Right from the start the internet has enabled us to share images. Even before the web the voyeuristic appeal of alt.misc.binaries exercised a strong pull on even the most vigilant attention. I remember stumbling across grainy images of Chinese executions involving gradual dismemberment of the victims and being haunted for days by the images. I still regret having seen them.
In time we learn which bits of the internet to avoid if we don’t want to be subjected to grotesque images but with the advent of social tools this is harder. It is not in our control what other people choose to share and horrific images can appear without warning in our news streams. We have to learn to look away. With the awful events in Gaza and the recent murder of James Foley, I am primed to react if people in my network share images I would rather not see.
Is this an attempt to hide from ugly truths? I don’t think so. I don’t need to see those images to understand human suffering. Reading about the holocaust and trying to understand the enormity of the horror is important, seeking out endless images of human degradation isn’t. Maybe it is a question of degree. Maybe it is a question of intent.
What is most upsetting to me about our ability to witness the last moments of another person is the loss of human dignity. Even state sanctioned capital punishment has always had a particular horror for me in it’s degrading ignominy. Nowadays this visceral reaction is not just to the event itself but to the fact that I could watch it happening in almost real time.
Roman circuses were a symptom of the decline of their empire and a loss of civilisation. We should remember that.