The spectacle of silenceArchive
IN 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, the writer and Holocaust survivor said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Thirty years later, despite the dramatic expansion of press freedoms, the ‘democratisation’ of information through the internet, and the ability to record and disseminate through cheap and accessible technologies, immense chasms of silence still endure. Atrocities committed by individuals, groups and states are still whitewashed. We are still silent or silenced. More insidiously, we can be complicit in silencing by engaging in the obverse — by contributing to dangerous narratives. Nowhere was this more evident, or the consequences of it more horrific, than in the case of Qandeel Baloch — a survivor reduced to a statistic.
Fuelled by sensationalism and indiscretion, we and the media were abettors in a crime committed against her by one or more individuals: invasion of privacy. By partaking of details of her private life, we legitimised their theft and use. Given Baloch’s account of her marriage, we forced a woman to acknowledge her association with her alleged abuser, an association she took extraordinary measures to distance herself from. Disclosure was her right to exercise, not ours. We engaged in a speculative narrative that ultimately put her life at risk — one that was neither integral to any news report nor in the public’s interest. These were no Panama Papers. Qandeel Baloch’s main line of defence was protecting her identity, and a puff piece circulated through social and mainstream media removed that defence — making us also complicit in the murder that silenced her.
The press — watchdogs of our democracy, but a capitalist institution nonetheless — is keenly aware of its audience’s — or rather, consumers’ — appetite for spectacle and rubbernecking. This is why, in lieu of on-scene footage, TV news channels’ graphics teams will scramble to animate explosions over Google Earth images or CGI re-enactments of crime scenes, or, if all else fails, pull from their stock archives an animated suicide bomber sprite to stride across their news ticker on a loop. This is why they draw red circles and arrows over grainy CCTV and mobile phone footage, hovering over the gory, ‘important’ pixels — because we watch it. Meanwhile, the victims’ loved ones are also watching. They’ll get to them too; the image of a bereaved elderly woman is practically a trope.
Our omissions, or wilful silences, are also telling: not enough is said of those who are ‘disappeared’ or displaced. Little time or attention is devoted to demands for justice, often lasting no longer than the news cycle.
When it comes to those who survive we fare no better. The press will proliferate images of survivors of abductions often mere moments after their rescue, sometimes still in restraints, despite the fact they cannot be reasonably expected to consent to being photographed in the immediate aftermath of such trauma.
Survivors of sexual violence, even minors, are similarly exploited. Worse still, we engage in moronic conspiracies and second-guessing of survivors’ accounts if they don’t conform to our image of a ‘victim’. For the sake of an image to accompany a voiceover or piece of text, or speculation to pad a report by a few more lines or minutes, the press will violate a victim’s or survivor’s personhood and autonomy more than they already have been — because we consume it. Meanwhile, the proliferation of such images and narratives stays with survivors; they are traumatic, triggering reminders they will have to be repeatedly subjected to.
None of these serve the public’s interests. We bear witness and give voice, but to the wrong things and for the wrong reasons. We rob individuals of their truth: a humanity defined by more than the injustices inflicted on them. In our endless mediated chatter, we drown out their voices and turn them into news fodder, simultaneously rendering them visible and invisible.
This cacophony is toxic to us all. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote, “Spectacle is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity.” The ways in which we engage with media risk alienating and anesthetising us to our social duties towards one another. One of these duties is to amplify the voices of the disenfranchised over those who disenfranchise, be they civilian or state. Sides are inevitably taken; neutrality is something of a myth. Silence and speech are both acts that have the capacity to hurt or to heal.
We live in times of unprecedented media access and diverse, robust discourse — countless others before us have fought for this. State overreach is not the answer, neither is self-censorship. Self-regulation, however, is one. A certain degree of advocacy is inherent in ethical journalism; in reporting the news, decisions must be taken that support survivors and victims as much as possible.
We can help set those standards by redefining our relationships with attention and distraction, news and voyeurism – by seeing ourselves as interconnected citizens rather than isolated consumers, as flesh and blood rather than digital ether. While fighting alongside the media to preserve freedoms of expression and information, our behaviours must evolve to reflect our ability to command those rights to their full force — to, above all, serve the public’s interests while safeguarding the rights and dignity of individuals.
By lowering the noise on the irrelevant and harmful, and by actively cultivating the space for survivors to speak out, we might finally claim to speak truth to power. Those we lost might finally be able to rest in power.
Maybe then, we will speak to and with those who have survived — and for those who have not — rather than of them. As Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
The writer is a freelance contributor.
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2016