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« A challenge to the conventional wisdom on global warming | Main | Anesthetizing Imagination »

April 20, 2007

We’re Not All Hokies

In her column in today's Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks knocks it out of the park -- the "it" being our sloppy thinking and feeling in the aftermath of Monday's killings in Blacksburg.

Brooks isn't criticizing empathy for other people's sorrow and suffering -- she's going after the way we forget/ignore/reject the fact that the sorrow and suffering is someone else's.   

Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, "Where to Find Support" -- apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.

Count me out. There's something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy.

Warming to her task, Brooks then administers a much-needed needle to the idea that this ersatz empathy is proof that we are really good people.

On the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, Army Sgt. Mario K. De Leon of San Francisco (like the Virginia Tech victims) died of "wounds sustained from enemy small-arms fire"). On Wednesday, car bombs killed at least 172 people in Baghdad. But no one has set up a special MySpace page to commemorate those dead.

Earning my eternal gratitude, Brooks takes a well-deserved swipe at the "millennium generation" and its adult sycophants.  After quoting an especially ridiculous USA Today editorial that proclaimed "no cohort of American youth has ever endured repeated mass catastrophes in the . . . 24/7 media environment," Brooks replied:

Excuse me? More than 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II, and 58,000 died in the Vietnam War, but the Millennial Generation is uniquely traumatized because it has watched sad things on TV?

Stated differently, for USA Today, it's not traumatic unless it's on television, which is why the De Leon and the 172 dead Iraqis didn't rate (at least as of today), a special MySpace commemoration.

Count me out, too.

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Great point, thank you for sharing and pointing out the fallacy of this false empathy.


Bang. (sound of nail being hit) No kidding. I was saying to someone else the other day, not to downplay what happened in VA, but in the scheme of global events, I wondered where our 'national tragedy' fell to others in the world. Case in point: I've been looking at the daily UNWire email I receive (produced in NY) to see if it just happened to include the VA Tech massacre in its list (don't think it would fit there, but it has included general tragedy/massacre stories there). I haven't seen one linked in that news e-mail. But the next day I read about that Baghdad bombing, which was kind of blown by like it was another daily news item. 170+ people. We really can't fathom the VA Tech tragedies that happen daily and exponentially around the world.

And again, that isn't to minimize at all what happened so unexpectedly, but rather to agree with the, ahem, Point Roberto is making. And to emphasize the desensitization the media, intentionally or not, causes. Within hours, it had a TV-show-like title, as if it were a new series: "Calamity at VA Tech" or the "Virginia Tech Massacre." Entertainment...er...news at 11.

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