Confronting the news

Hold on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock back for tomorrow is another day.

– E. B. White

For the November 2014 issue of Together magazine, I wrote about what was the best way to confront the bad news that we’ve been reading about and hearing a lot of. Even though I wrote the article five months ago, the amount of shocking news doesn’t appear to have decreased: there still seems to be an awful lot of it out there…

I grew up in the nineties and I do wonder whether the world was a better place back then, pre-September 11 and all the raging conflict that has ensued. But then I recall the terrible things that happened in the nineties too: the genocides in Bosnia and in Rwanda, the Omagh bombing, the Dunblane and Columbine shootings, Waco, the Toyko subway attack. Tragic events have happened and they continue to happen.

So how do we deal with the news? In this article, I attempt to figure it out.

Confronting the news: Gemma Rose tries to find the balance between being over-emotionally invested and burying her head in the sand

Let’s admit it, this summer was an aestas horribilis: the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17; the civil war in Ukraine; the ISIS ethnic and religious cleansing, beheadings and rapes; the ongoing Israel– Palestine conflict; the spread of the Ebola virus. And it never stopped raining in August.

It’s after such a horrible summer that I seriously consider going on a news fast, eliminating the newspaper, news sites or news programmes from my life for a while. I become completely oblivious to the sheer horror and tragedy that seem to happen every minute in this glorious, expansive, yet seemingly small and terribly interconnected world. For a couple of days it feels good – I feel like I’m sort of returning to normality, focusing on me and staying present. But then I feel the tug of the news again.

I often wonder what my role is in confronting the news. I mostly feel helpless, and usually guilty. I say to myself: “I was raised Muslim, why aren’t I out on the street condemning ISIS as a force of evil and wholly contrary to the principles of Islam?” Or: “I’m European, why aren’t I out on the street denouncing Russian foreign policy and demanding more from Europe?”

The truth is, I’m either pretty darn cowardly, or I feel pretty darn powerless. I’m not alone in feeling this way. I recently asked friends the question, “How do you feel about the scary things that are happening in this world?” The most common response: fear and anxiety, coupled with helplessness. We are scared about the depths of depravity we can inflict on one another and yet we are unsure as to how to stop it.

How do we balance processing the bad news, which is normally happening in far-away lands, with getting on with our lives right here, right now? On the one hand, it seems a massive drain on our emotional resources to be consumed by the destruction and devastation of our world. Yet on the other, it seems selfish to live in blissful ignorance. My friends’ replies were: we elect politicians to protect and promote our freedoms and prevent further suffering in the world; we donate to charities that provide humanitarian relief in conflict zones. Even if we don’t mobilize ourselves on the streets, they say, we can make a stand in our own living room, signing petitions via Change.org, Avaaz.org or #Making a Stand.

Talking about the news to one another was the most common response. When we share our concerns, not only are we informing ourselves and each other, we feel less alone in our anxiety.

It is perhaps this shared anxiety that fulfils one of the purposes of news. In the article ‘Why isn’t the news more cheerful?’ by the Philosophers’ Mail (a news organization run and staffed by philosophers), it is held that we need to hear about certain types of bad news (disasters, plane crashes, wars) because it is evidence that life is bleak, it is unfair and all of humanity suffers.

The Philosophers’ Mail states that the reporting of news must be helpful to enable us to live the good life. The problem however lies with the powerful influence of the media. In the short film ‘What is the point of news?‘ the philosopher Alain de Botton forcefully contends that we are not taught how to be critical of the news. The news can overload us with information, rendering us overwhelmed and therefore very unlikely to change the status quo; or it can constantly anger or terrify us because it needs to keep itself employed.

The last point de Botton makes is that we have to learn when to switch off the news and deal instead with our own anxieties and hopes. I would go one further: that the balance between switching on and off lies in knowing what we can and can’t do within our sphere of influence. I know I can’t broker a peace deal in the Middle East or find a cure for Ebola; but I can sign that petition, share that campaign and inform myself of that virus.

Lastly, I can hope: hope that things will get better, that the light prevails over the darkness. As the author E. B. White replied in his letter to someone who had lost their faith in humanity: “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.”

E. B. White then signs off with this indelible reminder: “Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

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