To Look Away

by: Douglas Grant

Did I really need to watch that? Across the Margin considers the Right to Look Away…..


The other day a friend and I re-opened an old dialogue that I’ve had with many different people over the last several years. We were discussing the merits of conscientiously viewing graphically disturbing images. It began when another friend of mine—who uses social media as a platform to spread awareness for causes he stands behind—shared a link to a video showing a colony of seals being clubbed to death by Canadian pelt hunters. I knew what I was in for going into it, yet I watched it from beginning to end, taking in every grisly detail. By the time it had concluded, with the final image of a bloody seal pup convulsing on the ice after being repeatedly bludgeoned, I wanted to vomit. And I asked myself the same question I always ask myself whenever I synthesize something that has chilled my blood and given my faith in humanity a good shake: Did I really need to watch that? Although my instinctive answer is always an emphatic “yes,” I know that there are many people who would disagree with me; hence the debate with my friend.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I need to remind myself to respect the beliefs of others. But somehow my initial reaction to people who turn away from bearing witness to the disturbing visions that illustrate our troubled world ranges from annoyance to downright hostility. I know I might not necessarily have a right to feel this way. For example: A few years back I got into an argument with a good friend of mine who bluntly stated, “I can’t watch Saving Private Ryan. It makes me unnecessarily sad.” Now granted, Saving Private Ryan is a movie; the audience is not watching real footage of the allies storming the beaches of Normandy. However, Steven Spielberg felt a responsibility to recreate the horrors of WWII by filming some of the most realistic gore in cinematic history. It’s fairly common knowledge that the film can be difficult to get through. But when my friend said that the movie made her unnecessarily sad, here’s what went through my head: These men died for you and me. The world we live in wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for these brave soldiers. We live our day to day lives celebrating or complaining about the most mundane nonsense, and here Spielberg has given us the opportunity to honor these heroic veterans by showing us in harrowing detail just what they went through. And you don’t even have the decency to watch? Here’s the thing though: that was just my initial knee-jerk reaction. I know in my heart that my friend has a right to choose not to watch. What if that movie ruined her whole day, her whole weekend even? She already knows enough about WWII history to realize just how gruesome the fighting was; viewing a simulation of it wasn’t going to provide her with a greater understanding of the events. Some of us just don’t have the stomachs to absorb all of the human misery that this scary existence throws at us.

I’m not the most exemplary citizen when it comes to keeping up on world events, but I’m certainly not the most ignorant either. I like to think that I maintain some concept of the big picture. I often find myself incredulous when I encounter someone who tells me that they consciously choose to not follow the news, be it world news or local. One friend tells me, “There’s just too much sadness and death in the world.” I obviously don’t vibe with this sentiment. It actually irks me when people choose to keep their world small. But maybe small is the only way some people know how to live. Life can be overwhelming, and there are individuals who feel despairingly impotent when standing against its countless injustices. So they choose to retreat into their smaller orbits so that they can make steps to improve the quality of their lives and the lives of those closest to them. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone is going to go into the armed forces, or world politics, or global humanitarian aid.

Is it enough to read on the printed page that six million Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, or do people need to actually see photographs of the malnourished, skeletal interns at Auschwitz? Is it enough to hear a newscast report the anarchy that descended upon New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or do we need to see bloated dead bodies floating face-down in the muddy waters? Is it enough for social media to tell us that ISIS is now executing American journalists, or should we seek to watch these beastly beheadings online? Would we not be aware of all the collateral damage from US drone attacks if not for the footage of children being pulled from rubble? Will taking in these graphic images make it any more real for us? Will it compel us to act?

I believe that choosing to act is the defining moment that answers my own question concerning whether or not to look away when something abhorrent is happening right in front of me. If I’m driven to an emotional response after bearing witness to an atrocity then I know that I’ve opened up my eyes for a good reason. My first instinct used to be to change the channel when I saw that abused puppy in the mill staring longingly through the chicken wire fence as Sarah McLachlan’s melancholic music gathered momentum. But one day I decided to watch the whole commercial, and lo and behold, I took out my credit card and called the number on the screen. I realize that the footage of the abused and neglected animals is what forced my hand, but that’s just me. Sickening images aren’t going call everyone to action.

I understand the opposing view. I know that people often feel that they don’t know what good will come of looking at the disturbing images that burn into their memories, remaining there for years to come. I used to think that these people were only kidding themselves, that they will one day be ill-equipped to deal with the misfortune that can plague everyday life. Americans in particular often tend to willingly live in a bubble when the opportunity presents itself. I know now though that there are people out there who are doing a lot more than I am to make the world a better place, and they aren’t regularly viewing photographs and video of severed limbs, starving children, burning villages, or disfigured and disease-ridden geriatrics.

I’m someone who needs to feel true sorrow for the necessary response to be provoked. Not everyone is. Whatever works, I say, as long as we’re not turning a blind eye. That would be irresponsibly tragic.

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