Nurturing our Humanity

“The death of human empathy is one of the first and most revealing signs of a culture that is about to fall into barbarity.” — Hannah Arendt

As conflicts and tensions increase, a deluge of narratives compete for our attention and allegiance. They include stories of who is most deserving of our sympathy, of heroes we should worship, and villains we must fear. What they try to convey is that some humans are civilised and others barbaric.

The more different someone looks, physically or culturally, the more likely they are to be seen as less civilised, and blamed for whatever might be going wrong in our lives. And in times of heightened tensions, sowing fear and division is what politicians and mainstream media promote. Sometimes, this happens subtly, but increasingly, it’s overtly. And we cannot mask this as propaganda, they are creating the conditions for war.

In How Modern Media Destroys Our Minds, The School of Life tells us the news does not necessarily lead us to care. The news can, in fact, “make the story of a 1000 dead children not feel a thing,” and make countries “disappear into their worst moments; through the media, they become merely suicide bombers and tanks, epidemics and wailing mothers.” 

Staying informed is important, of course, but we must also take care of ourselves and those around us when consuming or sharing information. Being informed does not necessarily lead to greater empathy, nor to an understanding about what one can do to alleviate suffering. Especially when our only source is the news.

So we need to pay attention to what they call ‘news-generated illness,’ a feeling of rage and horror at the inequities and injustices we see every day, co-mingled with despair at our inability to do anything to alleviate them. “We are at once appalled and helpless. We know everything and we can do precisely nothing.”

Some Western news outlets and journalists have come under increasing criticism for their biassed reporting, in particular of the Middle East. This is important, but the question we should ask is not so much ‘is Western media biassed?’ (of course it is), but rather, ‘how do we reach a place where we, as individuals and societies, are not?’ 

When most people witness suffering, they want to help, it’s in our nature. And when we feel powerless, this can also lead to despair, cynicism or, worse, erode our own humanity. 

This is dangerous, as Hannah Arendt warned. So we must look for the signs that we are being manipulated, lied to. We must learn to decode, to read between the lines, to investigate – to seek truth – and we must notice when we start rationalising the suffering of others, or justifying it, or thinking perhaps they deserved it or brought it upon themselves. This is when we lose our humanity. 

In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Historian Timothy Snyder says that to “abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” He urges us to investigate, to understand that some of what is on our screens is there to harm us.

We should also seek information elsewhere. The news is not the only way of staying informed. In seeking other sources of information we must also pay attention to whose speech is being thwarted, that is often where truth lies. When authoritarianism creeps in, it is usually the artists, the poets and the writers who are the first ones to be threatened and silenced. And this is happening around us, today, in our so-called democracies. 

The School of Life says it is artists we should turn to, that indifference and apathy will not be vanquished through information, but through art. The route to caring, they suggest, is not through the extraordinary, but the ordinary. “Great artists are able to tease out significance in events that we had never imagined could remotely count as a story or point of interest.” 

In The Republic, Plato wanted poets to be banned from society, not because it was trivial to serious affairs of running the country, it was because they were deemed dangerous, because of the effects they have on people. He was in awe at poetry’s capacity to reconfigure our minds.

Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

References


How Modern Media Destroys Our Minds, The School of Life. See here.

“West’s anti-Arab racism exposed by Israeli war on Gaza,” Christ Doyle, Arab News, 20 November 2023. Read here.

“They are ‘civilised’ and ‘look like us’: the racist coverage of Ukraine,” Moustafa Bayoumi, The Guardian, 2 March 2022. Read here.

“Thomas Friedman's describing the Middle East as an 'animal kingdom' is even worse than it sounds,” Zeeshan Aleem, MSNBC Opinion Writer/Editor, 6 February, 2024. Read here.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder, You can read a short summary here.

“A Closer Look at Francisco Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ (Los Desastres de la Guerra),” Park West Gallery, Art & Gallery News, January 9, 2019. Read here.

“Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish: ‘We can’t begin to comprehend the loss of art’”, Interview by Alexia Underwood, The Guardian, 4 January 2024. Read here.

Further Resources and Poetry

How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, Moustafa Bayoumi.

‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury,’ Audre Lorde, in Sister Outsider.

A Defence of Poetry,’  Percy Bysshe Shelley, available online.

‘Chinua Achebe Politics of Art,’ Charles Trueheart, The Washington Post, 16 February, 1988.

‘Bullets,’ poem by Brayden, animated by Stas Santimov, Preschool Poets.

‘At a Poetry Festival.’ Poem by Najwan Darwish. Read here.

‘First They Came,’ poem by Martin Niemöller. Read here.

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