Friday, April 15, 2011

How much is a picture worth?

What would we do if there were no video available? Two very different pieces crossed my desk this week that prompts that question. The first was an essay by Barbara Kingsolver in her bookSmall Wonder. The second was an article in the on-line "Religion Dispatches."

Kingsolver's essay is entitled "The One-Eyed Monster and Why I Don't Let Him In." As you might suspect, it is directed at television. It is not that she is adamantly against television; she confesses to having a VCR connected to hers (the article was written in the early 2000's). She is not, however, a big fan of broadcast, or cable (or satellite), television. And one of her complaints is that it is visually driven. That is, if there is a news item, for example, that doesn't have a good video/picture to accompany it, OR that cannot be reduced to a video clip, it won't play much on the evening news. Big issues that demand a lot of thought and discussion don't make it to the evening news (she uses global warming as an example). Hence we don't think or talk much about them. So, she argues, it is better to get our news from radio and/or print media -- better for us, and, ultimately, better for our society and world.

The article in "Religion Dispatches" is "Pornographic War Gazing: Why We Don't Look Away" (by Daniel Martin Varisco). Varisco argues that the problem is NOT the media or the "war machine". Rather it is OUR inability to look away, or our addiction to visual thrills, that is the larger issue. Our unwillingness to avert our eyes from "bad news" helps drive the visual-oriented media. And, therefore, helps (as Kingsolver notes) to keep us from really becoming involved in the issues being represented. As Varisco observes, we are fascinated by bloody news, as we seem to be with pornography. And the fact that it is all there for viewing turns the news (and what it portrays) into a commodity for consumption. We may feel compassion, Varisco argues, but unless we do something to alleviate the suffering we see, we are merely voyeurs.

Kingsolver and Varisco have a lot of historical company in making their arguments. Various religious traditions -- past and current -- demand that women cover their bodies in ways that are not demanded equally of men. The rationale is frequently that men can't control their gaze, and are incapable of thereby controlling their response to the female form. (While this is usually seen as demeaning to women, I think it's equally demeaning of men!) On the other hand, some early Christian writers call men to account for NOT being responsible: "Don't look! Avert your eyes. And if you can't keep from doing that, don't act like a beast!" (There may be similar charges in other religious traditions; I just don't know them as well.)

I cannot control everything that I see; some things appear before me in "real time". I can, however, choose (à la Kingsolver) much of what I see, and much of how I respond. Simply because someone says I must see something, I musn't. Just because the news is on television doesn't mean I have to watch it (I do get most of my news from the newspapers and secondarily from the radio). Just because news items are aired as sound-bites or headlines doesn't mean that the whole story is revealed. As a citizen and as a morally-concerned human being, I have to go past the visual short-hand. (And I say all of this recognizing that I am a visually-oriented learner/thinker; I find pictures/diagrams invaluable in helping me understand complex ideas!)

A picture may be worth a thousand words. But are those thousand words what we REALLY need to know, or what someone else wants us to know. And, are they enough in either case? Can I limit my reliance on visuals, and look for "the rest of the story" (as radio-personality Paul Harvey used to say)? And, once knowing a little more of the story, act appropriately?



PS: I wonder what either author would have to say about "sharing" a news item (with accompanying picture) on Facebook pages?!

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