Houston, Disaster Porn, Fear, And Our Common Humanity

Houston, Disaster Porn, And Our Common Humanity

Everyone knows what’s happening in Houston right now. On Saturday, hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas metropolis with 130 mile per hour winds and massive rainfall (340 billion gallons, no big deal). People have died. Thousands have been left without power.  The Coast Guard is still rescuing people who are trapped, injured, or elderly. This is a very dangerous situation that is unfolding – and the rest of America is watching in discomfited fascination, glued to their favorite news network or social media hashtag. So many of us feel sick watching, impotent, helpless – and yet, we can’t seem to look away.

There’s a term for this. Disaster porn. 

We saw it on 9/11, when news anchors played the footage of the planes hitting the towers talking about just how horrific it was, and how it was hard to watch – before proceeding to air the footage ten times per hour for the next two days.

We saw it with the Syrian boy on the beach. We even saw it back in 1937, with the Hindenburg disaster. “Oh, the humanity!”

 

The Syrian boy in the ambulance. The African child starving to death, about to be eaten by a buzzard. Napalm girl.

These images provoke something within almost all of us. The feeling is a specific kind of sadness. A sadness that has no resolution, that draws us back in  to feel it again and again. It leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness, that keeps us coming back, wondering if perhaps the answer to our sadness is there, in our minds, if we can just search a little more.

When Charlie Gard died, I wrote about sadness. Suffering.  How we cannot turn away from it, but instead must face it head on.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, disaster porn ensures that we do just the opposite. It provokes genuine sadness, but it does not give us an outlet to resolve that sadness. Disaster porn leaves us walking on the periphery of the flames, where it’s a little bit too hot, where the fire of suffering licks at our hands just short of burning.

I do not see this as a moral failing of people. I may not understand the psychology of the matter, but I can admit in my own experience that I am just as susceptible to disaster porn as anyone else. Every year on 9/11, I  end up reliving that life changing day, re-watching the horror that unfolded, and feeling just as helpless as 9 year old me did back in 2001. When I see the picture of the drowned Syrian boy, even today, I feel the same outrage and sadness as the most pro-refugee leftist. “What are we doing!” my brain screams at me, the alarm bells and urge to act coursing through me. I want to save that child. I want to be in Houston, helping people who are trapped. I want to nurse the starving babies in Yemen. I can’t help it.

When we strip away the politics, and the conflict, and the finger pointing, and the hatred… we all want to be okay.

Houston, Disaster Porn, And Our Common Humanity

Aylan Kurdi, dead at age 3.

Does this mean that I change my policy views based on this instinct? No. At the end of the day, my logical mind overrides my emotional one, particularly when it comes to issues such as children which get me particularly upset. I know that while I may want to care for every hurt child in the world, allowing for example mass immigration ultimately causes far more harm than good, to far more children.

But I do think disaster porn serves a purpose, perhaps as a way for us to understand a deeper instinct – if we would only listen to ourselves, listen to our morality, and look at things another way.

Disaster porn is a mental snare. We find ourselves in a loop, in many ways powerless, our minds feeling sad and wanting to help, but caught in a strange paralysis when it comes to actually doing so.

So we seek another hit, another sad picture, another sad story, another chance to break out of our fog. It never stops, we just forget.

Until the next bomb, the next flood, the next dead baby.

The next piece of ass, the next set of boobs, slightly different, but still the same.

A lust half-satisfied, a sadness half-imagined.

It’s not the images or the ideas that are wrong, or how we feel about them, but how we act. Like the porn addict who can’t get hard for a real woman anymore, we sit there tweeting or talking about Houston, trying to figure out why we feel this way and how we can make it stop.  How we can find the authenticity beneath the veneer.

Will the same actions apply to every person thinking about every disaster? No. Do I think you’re doing anything wrong by tweeting or praying? No.

But your mindset, and my mindset, matters. And it’s the hardest thing in the world to do, because human beings do two things: we fight, or we run. Knowing it is only half the battle, as I’ve come to find out. I have years of practice. If knowing how to “fix” my mental illness was all it took, I’d be recovered by now. You have  to do it, and you have to practice, and it doesn’t go away, ever, because life is full of messiness and it is until you die. We can be depressed by that fact, or we can be galvanized into good.

Choose the latter.

The solution for porn, or disaster porn, or anxiety, or fear of any kind is this:

You walk through the fire. 

Always.

Not around it, not on the edges.

You have to feel it. You have to burn.

You have to cry. You have to spend money that you wanted to spend on yourself because you know in your heart that other person needs to eat. You have to have sex with your wife or your girlfriend, even if her stomach isn’t flat and perfect like nameless the girls on your computer screen. You have to get up on stage and give that speech even though you are sweating and saying “um” and you feel like a total idiot. You have to get your lazy ass out of bed and comfort and safety and go use your boat to help rescue people in Texas, because you’re there, and you can do it, and you know it’s the right thing to do.

It’s not about Houston.

It’s about all of us. There will always be human suffering. There will always be tragedy. There will always be fear, at the root of it all, because our limbic system is a big stupid lizard brain that hasn’t evolved like the rest of us yet.

Disaster porn is just one loop we can get caught in. And when you give in to those mental traps, your world just gets smaller and your fears get more real, and before you know it, you have trapped yourself to the point where you can’t feel for people any more.

And if our society gets there, if we all let politics and division make us truly hate each other, to the point where an enemy drowning in front of us provokes the same emotion as a sandwich…

We’re doomed.

Walk through the fire. Please.

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About the Author

Stefanie MacWilliams

Stefanie MacWilliams is a dissident Canadian millennial, mom, buffalo sauce afficianado, and right-wing political troublemaker. She co-owns (and writes for) HalseyNews.com, hosts the Right Millennial show on Youtube, and can be found frequently on her twitter account @StefMacwilliams or you can email her at Stefanie@HalseyNews.com