Adam Curtis explores the phenomenon of distant suffering and its impact on contemporary politics and media. The points is: suffering in media leaves us apathetic and unable to act on the problems we are exposed of. It does not fulfil its promise of awakening indignation and mobilizing political change. Instead, it dulls our political affects, and naturalizes suffering. Distant suffering is precisely this, that we experience suffering from a distance, mediated through TVs, newspapers and other channels. Suffering usually provokes a feeling of pity in the other and, on a good day, even indignation, but since our reactions to the exposure of distant suffering never gets reinforced through political action – what is one to do? – the affects are gradually dulled and lose their intensity. In the end, we merely mobilize a lax state of worry, only able to produce the reaction: “Oh, dear”.
In a similar way, activist consciousness raising has for many years channelled their indignation through a production of shame and self-contempt in other people. People are horrible, with their bourgeois racist tendencies, holding animals in cage to experiment with and eat them, they only think about money, their car, or flat-screen TV. The solution is therefore to raise consciousness through protests and mockery, ie. raise shame. Where does this leave the TV-watching and shame-ridden citizen? Like apathy, shame and self-contempt are inhibiting affects: they shut down behaviour, and leaves the person in a depressed state, unable to act differently. The person only stops doing the horrible bourgeois activities for a moment, while in a state of shame, but have no new behavioural repertoire to replace the shameful behaviour with. Having no idea what to do puts the person in a state of cognitive dissonance. To reduce dissonance, a person usually finds changing their belief easier (“My behaviour is not so bad after all”) than changing their behaviour beyond inhibition, ie. creating a new kind of behaviour to replace it (“I have learned I can do this instead”). What the dissonance reduction produces instead is a construction of justification for the former shameful behaviour. In the process of justifying and constructing valid reasons for continuing to do the activity, the person strengthens the reasons and affective base of it. Thus, the dynamic of shame-producing activism and a shame-ridden person without a new behavioural repertoire, is unable to create a political event. Paradoxically, it often does the opposite, strengthening the existing behaviour.
Watching this video and reading these notes, you might find yourself in a meta-level state of Oh Dearism, since it has given you no other clues for what to do instead than keep watching troubling documentaries, reading about catastrophes in the newspaper, and seeing a worrying unveiling of a political scandal in the news, while feeling you have done a political act by attending with your mind to the trouble, but also feeling apathetic. The answer is, keep reading this blog, because it will give you all the answers and help you out of your apathy. Have a good day.