Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disaster Porn

Like everyone else who is not actually in the shit, I am watching the Sandy disaster unfold over cable tv and other media. There is something vaguely shameful about the fascination it exerts, but also hints of something spiritual. The difference is in subtle shades of attitude and both may be active at once. What is it about disaster that draws us so?

The spiritual part is a real-life form of PKD's Mercerism, where we all use our empathy boxes to commune with the suffering of others. We watch the horrors not to be entertained but because we want to be there for these poor people, and in fact are there in some sense. We all want to be there, to help, we would all be doing something for them if we could.

The shameful part is when you find yourself using the massive suffering of others for entertainment, for tittilation and cheap thrills, when you congratulate yourself on your luck and foresight in not being on the East coast. This attitude is born of lack of empathy, lack of imagination, and lack of ability to feel an active and living connection to others. But it is fed by the media, which can't help but turn suffering into spectacle.

The best way to keep one's mind out of the disaster porn gutter is to actively join in by helping. Since most of us are not in a position to do that, it is easy for our better reactions to degenerate from non-expression. We can give some money to the Red Cross. Or, given that we are in the midst of an election, and have the opportunity to cast our small but significant votes, we can some thought to what it is that binds us together and what is the role of government in that.

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