A few weeks into our relationship, Jack and I spent a rainy evening in his apartment in Oxford, making Indian food and contemplating which movie to watch. Between sips of wine, he suggested, “Kill Bill 2?” “Nope,” I replied, “No unnecessary violence.” We watched a Katherine Hepburn movie instead.
After what has now become years of convincing Jack to watch countless movies with me on the grounds that x movie was “so much more than a romantic comedy,” the jig was up. It was high time I sat through and attempted to enjoy a movie he solely wanted to see, so on a snowy January Sunday, free of papers to write and spreadsheets to correct, we made our way to the nearest cinema with Jack smiling widely, as though it was his birthday.
We do not often go to the movies; we do not own a TV, so we miss much of the commercials and trailers that most people see on a regular basis. Sitting there, with my packet of candy in hand, I was astounded. In the twenty minutes preceding the start of the movie, trailers for action movie upon action movie overwhelmed me. The explosions, rapid gunfire, people running in panic, people losing friends, people killing enemies: war, death, destruction. All I could think was: THIS is world we are envisioning together??
Jack looked over at me, nervously, to find my furrowed brow, what he calls lovingly the “patented Sarah James frown.” He squeezed my hand.
What struck me then, which also strikes me when I watch the news, walk around our neighborhood in New York City, or read new batches of cultural criticism, is this: the air we are breathing together is toxic, but we don’t seem to realize it. Increasingly, our culture is flooded with images of dehumanization, images that challenge or destroy the integrity of the human body, images that reduce complexity and divide people.
We take in violent images more often than we take in honorable images. Last week in class, a fellow student called our culture “depraved.” At first, I frowned a little, assuming that his implications were that our culture had become sexually depraved. I am reticent to use the word depraved, for it evokes a conservative conception of what virtue in public space means, which often results in female bodies and wills being regulated and controlled. However, my classmate had a point, one that could be shaped within a feminist vision of community, that our culture has lost its bearings, its direction toward putting life, instead of nothingness, at the center of things.
We know our physical environment is unhealthy. We know that our common resources – water, air, land, and food – are being threatened and poisoned. This problem requires a hell of a lot of independent attention, from geologists, climatologists, politicians, and public health offices, but I would argue that the disregard for our material resources is reflected in and connected to the treatment of our emotional and spiritual resources. We need writers, artists, healers, and activists to attend to our nonmaterial health, individually and collectively, as well.
What are the contemporary commons, the immaterial grounds, we all tend and use? These days, the contemporary commons are becoming increasingly technological; the internet, advertising, television, and movies, affected by two primary sources: popular culture and politics.
Popular culture, more broadly, puts three dangerous things, all of which are dehumanizing in unique ways, in front of us everyday: firstly, the inane – think, Real Housewives; secondly, violence—think movies that harp on despair and destruction; and thirdly, sexually demeaning images of women—think the “Gentlemen’s Club” advertisements on the tops of taxis in New York City. Each in their own ways, these images of each variety, put either death or nothingness in front of us. If we spend even an hour watching reality TV, we realize that the images and stories are empty. They reduce individuals to one-line insults. The cuts of episodes eliminate complexity to manipulate the viewer’s empathy. If we spend our time, instead, taking in violent images, what becomes of us then? The violent images destroy the integrity and vulnerability of the human body. We become less sensitive and more afraid. And lastly, walking around as a woman in this culture is a tenuous thing. Men have been taught through the commodification of the female body and sexism at large, that the female body is for consumption and domination. Through objectification, objectification that can lead to violence and assault, women are dehumanized.
We have become acculturated to dehumanizing images that float around us on a daily basis, and we have become passive in our consumption of them without taking stock of the profound affect these images have on our consciousness, on our vision of who we are as human beings and what is possible between human beings.
Avoidance, however, can be just as dangerous as apathetic consumption of culture and politics. Opening the news everyday, we bear witness to injustice. We see brutality, violence, and instability, everywhere form our own communities to thousands of miles away. Avoiding the truth of what happens in our world does not serve the betterment of the world. Americans must remain awake and aware to the stubborn injustice in our country and rising tides of fascism. However, we must also be cognizant of what we are taking in and how it is shaping our vision of humanity.
What happens to us individually and to us collectively when the first thing we see when we wake up in the morning is a story about pain, violence, and corruption that we cannot solve? What happens to us when we rely on sources of information that highlight suffering disproportionally? The only images absorb make us feel afraid, threatened, or isolated.
Wisdom, however, requires us to continue paying attention, to see clearly both beauty and injustice. Dwelling on violence and pain also does not serve the betterment of the world.
A few years ago, I went to see the movie Selma with a good friend. We sobbed nearly the whole time. It was raw and beautiful, important in the way it rips your heart open in order to let more love and empathy in, the kind of fire that clears your path to being a better, braver, kinder person.
What I saw in the movie previews unnecessarily put more violence in front of a generally traumatized culture. If we continue to choose images of dehumanization, what will become of us? If we continue to envision post-apocalyptic worlds or futuristic cities or worlds in which the robot and human merge, what will happen to the fabric of humanity? What we see affects what we create. What we see affects how we treat other people, what we believe to be possible in community, and the justice we seek.
There is a lot of evidence in the fields of education and psychology that connects screen usage and virtual reality usage to decreased empathy in children. I would argue, the images of death and nothingness that we take in on a daily basis decrease our capacity for empathy, too. They make us unnecessarily numb. The news, movies, video games, TV shows decrease our ability to see other human beings in full complexity, in a sensitive way. As we dehumanize others, we desensitize ourselves and diminish our capacity for generosity and love.
How do we resensitize ourselves enough that we are able to hold the brutality of life realistically, while seeking images of light and life? We need images of rehumanization. The artists among us have their work cut out of them: to put images of creativity, intelligence, gentleness, and love in front of people, to put life instead of death in the center of things.
Instead of destruction, we can choose creativity. Instead of violence, we can choose love. We can turn ourselves away from fear and nothingness and back toward the light, not so that we don’t see suffering, but so that we see suffering through the lens of love, so that we remember that love is possible and the threads that connect us.