On Cruelty and Journalism

A kid eagerly opens his Xmas present. His eyes light up with happiness and great shock. How did his parents manage to pull it off? It’s an Xbox! Something that the kids down the street have and that mock him for not having. But his parents somehow pulled all their pennies together and came through.

“Open it!” screech his parents, knowing that the kid’s about to get a surprise.

press.jpgAnd the kid rips open the cardboard, only to find that within the box are a handful of shirts.

But that’s not all. The parents then begin laughing at the poor kid, who is heartbroken at being duped and heartbroken at being poor. The parents continue to chant how they can’t afford an Xbox. And they’re recording this moment for posterity. Just so they can see how their son is hurt, horrified, and dejected in the course of three minutes.

You can find the video here. And I find it appalling that these parents would not only commit such a despicable act of cruelty, but that they would record this on camera for posterity. (If they couldn’t afford the Xbox, how then could they afford the camera?) There is simply no morally justifiable reason for this behavior. Class doesn’t excuse it. And with the parents constantly referencing their social station, we truly see just how trapped this kid is. Not by class, but by neglect, an inability to emphasize with one’s fellow humans, and a wholesale justification of psychological torture. The disturbing question I’m dwelling upon after watching this video is just what the kid will learn from being photographed like this. Will he emerge psychologically troubled? Will he then in turn capture his misdeeds with a video camera?

I can’t help consider this cruel act of domestic terror in relation to additional cruel photos that were unleashed the other day ago at Wired. The photos — new ones from Abu Ghraib — were presented because psychologist Philip Zimbardo planned a talk around them. Zimbardo was the man who administered over a famous Stanford experiment in 1971, in which students acted as prisoners and guards and the “guards” began abusing the prisoners, demanding that they strip and perform sex acts. He’s come out with a new book on the subject, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. But aside from pondering why a person would turn to outright cruelty, I want to know why these people also feel the need to record these acts for posterity.

In one of her last essays before her death, Susan Sontag had a few ideas on this subject. She suggested that the Abu Ghraib photos reflected something particularly troubling in American culture — that “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken — with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.”

But I don’t think this impulse is limited to war. I think the impulse to photograph or videotape a cruel misdeed is now indelibly interwoven into the American psyche. The camera is now a device that offers anyone total justification for being entirely removed from human emotion. We’re not allowed to get involved. We’re supposed to be objective reporters, even if it involves removing ourselves from our own abject acts. And if you express anything remotely subjective or if you actually give a damn in any way, you’re considered to be a stain upon the great American journalistic quilt.

I conducted an interview not too long ago in which I had to stop tape. The things we were talking about made the interview subject cry. And I couldn’t in good conscience continue the interview and remain “objective” about it. The man was in pain. And I cared too much. Off tape, I asked the man if he was okay. He insisted that he was. But we had clearly gone down a dark road. When the interview was over, I spent a good hour considering the ways in which I had brought out this man’s emotions, damning my apparent gift for gab. My girlfriend listened as I condemned myself for getting these answers. As I blamed myself for his pain. Is this what it means to be a journalist?

I’ve yet to master the podcast. I know that when I listen to this audio, I’ll have to experience his pain again. But I also know that I have a journalistic obligation to portray this pain for my listeners. Because it’s a story that everybody needs to hear. But I also wonder if I’ll reveal myself — even in a small way — to be just as terribly removed as these parents and these soldiers are.


  1. Not sure if this matters, but slightly down the page (in between the seemingly unceasing racist posts), someone posted this:

    “according to the “about this video” of the original vid : “My mom decides to buy my brother an Xbox 360 for christmas. We leave that night and return the next morning to find he has sneaked a look….just as my mom thought he would, this is the result…and yes he did get the game i will try to post the second video”

    So, cruel, yes, but potentially less heartless than you might think. Potentially, anyway.

    (America is still deeply, deeply fucked up. That much I agree with.)

  2. I might be tempted to say that you’re comparing apples and oranges with the notion that this idiotic tape and the pictures from Abu Ghraib are even remotely similar, but I don’t think I can. They both operate on the same level of cruelty and wanting to relive its affects over and over again in some perverse form of posterity, in the case of the video, I assume it was filmed just for the purposes of posting on the internet, and theAbu Ghraib posts were saved for who knows what reason, probably some repressed or expressed form of homophobia and bizarre titillation.
    What I find interesting, though, is the seemingly naive reaction you’re having now. This has been going on for quite some time, in case you haven’t noticed. Girls Gone Wild, Bum Fights, and all other sorts of incredibly cruel and crude videos litter the internet and our culture. Why so disgusted after seeing a stupid tape of a kid being the brunt of a stupid joke?

  3. But, if it’s the camera that separates from emotion, how would you explain the reaction of both parents?

    Inevitably, only one parent is recording (looking through the viewfinder) while the other is looking at the scene without an additional lens. Does the simple fact of recording, no matter who’s recording, create this emotional distance?

    And, something else, too: it’s the combination of camera and internet that allows us to see this type of stuff. Who knows if ancient Babylonians or Greeks or Hebrews didn’t have the same impulses — less only the means to express themselves to such a wide audience.

    Interesting post.

  4. I didn’t read this entire column, because it’s pretty much wrong. Where exactly is journalism involved? Abu Ghraib was not documented by journalists. There were shot by the guards. And, hey here is news for you: Taping/Recording human misery is how you document human misery. I would argue that the bulk of incredibly cruel video available immediately (people randomly beating the crap out of people and taping it and posting it online) is actually a good thing. People don’t really believe what aholes people are unless they actually witness.

    One more thing. You base this entire post on a video which may or may not tell the entire story. There is some compelling argument that the parents who punked the kid, did it because they bought him an Xbox 360 and apparently caught him trying to look at the presents the night before Christmas. To teach him a lesson about not looking at the presents before hand, they swapped the Xbox360 out for clothes. He apparently did receive the game console moments later but they did not tape that. Is this true? I don’t know. You’re the “journalist.” Go find out.

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