Friday, November 28, 2008

How horrible are we?

The news does seem to be rather dominated by stories of how horrible humans are to each other at the moment. I'm not talking about the big politics horrible stuff (war, recession, terrorism, arresting troublesome MPs) more about the level of just how people get along, or don't.

You have the truly vile stories like the teenager who beat a man to death who was trying to assist the lad's unconscious friend, then bragged about it. There's the high profile court case of the Mum who's accused of organising the kidnapping of her own daughter in order to collect the reward money, obviously.

Then you have stories of just misanthropic shitness. A court heard today that a man left his wife (who clearly had a set of difficult problems) wedged down the side of the bed. But it was fine because he left her pork pies and some water. You've got the gits who killed four swans in the Midlands. Then there's the dentist who urinated in his surgery sink before treating a patient, not to mention that he used his instruments to clean his nails and ears... ewwww.

Then there's the Mum who left her baby in a station toilet, the man who shot his neighbours dog, smelly bikers offing each other, or people just calling each other ugly. Oh, and one from the US, just to show I'm not biased, a Walmart employee was crushed, then trampled to death by a throng of shoppers who then shopped around his body despite the pleas of his horrified co-workers.

All those stories are in today's news and I didn't even have to look in the tabloids, so Christ knows what's in there. I should make a special mention about the Guardian though which didn't seem to have any of this kind of story. Must have been an off day, but well done anyway.

Now the overwhelming feeling you'd get is the people out there are all bastards. Step outside your door and you'll probably be happy slapped, urinated on (happy slashed?), called ugly and given a pork pie for your your trouble while a mob of disinterested shoppers buys cheap goods around your dying body. Well, maybe not all that - but you're certainly left feeling that there are loads of horrible tossers lurking round every corner waiting to molest you.

But of course this isn't our daily experience of people. In general people are pretty decent to each other and when things go badly wrong, for most of us, most of the time, these stand out precisely because they are not our overwhelming experience of other people.

I'm not talking about the idea that we should all post good news and forget about the miserable stuff, it's more about the misanthropic world outlook this kind of relentless barrage of vilification does. I know someone being really nice to a stranger probably isn't as newsworthy as when they punch them and kill their goldfish, but it happens more often and maybe there should be something more, ummm, positive in the press about what normal people are like.

How are we meant to build up a feeling of community with each other if the press is forever reveling in the details of this or that gruesome case? Should we just stop reading the news altogether? Maybe.

I suppose that's what stories about Tom Jones and Halle Berry are meant to be to some extent - stories without any "bad guy". But then they are part of the special people aren't they? Are the ordinary citizens of the world only going to come to the attention of the press when they behave like animals or when they get "recognised" by the Queen?

Perhaps stories about how crap the world is are just more interesting. I've had a look at the last twenty posts on this blog to test that theory. Nine were positive stories, six negative, one a call for action (which is kind of both) and four weren't really one camp or the other. Actually, that's a better score than I thought I'd get before I started counting, I must be getting less grumpy as I get older.

Mind you, I'm worried this comes across like a call for vacuous feel good stories about little girls who help their neighbour's three legged dog or something - it really isn't - but it just feels like ordinary people only get mentioned in the press when they're being fuck-knuckles. It creates a bad impression is all I'm trying to say, we're really not that bad.


James said...

"Happy slashed" - Lets hope you haven't just invented a new social phenomenon...

Jim Jay said...

I'd be secretly proud... but never able to admit it in case my respectable vaneer was tarnished.

Joe Otten said...

So we have a false impression of how bad the world is because only bad things are newsworthy.

Does the same perhaps apply to the environment? Isn't that, in some respects, pretty good and getting better? Only in un-newsworthy ways.

And as for radical politics. That's clearly based on a warped view of how bad the world is.

Jim Jay said...

Hi Joe,

well my main point was more that media coverage leads us (probably not deliberately) towards the idea the the streets are full of bad people doing bad things. People's perception of crime, for example, rarely bears much relation to whether the crime rate is falling or rising (and who can believe the figures anymore anyway).

I wouldn't say only bad things are newsworthy (checks to see if I'm contradicting myself) after all Obama's victory has been pretty much reported as a good news story by everybody, including the right wing press and that was pretty big news. But in general it's probably easier to create bad news than good, unless it's about celebrity weddings or the latest blockbuster.

There are indeed lots of good news stories we can promote about the environment - although the context of those stories is a pretty daunting task and I'm not afraid to admit I'm a pessimist on climate change. I don't think we're upto tackling it - although I hope that's wrong, of course.

Radical politics - well you might have a point there.

Personally I find the everything about capitalism is awful and evil strand on the left pretty dull and unengaging - but you're right that people who think there needs to be a fundamental change in the world will tend to believe the world as it stands should be very different than it is.

Joe Otten said...

Thanks Jim, a more thorough response than my curt remarks perhaps deserved. And I largely agree with it.

You could consume bad news on crime all day every day, and never run out, and a natural reaction to this must be, sooner or later to throw up one's hands, and say aaarggghh, it's all bad, bring on the second coming please.

And similarly we could hear bad news about the environment all day every day and sooner or later conclude that the planet is utterly doomed, yet again, we have only heard about a tiny proportion of what is going on.

[Global warming aside - that is an issue where we do have science giving us a big picture, not just isolated stories.]

So is it possible that the environmental pessimist is making the same mistake as the crime pessimist?

And a similar point could be made about capitalism.

Of course the bad news in all three cases is important because we need to do something about it. But we will go wrong if we let the bad news determine an overall impression.

Jim Jay said...

Warning - ramble ahead!

Well I think it's important to understand that we're not comparing like with like here - although you're not making an unreasonable comparison.

With crime we get stories, and stories are powerful. We can cry at the suffering of the particular child, or feel absolute rage at how one person can behave in such a disgusting way (although we know on one level that papers don't tell the whole story/truth, we accept what they say on another).

We have more detailed reports of criminal acts now and so it feels like there is more crime - but we're drawing wide conclusions from simply anecdotal evidence, which isn't helpful.

Often the stories connected to the environmental issues are weak or very unhelpful. I've nothing against polar bears for example, but, it's an eye catching, but alien way to represent a problem that'll effect all the globe (in different ways) rather than just the cold bits.

I suspect that these stories and images exist purely to spice up the story - to create a hook to what otherwise might be a rather dry report full of numbers.

As you say on the environment and other larger issues we have science, facts, and data to draw on. It doesn't make things simple though and facts are not necesarily neutral but we base our judgements on a very different kind basis than with these "broken society" stories.

The politics of why a war happens is obviously qualitatively different than the reasons why, say, a mother might be cruel to their daughter. So we approach these things in different ways.

Anyway - this is a very longwinded way of saying the pessimism could be connected - but if we're being logical we should be able to be more scientific about the state of the atmosphere than the state of the nation.