observations and opinion
If you see a drowning man, you don’t offer him a glass of water. But that is who you are – someone drowning in a rising pool of images and information. People want you to swallow more. No-one is throwing you a lifeline. You have to learn to swim.
We find ourselves almost on the bottom of the pool this week, with imagery both tawdry and horrific, filling our eyes and minds. In the horrific category is the second ISIS video displaying the terrible dying moments of captive journalists, who are then beheaded. You can probably also find less nauseating but still awful pictures of the Libyan jet fighter crash, or slightly older material from Gaza, or the MH-17 crash site in the Ukraine, or the heaping up of body bags in West Africa.
In the tawdry category we have “The Frappening” – the peculiar case of someone hacking the private photographs of famous young women and circulating them on the web. The photos (and some video) portray these women doing the silly, sometimes stupid, always embarrassing things that some people do in private: pleasuring their boyfriends, posing crazily in little or no clothing for naked selfies, etc. For young women already treated as objects of public eye-fondling, the distribution of these images must be enraging and humiliating.
On the spectrum of imagery assault, there is a considerable distance from the terroristic violence porn of ISIS, through news footage of awful events, to nude selfies of Jennifer Lawrence. They are not the same thing at all. What is the same is you – in each instance that material hits your eye, or in the moment prior when you are alerted to it and then choose whether to look – you are the constant. And what you choose matters.
The debate about the ISIS beheading videos (and the original Al Qaeda video of Daniel Pearl’s murder, which ISIS now imitates) seems to centre on “not letting the terrorists win.” The footage is produced to horrify and to frighten. ISIS is aching for every one of us to see it, because they want to show their “constituents” how tough they are, and they want to scare the shit out of their potential victims. Some people say we shouldn’t watch the videos, so ISIS doesn’t accomplish its goal.
This I think is claptrap. The news of ISIS’ perfidy and cruelty is no less available to us whether we watch the beheadings or not. We are all aware of what these monsters are doing and threaten to do. Watching or not watching won’t alter the meaning of the acts. But it might alter you. You are a much more sensitive, gentle and fragile thing than you let on or even realize. The finely calibrated scales of your sensibilities are skewed every time your eyes and mind absorb some new thing, especially some new horrible thing.
I have resolutely resisted the impulse to watch the Daniel Pearl murder, and will apply that same resolve to the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and God forbid, whichever next poor soul is subjected to the ISIS treatment. One reason is selfish – I simply do not wish to be affected, to be altered, as I would surely be (even in some small way) by witnessing these horrors. This comes from experience: I have seen imagery of ISIS’ work in Syria, in particular beheadings of true innocents I will not describe, that simply have seared my imagination. We have all seen too many pictures and videos of people diving off the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11. I have seen video where the sound of their bodies can be heard smashing into rooftops and sidewalks. No more.
There are unselfish reasons not to watch, too: these people did not deserve the indignity and horror inflicted upon them. Except for soldiers and traffic accident victims, most people die in some form of privacy – sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by those who care for them and love them. The ISIS victims do not deserve the indignity of being witnessed enduring their last minutes of torment, or the slitting of their throats, or the appalling disrespect for their remains that follows. Not only do I think that I shouldn’t watch this, I think that you shouldn’t watch it too, and for that reason.
Far away on the other end of the imagery spectrum are the young starlets posing naked in their homes, making faces or whatnot for the camera. The debate around this, so far, has partially aped the beheading discussion: if we look at this stuff, the hackers win. Yeah, sure, but the truth is the hackers have already won (so far – one hopes they will be hunted down and made to suffer) and whether you look or not will not induce anyone else to make the next Frappening happen. Your eyeballs on Kate Upton’s breasts won’t likely expose more breasts.
Having said that, I cannot say that I have seen enough naked women already or that I am somehow injured doing so. My psyche may not be so fragile. But then again, do I really know? Do you really know? What does it do to your sensibilities, your tastes, your tolerances, when they are tested yet again and altered, slightly but imperceptibly, in the direction of accepting just about anything?
That may sound like a prudish opinion, but it isn’t – good looking women are good to look at and personally, I think the oppression of the burqa must be more severe than the oppression of skimpy clothing. The question you have to answer is one that you probably don’t know how to answer: what does it do to me, when my standards are challenged and shifted downwards? Even if I am consciously resistant to it, even if I am entirely lit up with righteous indignation about the offense this hacking has done to these women, does that fury immunize me from its effects?
Yes, let’s get serious here: these young women have all traded on their looks, used their bodies as advertising tools for themselves and others, shown little or no traditional modesty. The photos and videos of them most likely show little more than they have already publicly volunteered to your eyes. But it is not just their naked flesh or their silly poses or intimate acts that you see when you look: what you see is their truly private lives. What you see is something that was meant to be kept private, meant to be safe, created for themselves or for someone they felt close to. What you see is most definitely not something intended for your eyes. And it is that, my friends, it is the seeing of that, which alters you, because it makes you a voyeur. It is disrespectful to those women and, as a result, it diminishes and changes you in some real, if unmeasurable way.
And beyond whatever unknowable (and therefore insidious) effect it may have on you, the truth is that with every pair of eyeballs that falls upon these images, the women in them are in some real way, violated. No, it is not “sexual assault” or such nonsense as has been spouted on the web. It is, to quote the quaint language of a Canadian judge, “an intrusion upon seclusion.” Whether it produces a quantifiable harm to the object of intrusion or not, the act of looking humiliates, violates, injures the person intruded upon. It is wrong. And no, it doesn’t matter if the girls were stupid to take the pictures and no, it doesn’t matter if they were wrong to trust whoever had the pictures and no, it doesn’t matter if they’ve shown it all before and you’ve seen it all before. None of that matters.
What matters is that these women did not choose to be witnessed. They did not choose you as a witness. That choice was stolen from them. Just as the victims of public murder do not choose to be witnessed, it is an indignity to be violated in such manner. And the interesting thing about it is, in a world where you may feel like you have very little power, in this case you have all the power that matters.
Because you choose whether to look. Or not to look. So choose wisely.