Show and tell

Omair Ahmad | Updated on December 28, 2018 Published on December 28, 2018

Optical disillusion: Spectacular violence reduces us to terrified silence. We lose the ability to talk, to communicate, to do anything but shut down   -  REUTERS

If a picture speaks a thousand words — or connects people — what do we make of the ones that talk of atrocities and suffering?

Over the last few years, the flowering of social media has led to an explosion of pictures. Every single thing — from our vacation to the food we eat, the celebrity we spot, the cat on the terrace — is something to be photographed and shared. In many ways it seems to bring us a little closer, or at least gives us the feeling that we are sharing something intimate and personal with people we cannot meet because of various factors such as distance, or people we may never meet.

But I really wonder how much we see and, over time, I have grown concerned with how we want to be seen, and I wonder whether I really want to see the monsters out there.

Seared into my memory is The New York Times picture of the starving, slowly dying infant in Yemen. Seared into my memory is that poor labourer hacked to death in Rajasthan, and then burned, for no reason. Raqqa, a once-beautiful city with a mosque with a leaning minaret, was first destroyed by ISIS, and then those who destroyed ISIS, and the layer upon layer of history replaced by rubble. Aleppo, one of the oldest bazaars in the world, is now all but lost to the world.

Somebody pointed out that the word ‘communicate’ shares its root with the words ‘commune’, and ‘community’. When we talk, what we seek to do is build a community of like-minded people. But who or what is the community being built on these tales of atrocities? And do I really want to know?

After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC by Al-Qaeda, the Social Sciences Research Council based in the US put together an archive of articles by prominent social scientists trying to help people understand one of the biggest terrorist attacks in history. Like many others, I, too, wanted to understand, and I recall reading an essay that talked about rescuing politics from terrorism. The academic referred to the idea that man is a social animal, a truism that is at least as old as Aristotle, meaning that we are only truly and fully ourselves in our interactions with others. It is not in our standing alone that we are complete individuals, but when we interact with others, in that interaction we become more fully ourselves.

This, of course, is an attractive idea to storytellers and journalists, but the academic went further and said that the whole point of terrorism was to shut this down. Spectacular violence reduces us to terrified silence. We lose the ability to talk, to communicate, to do anything but shut down. Wars in response also do a similar thing. There is little for a bystander to do in a war except cheer, rail, or mourn. These are cycles of non-communication, of a world being torn apart by violence designed to stun us into silence, to break us from each other, to render each one of us less human.

It was a forceful hypothesis and seemed to explain a lot of the world to me, but over the last few years I have become less sure of it. As the ISIS chased its grand spree of murder and mayhem across Iraq and Syria, it never stopped communicating, often releasing photos and videos of its bloodiest crimes. Maybe part of this was to stop people from thinking, to shut them down, but it also seemed to be linked to stories and propaganda, of building a community of people apart from the world, of embracing certain monsters as their own, celebrating them.

In the 19th-century US, a similar phenomenon had taken place with lynchings of African-Americans. People would gather at these grisly crime scenes, take photographs, make postcards. There is this heritage of horror that the US preserved, a community brought together by bigotry and murder, stitched together with their hate of a persecuted minority.

In India, we seem to have WhatsApp pictures and videos of lynchings and murders. These things are not being hidden but advertised; just like the expensive meals whose pictures are taken for Instagram, we have these images too, to be consumed, to help nurture a community of the like-minded.




I do not understand the story they are telling, or maybe I just do not want to, but humans are social animals still, and are only becoming fully themselves in the sharing of these horrors. I just do not know what it is that they are becoming. Maybe the coming year will show us.

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

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Published on December 28, 2018
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