We have become so inured to pain, violence, racism and abuse as infotainment that we can’t find the compassion in our conscious minds to cry for the pain of others.
I don’t get sad about sad public events anymore; I made a conscious judgement not to cry about these things nearly a year ago. It was shortly after I looked in the face of a distraught Adam Goodes on TV that I made the decision.
The man who would become Australian of the Year did a good job of rationally explaining the pain he had felt when a teenage girl used his ethnicity as insult, but this was as nothing when set against the eloquent pain on his face.
I wanted to write about the focus on this face and how I perceived it was used to redeem us by producing a mass glorious moment of sorrow. I did.
I had felt profoundly frustrated both by the fact of my own hungry compassion and by a media that fed it Goodes’ despairing face. It seemed easy to believe such sympathetic cinema could amend racism. It seemed this face was itself an event that contained all the hurt of racism and could be redeemed by media coverage.
And here we are again in a moment of false redemption, this time from the horror of child abuse. Public discussion these past days about allegations of child abuse by a high-profile film director — whose name I will not mention here for fear of adding SEO fuel to a now meaningless brushfire — have saddened me to the point where I’m again crying.
I’m crying about the disappearance of the tragedy that started a conversation that, for the sake of brevity, we’ll say comes from two equally appalling sides. One holds that the film director is not only guilty of the allegations but so are his films, and everyone in them an accessory. The other holds that the director, his films and everyone in them are innocent. It’s a debate of year 10 standard whose stupidity and claims of universalism are enough to make you cry.
I’m crying about that. But I am not crying about the child abuse itself, and I understand this is a terrible admission. But I would suggest that crying directly for the terrible pain of others is something many of us can no longer truly and consciously do.
I did cry about child abuse the first time I learned of it. It was the miniseries Sybil, starring Sally Field. These nights of True Story despair were viewed at my friend Kimberley’s house, as my parents were good censors and would not have permitted me to watch an account — since disputed — of a little girl who had her bladder pumped full of water, her vagina penetrated with kitchen tools and her nose filled with cotton to the point of near asphyxiation. I cried and cried.
Then with the novel Flowers in the Attic, a story of incest and confinement that all the girls at school adored. I cried a little less. Child abuse in mass communications had not only become possible but frequent. The topic leapt from dramatised narratives to the “real” of Phil Donahue, whose rape-filled talk-show I would watch when home with the flu.
Then celebrities themselves began describing their abuse. Oprah talked about it and then comedian Roseanne Barr talked about it and then Oprah invited Roseanne on to her show to talk about it and then, in cases like that of tortured and murdered six-year-old JonBenet, tabloid justice was served up with a generous side of images of a once-perfect dead girl.
Leaked autopsy images of the child served as a postscript to the thousands of beauty pageant pictures her parents had taken and offered to the world. We were left feeling we had seen it all. The entire rise, decline and fall of innocence.
“I will not boycott film. I will, however, boycott our new habit of the close-up that reveals nothing.”
But we haven’t. We may have seen decades of images and accounts of child abuse, and we may feel that we are conscious of its horror. But if I am very honest with myself, I now feel nothing. Nothing, that is, but a resentment that my unconscious mind is so full of this horror-and-redemption-as-entertainment that my conscious mind is no longer able to respond directly to the pain of others.
This is not an argument about whether or not racism and child abuse are bad; obviously they are among the very worst things in the world. It is an argument about our lack of freedom to consciously think our way out of despair. It is a suggestion that our conscious minds may be under such siege we can no longer fight for them. And we fight instead about whether or not we should watch a film that is, to be honest, really not that good.
I’ve been so troubled by the gauche public scrutiny of a private tragedy, I went to see Dr Freud.
About a century ago, Freud described the conscious mind as being like “like a garrison in a conquered city”. One hundred years ago, civilisation had us under attack with its demands so that the conscious us were tiny strongholds set in the boulevards of the unconscious. Now, after decades of abuse, the unconscious has itself become a wasteland, and our rational, conscious selves are shivering somewhere in a shantytown on the outskirts. Full of junk we mistake for enlightenment.
We think we’ve seen it all. We think our dark unconscious is illuminated with all this talk of the darkest things in the world. We think we have overcome the “repression” that Freud himself introduced as an idea. But, as I think has been made plain by the irrational quality of debate about this matter, we are more in the dark than ever.
People talk about “compassion fatigue” as though its sufferers are weak people who have consciously given up in the face of too much public misery. This analysis, I think, is only half right. It is not the conscious mind that has given up the fight for what amounts to no less than the fight for the freedom of others against the violence of rape and racism. It is an unconscious mind that, having absorbed the spectacle of mass despair, acts out beyond its own control.
And even when this despair manifests in a visible outpouring of either compassion for a young woman alleging child abuse or compassion for the film director accused of the crime, it remains unconscious.
I just can’t look at these faces in pain any more. I can’t continue to give in to those emotions unconsciously produced. I want to stay conscious and consider and illuminate the systems that led to the pain on the face of Goodes and in the words of the young woman in The New York Times.
I will not boycott film. I will, however, boycott our new habit of the close-up that reveals nothing. Just in case my real tears become impossible.