Exposure to harsh realities: worth the cost?

Striking the balance between fully grasping tragedy and rubbernecking is difficult.

by Jasper Johnson

It seems as though this summer has been filled with tragedy. The past couple months have seen the deadliest mass shooting in the United States, an airport attack in Istanbul, a massive suicide bombing in Baghdad and, more recently, the questionable killings of black men by police in Minnesota and Louisiana, as well as a retaliatory ambush of officers in Dallas.

As events like these are increasingly captured on multiple high-quality cell phone recordings, I question how we should act to treat this evidence respectfully yet promote awareness.

Diamond Reynolds, the woman who live-streamed the aftermath of the police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, in Falcon Heights, Minn., said that she “wanted everyone in the world to know” and bear witness to the atrocity. She said she wanted to “put it on Facebook and go viral for the people could see. … [and for] the people to determine who was right and who was wrong.”

Yet, in a baffling move running counter to her intentions, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis posted a request on its Facebook page that people “stop sharing the video of our sibling shot in Falcon Heights. It is traumatizing.” 

This was met with mixed responses: Indeed it is traumatizing, but, after all, isn’t the point to acknowledge and spread awareness of the disturbing role race plays in policing? Seeing such a video may propel otherwise unknowing people into action. 

In response to these viral videos, Facebook clarified their policies and will now allow violent, normally banned content like videos of these shootings if such content “raises awareness.”  

It’s a difficult debate. While we should expose ourselves to the harsh civic realities, it’s easy to feel jaded or desensitized as horrific videos of senseless murder continue to pile up.

For example, some friends of mine study incidents of violence in their work, and they say that constantly being exposed to it desensitizes them to the violence, which is unsettling.

Ultimately, each person needs to understand their limits and how they personally respond when witnessing disturbing material. 

Personally, I err on the side of exposing myself to upsetting material in an attempt to best grasp the reality and gravity of certain events.

I study and work in international conflict and terrorism, so many of my assignments often deal with violence. 

However, we shouldn’t pass judgment on those who acknowledge that they’re sensitive to upsetting material; it’s important to know how much violence you can view while still attempting to understand the events. 

It’s critical that we recognize that people interpret tragedy differently. That being said, I think a societal discussion on the best practices for sharing such videos on social media is necessary.