A post with a title so broad that it conveys next to no information at all…

Ecstatic Truth

Anyway, I want to start with a small discussion of one of my favourite people, Werner Herzog (I can hear Joy and Geoff groaning). Herzog is a film-maker, and an exceptionally prolific one at that. He has made both feature films and documentaries, but his attitude to the latter is quite radical in that he explicitly and gleefully dispenses with the idea of communicating objective, verifiable facts. Instead, he devotes himself to teasing out the deeper truths, the human poetry, in events and stories. In his words,

I’ve always tried to look deeper into things and behind things and enter an area of human existence which is illuminating us… like great music. I’m in conflict with those who are always after facts. I’m looking for an ecstasy of truth.

Werner Herzog

The “facts” of which other documentary-makers are so fond are necessary casualties in Herzog’s films as many critics have pointed out (to Herzog’s utter indifference).

The News: Engaging Readers

New topic! As noted in another post, on-line news outlets collect very detailed information on what articles we choose to read and how much time we spend reading them. This glut of data, though proprietary, has been used to verify the self-evident principle of “proximity” in the Elements of News, which states that someone’s interest in a news story typically diminishes with their distance – both geographical and cultural – from the events and people concerned.

Often bemoaned is the tendency of the Western public to ignore ongoing wars and civil strife in say Central Africa or the Middle East, apparently in favour of less consequential news closer to home. (A journalist’s personal observations of this phenomenon are documented in this article.) Of course, there are many reasons for this, not least that the political or economic consequences of regional events are much more likely be relevant to readers’ lives. But it would be difficult to argue that ethnic identity doesn’t also play a crucial role in this: someone who is culturally, as well as geopolitically, remote cannot arouse my concern as much as someone with whom I expect to share more cultural values.

And even if I want to be concerned, to take an active interest, it will always be unclear how to interpret and predict responses to events for people of different cultures. A matter that initially seems quite trivial to me may have profound importance to them, and vice-versa.

In short, the media overwhelms us with stories whose significance escapes us; with images that we are not equipped to interpret.

Dehumanisation and Digression

From a broader perspective, the lack of “emotional” connexion exposed (I speculate) by our heightened focus on our own geoethnocultural tribes is a necessary condition for dehumanising them. A proclivity to dehumanisation cowers at the heart of institutions such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia; it is, to varying degrees, ubiquitous among humans.

I think it is worthwhile to mention anthropology at this point. As a non-specialist, I’d say that the most basic characterisation of the field’s activities is the documenting and exploration of patterns in the incredible diversity of human culture and outlook. Yet anthropologists (and their equivalents in societies without the academic discipline) potentially occupy a position of immense societal importance, as the gatekeepers to worlds so very different and so much the same. It behoves them to communicate to the public not only the details of other ways of life, but crucially to expand our capacities to empathise with other humans; to regard them as more than exotic curiosities.

(I confess that in my experience, it is almost impossible to grasp what it means for another person, even within my culture, to not be me:

‘Most people are other people’

— Me (I think)

This banal fact, on the occasions that I understand what it means, never ceases to fill me with awe.)

A New Kind of Article (and its Downfall)

Getting back to the question of whether we marginalise news about others, the press has been an incredible force for connecting different corners of the globe, often in very meaningful ways. But I’d like to push it a little further into the realm of humanisation. One way of doing this is to report personal stories or case studies, which can be powerful communicators. I’ll return to these later.

What I propose is something slightly different, viz. to publish, alongside a traditional news article, a “translation” of the events they describe into forms more relevant to the reader, basing it closer to home, with analogous settings, and placing predicted political ramifications within the familiar social framework. I advocate a direct challenge to journalists’ temptation to pare a story down to a more skeletal form that can be more universally appreciated. Instead let’s pare it up, rewrite it, change the names and locations, invest it with local significance so that the underlying humanity can shine through and actually affect readers. Note that I say pare it up, not ham it up: I’m envisaging something more akin to a typical news article rather than a personal story; something that delivers semi-fictitious events in a way that exposes the parallels between human societies.

This would be explicitly acknowledged as a creative writing exercise (see next paragraph). But, as with any task of translation, it would require of the writer a deep multicultural understanding and flair for metaphor, for teasing out subtle social structures, and for understanding human emotional responses in a variety of circumstances. The author would be a translator of cultural symbols, with gulfs deftly bridged to allow the passage of meaning.

Of course, this departure from the customary “hard facts” that the media provides leads us into dangerous territory. The journalist would be equipped with whole new dimensions of freedom in their portrayal and interpretation of events, and the result will inevitably be coloured by their political leanings. I’m not saying that impartiality is impossible, but I suppose I am: psychology is constantly reminding us of how little control we have over our own brains, and the historical record is crammed with instances of tacit bias leading even the most fastidious researchers to embarrassingly incorrect conclusions (at some point I’ll write a post about Irving Langmuir who investigated many such examples in physics and chemistry in the 1920s and 1930s). Furthermore, it is frequently possible to expose an author who fabricates facts; it is quite another thing to hold them accountable for a work of fiction.

But this is, to my mind, irrelevant: we can’t judge a new species by the criteria of the old. The purpose here is to connect people emotionally to events that are not happening to them; to elicit powerful, personal responses and strengthen our intuitive (rather then intellectual) understanding. It’s to humanise The Other. Our clicks have suggested that we are broadly incapable of such empathy, so it is time to try something new. And according to a somewhat elasticated version of Herzog’s philosophy, there is nothing more natural: the news contains nothing but a plethora of dessicated facts; it is scant on truth, and its poetry.

Two very legitimate concerns remain, however. Attempting to connect humans with humans by eroding the differences between them will inevitably, inadvertently, erode the precious differences between them. It would be a disaster if we grew up thinking those we had never met were exactly like us. Furthermore, the very act of translation entails that we are understanding them on our own terms rather than theirs (their terms would be the original text). So I am not proposing the best of possible worlds! I merely suggest a way to improve this one; and in doing so we must pay a price which is relatively small considering that we are already paying it.

Closing Remarks

So I’ve suggested a new form of journalistic article which complements the existing possibilities (news reports, opinion pieces and case studies) with the aim of enhancing our emotional – rather than intellectual – understanding of the events and people whose stories appear in the media. I’m not suggesting it’s the only way, nor even a particularly good way (after all, it would take a lot of work to prepare these pieces and would anyone even read them?). But the broader issue of humanisation is one of the big ones, and I feel we should at least explore as many vehicles as possible to address it.

Historical Note: Historical Notes

‘The past is a foreign country’

— L.P. Hartley

I remember first thinking concretely about this matter when reading an essay my girlfriend Joy had written about historical accuracy in period films. Of course there are many examples of historical events or figures being presented in an egregiously ahistorical way, either to make a political point or to pander to our 21st century prejudices. It struck me then and continues to strike me that this is not necessarily a bad thing: in fact it can be a very good thing, as the audience is able to connect with the past in a far more meaningful way than a traditional documentary would allow.

Humans are social creatures, and many of us tacitly understand the world through relationships. Once we form an emotional connexion to something, be it an event or a person, we are inevitably invested in understanding it. And for that first step to happen, a translator can come in handy.