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Monday, January 03, 2005

Media, Culture and the Commercialization of Death

I've been following the story about the story regarding the tsunami in Asia, and pardon my skepticism, but American and world media are getting it wrong, I believe.
While the tsunami aftermath and horror unfolded overseas, tucked safely away here at Chez Shade, and no doubt numerous other American households, the children of the household commandeered TV sets to play the latest video games received for Christmas-- Halo 2, Fable and Doom 3, to name a few. These are graphic, bloody, high resolution gore-fests to be sure. The 'quality' of the animation is reaching startling levels of realism. While the visuals are shudderingly stark, the sound effects match the gore and up them a notch or two with piercing screams, shrieks and the sounds of soft flesh surrendering mercilessly to hatchets, bullets and bombs. This is the stuff we have on our TVs when CNN or the Apprentice are not tuned in. These are the images that are driving our high-definition media future. We are inuring ourselves to violence and gore through pixelated images and flesh-slicing graphics, while many TV and print media refuse to show the real thing, the ultimate reality of people dying. This double standard only undergirds and makes possible further alienation from and dehumanization of death. Call it the commercialization of death, if you will. Stylized, fashionable, complete with soundtrack. Heaven forbid we should stain our consciousness with the grisly beheadings in Iraq, the victims of 9-11 jumping from the twin towers, the bloated corpses of babies floating in the jetsam of wreckage in Indonesia. That would be way too real, with no reset button to save our souls, no pixelated frames to discount the savagery or provide joy-stick solace.
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There have been some media critics that decry the rush of citizens onto the Web to see the full horror of the tsunami as a form of racist or pornographic voyeurism at sites such as Cheese and Crackers. Nonsense. When horror like this happens we owe it to the dead to stand witness to their tradgedy. As the public, we can look or not look, but the media should be the last to avert its gaze. The same media conglomerates that promulgate the high-rez slash-fests on Xbox refuse to show the reality of disaster? As we put a flat-screen letterbox around ever-more-real TV death, we lose our humanity, our capacity to feel, to empathize, one pixel at a time.
A New York Post photo of shadowy, human forms falling from the twin towers still haunts me to this day. It instantly brings me into the picture, with devastating pull it causes me to imagine myself again on the 97 floor of the World Trade Center where I once visited and imagine, with no effort, the terrible choice of flames roaring behind me, blistering my flesh, and the wide open rush of wind through blown-out windows of the building. As the flames inch closer, the choice is very clear. That's what I flash back on often when I remember 9-11. True empathy comes from a connection to reality, however horrific.
Watch the videos of the tradgedy. Donate. Then unplug the TV and Xbox, as we have, and contemplate the enormity of this and other recent events we have not had the bravery to stand witness to.