If You Watch Garbage, You Will Get Dirty

Last night, my husband and I were talking over our day -- conversations we'd had, news that made us think. He said, "Watching that kind of thing warps you, and warps the way you look at the rest of the world."

And I said, "I know. And there's tons of evidence that people who watch this stuff keep needing weirder and more awful things to look at, to keep their interest."

After a "Huh?" moment, we realized that we were talking about two different stories in the news. He was talking about people who thought they had a good reason to watch that poor Jordanian pilot being burnt alive in a cage; but I was talking about people who thought it was fine to watch two actors humiliate themselves and each other in the grotesque (and apparently lame and clunky) 50 Shades movie.

And then we realized that, in a way, we were talking about the same thing. It's porn. Watching a gruesome execution and watching sexual torture are not exactly parallel, of course, but they are certainly related. They both harm the people producing it, the people engaged in it, the people watching it, and everyone the viewer meets afterward. 

Marge Fenelon handily lays out five reasons why almost no one has a good reason to watch the execution video, and includes this passage from the Catechism:

The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences. (CCC, 2496)

Secular sources have also reached the conclusion that watching outragesously violent, offensive stuff makes you weaker, not stronger. According to a NYT article  YouTube's content screeners are only given yearlong contracts, "because of the nature of the work." The article says that a psychologist was hired by a screening firm to assess the mental health of "content moderators" who spend their work day scrolling through thousands of images of pornography, violence, and cruelty, and she found that

 they were likely to become depressed or angry, have trouble forming relationships and suffer from decreased sexual appetites. Small percentages said they had reacted to unpleasant images by vomiting or crying.

“The images interfere with their thinking processes. It messes up the way you react to your partner,” Ms. Laperal said. “If you work with garbage, you will get dirty.”

A good many people have argued that refusing the watch the execution video is "putting our heads in the sand." If we want to truly understand the horror of what his happening in the Middle East, they say, then it's our duty to watch videos like this. I've even heard that it's cowardly not to watch it -- that we have no right to spare ourselves the horror that our allies are suffering.

This point of view is naive, and displays a poor understanding of human nature. We imagine that we are strong enough to come away only with an unpleasant, if necessary, education about the world. We are in denial about how vulnerable our hearts really are. Watching brutality makes us brutal. Torturing our emotions inevitably makes torture seem more normal, not less.

Policy-makers and journalists truly need to witness every detail of what is happening; but the rest of us know all we need to know when we hear the words, "burned alive in a cage." It's dreadful that some people, because of their jobs, need to see these things first hand -- but most of us simply are not in that position, and we should be grateful that we are not. It doesn't matter to our psyches why we immerse ourselves in  something ugly. The damage is the same.  If we want to be patriots, if we want to be strong enough to preserve what is right about the world, then the way to do this is to stay informed in a disciplined way, as the Catechism directs us to do.