Sunday, November 23, 2008
At the sports bar
Dave and I went into a sports bar last night--not the sort of place we usually go, but we needed to get a quick dinner and there weren't a lot of other options. The dozen or more TVs were tuned to various stations, and it happened that the one in my line of sight was showing a tabloid news show rather than football. The sound was off, but the subject of the story was obvious: A toddler's horribly bruised face glowed on the huge screen, looming over the sports fans as they went on drinking and eating, completely unengaged by yet another report about a battered child.
Baby torture porn is a media staple, right up there with animal cruelty and grisly murders of young women. People just can't get enough of it, apparently. It must be a ratings grabber, or it wouldn't be such a perennial favorite of news outlets. When a particularly pretty child is abused in a particularly brutal way, as in the Baby P case, it becomes a global round-the-clock story. Baby P doesn't seem to have been worth much to anybody in life, but in death he's become a valuable commodity.
I didn't use the phrase "baby torture porn" just to be snarky. This kind of journalism stimulates the psyche very much the way sexual pornography does. It's a rush. It makes our hearts beat a little faster, causes us to flush with anger at the same time we feel a tiny pang of shame at our excitement. It offers the combined pleasures of titillation and outrage.
But, like porn, it gets us revved up for nothing. For the person sitting in front of the TV or reading a newspaper, it's all a fantasy. It's a sad story that either has a happy ending where the evil parents go to jail, or provides a pleasant lingering fury if they get off. Either way, the fantasy's targeted consumer can put the drama out of his mind and get on with his business. There's nothing real about this encounter with someone else's suffering. It's just TV. That's why all those people in the sports bar could blithely ignore the battered baby on the screen. They had more important things to do. They weren't in the mood.
I think this is where I'm supposed to say something somber about our jaded, media-glutted society, but the truth is that I'm not sure there's anything wrong with those sports fans' unresponsiveness. I think it may be a very good thing that they can simply turn away from what is, after all, a crass attempt to lure and manipulate them. The world is filled with abused children, but crying crocodile tears in front of the television screen doesn't help them any.
Aside from being a sort of emotional masturbation aid, the standard reporting on abused children--which invariably follows the lurid details with a lot of hand wringing about what's wrong with our society--is also a collective exercise in self-deception. All our claims of being shocked, horrified, mystified, etc. by such stories are complete bullshit. We're not really shocked, we're just unhappy to be reminded that we as a species mistreat and kill our children. It's something humans have done in every era, in every part of the world. It's a trait we share with any number of other animals. That doesn't mean it's right or acceptable, but it is inevitable, which is an ugly truth you'll never hear spoken over the televised image of a broken child.
Medea about to Kill Her Children, Eugène Delacroix, 1838.