Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Emmett Till on YouTube?


I was reminded recently of a most horrific lynching in the pre-civil rights South—the hanging of Emmett Till, a young black man who flirted with a white woman. This occurred in the 1950s in a time when his story was only one of hundreds of terrible incidents that scarred America's history. For some reason, his particular death stirred not only a national but an international response that reverberated into the 1960s and seemed consistent with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the executions of volunteer civil rights workers of mixed races.

I thought about him because, though the injustice visited upon him was well-publicized, we didn't watch it from our computers. I wonder what would have happened if someone had been at his lynching to catch it on a camera and then share it with the world through the Internet in a venue such as YouTube. Last week, I received two e-mails with urgent messages descrying the injustice that was portrayed in them. I admit to opening them, seeing them, being sickened by them and confirming that they were legitimate. I realize that I don't have to look at these, but in the name of social awareness, they are sent to me along with funny bits, whimsical messages and sentimental greetings from friends. In the midst of all the spam that floods my computer, there are these sad images. I do believe we need to be aware of our hateful behavior, so I look at them as a matter of social conscience, thinking that perhaps we can change things.

The two bits I watched were the chaining up of a sick and starving dog in an art gallery in Nicaragua. The artist glued dog food to the wall to spell out a phrase. Gallery-goers watched the poor animal suffer and starve to death. Through this shocking installation, the artist could argue that he was stimulating awareness of the plight of abandoned dogs. In reality, onlookers were part of a hideous and cruel act: the willful mistreatment and starvation of a dependent creature. The exhibit won a prize, and the artist, Guillermo Havacuc, has been invited to participate in the Bienarte 2008 festival in Honduras. In this case, those who download these images are urged to send a petition to prevent another such installation by this artist.

The second bit was from a friend who usually sends me very sassy though controversial e-mails. This one was of an 8-year-old boy in Iran who was caught stealing a loaf of bread. His punishment, caught in still photos, was to have his arm crushed by a truck driving over it. The point of the viewing was to stimulate thoughts about the barbarity of a country with religious rulers who enact an "eye-for-and-eye" justice in the name of religion. I don't know what we are supposed to do about such things; I am sure many of us have seen pictures of women being stoned in soccer fields and yet the punishments continue.

I do wonder if even we, in a society espousing justice, had all of our horrible actions recorded for everyone to see, how well Americans would fare in the eyes of kind strangers. How about Emmet Till? Would images of that atrocity have sped up the civil rights movement or inspired other racists to emulate that murder?

My responsibility is that I do download these messages, and this is the issue I want to address at the moment. If we don't look at negative and sometimes shocking material in print, in movies, on TV or on our computers, then perhaps we are insulated from many things that should stir in us responsible actions toward preventing some cruel practices we engage in as dominant human beings. And yet, my watching a video playback of violence toward a child may also feed the perverse glut of media attention that encourages people to be voyeurs and also adds to the profit motive for those capturing these images. I do not believe in the kind of censorship that would prevent such portrayals; the line is too thin between what we should see and what is excessive and pandering to a taste for the gruesome.

I abhor the kind of inhumane behavior I just witnessed and want it stopped. My problem is: Do I wear a blindfold for self-protection or, in the name of awareness, cringe, watch and risk contributing to the proliferation of these images by looking at all?

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