The Brutalizing Aspects of Bearing Witness

The Brutalizing Aspects of Bearing Witness …

“But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption;” (2 Peter 2:12)

Brutal things are brutalizing. That is my premise.

To be ‘brutalized’ as a human being is to not acknowledge or feel other’s pain, to not care for what is right and to not deplore what is wrong. To be brutalized is to deaden one’s humanity, to not have empathy, sympathy, compassion, and mercy. A brute is someone who chooses what is life-negating over what is life affirming.

And are we brutes? I rather think that many of us are however inadvertently we may have become thus. I recall reading an account in the tome-like book, Post War, how in certain East European countries immediately after the end of WWII, when ethnic reprisals and killings were rampant, people became inured to the sight of dead bodies lying on the street. They walked in their neighborhoods going about their business, ignoring bodies and, I would presume, feel fortunate that they weren’t among them. What struck me about this, and other accounts of people faced with horrific inhumanity, is how adaptable human beings can be. And, consequently, how brutalized human beings can become.

Jump forward to our own time, where people again experience numerous dead bodies, human suffering, and brutal behaviors, but from the comfort of their television room couch. People voluntarily ‘consume’ media, some of it fiction, some of it real, that is brutalizing. How much of the population ends their day with the evening television news? And what do they experience when they watch it? Violence, injustice, death, and destruction. ‘Problems’ that define ‘newsworthy’. And what does it do to them, as people?

A neighbor of mine maintains that there is a conspiracy to make the citizenry immune to what would be ‘normal’ human responses to brutal behavior. By this immunity, he believes, people will be more accepting of authoritarian oppression when it comes. Me, I doubt the motives he describes, but I don’t doubt the ‘brutalized’ response. I think that bearing witness to brutal actions, even if those actions are fictional or sensationalized (and perhaps especially if they are sensationalized!) brutalizes us. We become, unwittingly perhaps, just a little bit brute.

Contemporary global media has created a moral quandary for us. On one hand, we morally feel a need to be our brother’s keeper and that we should be aware of, and opposed to, brutal behaviors. This is why action films, after all the violence and carnage, almost always give victory over to the forces of good. This is the premise as well of the ‘heightened awareness’ advocated by activist political groups. ‘Awareness’ is itself extolled as a moral necessity.

But it doesn’t work that way, at least not if our awareness is stillborn because we are incapable of affecting the outcome. What part of the evening news can we ever change? The sphere of influence any one of us has over the media-generated portrayals of brutality is effectively non-existent. So can we justify bearing witness to brutal behavior?

Living a good life is about filling our life with good things and avoiding those brutal things – even as a witness – about which we can do nothing.

Peter’s Thought for This Day!

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