If I told you there is a media outlet anxious to report the very worst examples of inhuman conduct, you’d probably be thankful to stay clear of that source. Who needs a daily reminder of the most vile acts persons can perpetrate on each other? There are surely better ways to sustain our sanity and hope.
But of course what I’m describing is a simple operating assumption for legitimate and mostly well-intended news organizations. News is the unusual: events that are not only out of the ordinary, but sometimes sadly brutal or cruel. We readily know the kinds of emotional and physical violence that violate the most elemental norms of human decency. It’s also obvious that only the weakest society would turn its back on entrenched problems that it must resolve. But there are limits to what we can process on a daily basis.
I was reminded of all of this on the first day of June when National Public Radio and many other outlets reported on a hangman’s noose left by a visitor in an exhibition space at the Museum of African American History in Washington. It was an ugly act perpetrated by an anonymous thug and, as on any given day, it was the kind of dark non-sequitur that made our hearts sink a little lower. Racist instances like these are frequent enough to remind us of America’s original sin of racial intolerance. It rarely recedes from the nation’s collective consciousness. There can be no doubt that we need reminders that we still have a long way to go.
But here’s the thing. Something odd happens with humans when given a single horrific example of almost anything. Something inside wants us to search for its place in a larger and perhaps growing trend. We have a natural compulsion to generalize upward, turning any event into what rhetoricians call a synecdoche, where a single case stands for all cases. By definition a synecdoche is a representative case.
The defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.
Few thoughtful Americans could believe that racism across the culture has mostly subsided. On the other hand, we can give too much publicity to a sick act by an individual who must cover their deviance with anonymity. With these kinds of daily reports of aberrant single-agent behaviors we have to decide how big of a marker we will allow them to be.
To be sure, synecdoches often help us make sense of the world. Bull Connor’s dogs used against civil right marchers in Birmingham are a perfect condensation of what the movement was up against in 1963. And another contemporary case of a police shooting of an unarmed African American man is another. Each instance stands as reminder of a serious and embedded problem. But different cases can also be false markers. If a one-off hostile act is allowed to stand as a representative case it can have the effect of making us all the victims rather than beneficiaries of synecdoches, extinguishing our interest in valid and significant trends.
And so in the interest of our mental health we should heed a common reminder about accepting a daily dose of news featuring the latest and the worst. One defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.