Razer’s class warfare: when there are not tears left

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.

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Categories: People & Ideas, POLITICS

4 Responses

Comments page: 1 |
  1. You’re back on form with this piece Helen.
    Thank you.

    by paddy on Feb 6, 2014 at 2:25 pm

  2. Rivetingly evocative piece, Helen.
    I almost cried…

    by BoxingCandle on Feb 6, 2014 at 3:31 pm

  3. I’m not a huge fan of the term compassion fatigue, but it is the best descriptor I’ve found for the state of needing to not allow ourselves to care, to feel about every piece of tragedy that crosses our paths. It is an uncomfortable realisation to come to, but I’m learning that I can’t care equally about all injustices if I want to still have the emotional capital left over to actually get out and do something about them. Life in a constant state of varying levels of outrage or grief is exhausting.

    by Kathryn Eckersley on Feb 6, 2014 at 3:47 pm

  4. Yes, infotainment has real and nontrivial costs.
    Modern media is able to deliver many more horrors than any individual can act on, our base bias for novelty & thrills keeps us watching, picking individual issues out of the swarm is too hard, just click on to next thrill.
    Like any and all commons, unmoderated exploitation of information commons for profit & thrills results in desertification.

    What to do? Turn off, tune out, surface into the real nonsymbolic world.

    by Liamj on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:23 pm

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