggest that a defense mechanism is at work. In the face of a barrage of emotional artillery, perhaps we are protecting our personal well-being by blocking ourselves from deeply feeling the devastation that naturally affects compassionate humans.
On the other hand, might this reasoning amount simply to an excuse for indifference? Countless moral leaders have spoken about the danger of apathy when trying to overcome evil, and it’s important to keep their wisdom in mind when confronting today’s challenges. If I do not watch police dashboard camera footage or read an article about the Syrian conflict or stare at the image of Aylan Kurdi’s body on a beach in Turkey, then how will I be moved to make a difference in any or all of these struggles? Though reading the headlines and scrolling through social media provide valuable knowledge about current events and may even produce an educated citizenry, they are not enough to ensure the creation of an empathetic citizenry. Such an achievement, I believe, requires the consumption of media and art that humanizes even those people from whom we feel the most distant.
In evaluating my own patterns of media consumption, this conclusion rings all the more true. As mentioned above, I often gloss over reports of terrorist attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. These are places where I, for a variety of reasons, have come to believe that violence is “expected” to occur. By contrast, I read almost to the point of obsession about terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe: Paris, Brussels, Nice, New York City. This is a natural response — but only up to a point. These Western locations are places I have visited or whose culture I am more familiar with than that of Baghdad, Aleppo, Kabul or Sana’a. This does not excuse me, though, from paying attention to the trauma inflicted upon these places. I should do better.
The trick, then, is to tackle exposure to emotionally taxing media in such a way that we remain empathetic and mobilized to make a difference without falling to pieces. Finding such an equilibrium seems to become more difficult with each passing day as technology continues to revolutionize how people experience news, from Facebook Live and live blogs of breaking news to instant notifications sent straight to one’s phone. Still, bearing in mind the merits of both staying informed and stepping back from the 24-hour news cycle is an empowering tool with which to confront decisions about where best to place one’s energy. Sometimes it’s okay to look away — as long as looking away doesn’t mean turning away from the causes that matter.
Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at