On Our Love for Weeping and Wailing (updated)

If you have seen any news coverage of the Sri Lankan bombings, whether on the internet, in a newspaper, or on television, you have no doubt seen many images of random strangers wailing uncontrollably. This is the most popular and pervasive sort of imagery in these cases, because it responds to an instinctive weakness in the human soul that has been heightened, normalized, and finally glamorized by our age of mass media, i.e., of “news” as entertainment for the easily-bored masses.

Specifically, we humans have a predilection for watching others suffer, or more precisely for flattering ourselves that our engrossing pity for crying strangers — from whom nothing more than pity is expected of us — is evidence of our large-heartedness.

Nothing of the sort. The appeal of crying strangers is essentially the appeal of gossip. We love to insinuate ourselves into others’ lives in ways that make us feel powerful. Watching them in agony, wriggling and writhing under our microscope, all their privacy and dignity relinquished to our gluttonous voyeurism, gives us something to lord over them. That is the major attraction of this sort of detached, generic fascination with the pain of strangers. It is sadomasochism masquerading as fellow-feeling. We would be disappointed if we saw images of victims who were not bawling inconsolably, or collapsing helplessly into someone’s arms. That is why the mass media cannot give us enough of such images. We lust for others’ tears.

I posted the preceding observations on Tuesday evening here in Limbo. It’s now Wednesday morning, and I have turned on my computer only to be greeted with this headline on my Microsoft News page: “Dad’s heartbreaking choice: Which child to save in Sri Lanka attack.”

Sadomasochism plain and simple. That is about ninety percent of what we mean by “human interest stories” these days.

I am reminded of the famous maxim (often but disputably attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt): “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

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