It's human instinct to look away from things that are distasteful or unsettling, especially when our ability to have an effect seems unlikely. It's also human instinct to stare, even though we know voyeurism is unseemly. Somewhere between entertainment and ignorance hopefully lies a middle ground, where seeing – and knowing – become meaningful.
Ava DuVernay makes this distinction in 13th, her new-ish Netflix documentary on mass incarceration in the United States. The film highlights the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" should exist in the United States, but which contains the loophole "except as a punishment for crime." Ever since, black bodies have been criminalized in service of capitalism, from the immediate postslavery period (when convicts were physically leased to private corporations) to the present day (it was just this past July that Whole Foods stopped selling cheese and fish produced in Colorado jails).
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The film compelled me to do something I hadn't yet: Watch the video of 12-year-old Tamir Rice being shot while holding a toy in a Cleveland park in 2014. I've read multiple accounts of the video and the circumstances of his death, so I didn't know what new information the blurry images could impart. I also fear that constant exposure to such violence can keep us from seeing the uniqueness in every tragedy. Tamir was loved, including by a sister whom police restrained as the boy died.
As each victim fell onscreen, a caption indicated that their families had given Ms. DuVernay permission to use the images. For the first time, I watched police suffocate Eric Garner on a public sidewalk and shoot Philando Castile in front of his child and girlfriend. The sequence came near the end of the film, closing a powerful argument that strategic and purposeful inequality led to these deaths. Watching seemed very much like honouring the humanity of the dead.
That's not how I feel when such videos pop up on a social-media feed, decontextualized between snaps of cute animals and meaningless polls. That makes me feel nauseated. Violence and injustice are not easily digestible news morsels, and "checking in" to the Dakota Access pipeline protests via Facebook is the definition of "slacktivism." It's shameful that the police in Abbotsford, B.C., had to ask Canadians not to share video of this week's fatal stabbing at a high school. A like or shocked emoji disrespects these stories, and sharing violent death without regard for the families involved is just tasteless.
Yet, averting your eyes isn't the answer either, which isn't to say I'm not guilty. Just last week, I scrolled past a video described as a Syrian child being pulled from rubble while embracing a dead sibling. Then I read a New York Times story about therapists in that wealthy city advising anxious patients to avoid reading presidential election news, and decided I didn't want to be counted among the delicate and spoiled. A nail-biting election is the exact time to lean into your country's political system. And however traumatic it is to witness a distant war unfold, it's significantly easier than living it.
Choosing to protect one's mental health is a privilege and sometimes the responsibility to see is more pressing. So I went back and watched the video of those Syrian children, my emotions cycling through anger and sadness. And, of course, a strong sense of hopelessness. The Globe and Mail's André Picard recently mentioned that sense of deep hopelessness as one reason
Canada's epidemic of indigenous suicide has become "spectator sport," rather than an action item. Staring voyeuristically at crisis moments is one way to cope with a lack of power over larger issues.
That's unfortunately true when it comes to the situation in Syria, but in our own communities, knowledge is the only power we have. Instead of swivelling a voyeuristic spotlight, let's illuminate the full picture. For Ms. DuVernay, that meant linking dramatic deaths to a larger social structure, and that's what it means for indigenous youth in Canada as well. From unequal education funding to the continuing need for family reunification, pointed attention could make a very big difference.
It's tempting to resist troubling information because knowing without action feels impotent, but the choice not to see is still a choice. Somewhere between staring and avoidance, everything comes into focus.