Why Heartlessness?

I made the following observation on Facebook.

Why are people so heartless? We have reached that point in the Boston story where liberals shame each other for feeling bad about something when they don't feel equally bad about everything else. It's like telling parents of a dying child that thousands of other child die every day, so why are you upset? They negate other people's emotions and think they are prophetic

As the conversation developed, my dear friend Kate Rohde wrote:

Kate Rohde You are recently from Boston. I can understand how you might take it that way. However the wall to wall media coverage of this event seems to this non-Bostonian as if it is the media pushing an agenda as it did with the run up to Afghanistan and Iraq. Why so much coverage of this particular event? Why no or little national coverage of events and situations that are also horrifying but may not fit a particular narrative? I confess I have watched a lot of it and found it interesting, horrifying, sad, but I also am aware that the choices we make on what we focus on,, in the past, has made us easy to manipulate into making some really bad choices. I have no problem with the shock of Bostonians. No doubt I would complain for months. I do have a problem with all the news being focused on this one event for a solid week without more context ... Especially without any real evidence that this is more than a horrific crime like Columbine or Sandy Hook. They got a lot of coverage too, but not this much. I thought and think Boston was great in its response to this. A response to be proud of. I don't think that the outside coverage has generally been something to be proud of and I do wish they would have been less sensationalistic and hysterical and more accurate.

This brings together a couple of points that have been bouncing around in my head recently, and even since 2001.

Liberals, spiritual liberals, political liberals and religious liberals are just now emerging from a 40 years trip through the wilderness.  Conservativism has been aggressive and the media monolithic in its amplification of conservative messages.  Liberals not only had to oppose a reactionary government, but also the media which shut us out, while all the while, conservatives complained about the "liberal media."

We have settled into a defensive crouch, in which we define our work as media criticism.

Our first great fear is that the media is misleading the people at large, and the second, and even greater, fear is that the people are, in fact, persuaded.  So our communication becomes countering what we think the media is saying and trying desperately to keep the people calm and civil.

After Boston, I have heard liberal voices wildly exaggerate the news media's Islamaphobia.  One writer said that the news "Screeches Islam, Islam, Islam".  I watch the news and I don't see it.  There is an inquiry into whether the older Tsarnaev brother had become radicalized into extremist Jihad politics.  I don't think that it is an unreasonable question to be asked.  Do you?

But we take an exaggerated view of the Islamaphobia of the news media, add in a couple of incidents of overt anti-Islamic bigotry on the street, and build our mission in reaction to that.  So, it becomes most important to us to "cool down" the people -- hence, all our messages are about how what is happening isn't as bad as we think it is (after all, lots of bombs go off around the world, and lots of children die, it's all a big media hype.)  "It's really like more Newtown."  Maybe.

And the message to the people is that the sins of the media are your sins, because you watched it.  If the media seem to be unreasonably obsessed with Islam, then the public must be too.

And it becomes our mission to try to persuade people that religion has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with this.  We think we are countering the media's message, but to most people it simply looks like we are not being realistic and closed-minded.

Because of this forty year journey through the conservative wilderness, we liberals have lost the confidence to speak directly to the American people.  We are so busy trying to undercut other people's leadership, "to disrupt the media narrative" that we don't offer leadership ourselves.

We are not recognizing the enormous change that is and has already occurred in public opinion.  Many, many people already agree that (1) now is the time for interfaith cooperation and leadership and (2) that this incident is a criminal matter and not an occasion for war and (3) careful and responsible inquiry will determine in time the motivations of these two brothers, at least to the extent possible and (4) there is no reason to suspend or limit the Bill of Rights or due process of law and (5) we now better feel the pain of people around the world who have endured similar incidents (After all, it hurts a family in Iraq no less to lose an 8 year son than a family in Dorchester.) and (6) that this surviving brother is not an animal to be put down, but a human being.

People are looking for a leadership that is humane, and balanced, and emotionally balanced, that is respectful and not manipulative.  People are looking for voices that they can trust to not be pushing an agenda.  People are responding so well to Obama's performance because he presents himself genuinely as that leadership.

In the end, it comes down to our own emotional state.  If we are anxious and afraid ourselves (afraid of the media and afraid of our fellow American who are being misled by the awful media) we will not be able to connect with them.  Our discomfort will be there for everyone to see.

We are not here to counter the Media.  We are not here to argue with the right wing.  We are here to lead by bearing witness to our grounded and realistic faith in the oneness of humanity, the power of humans to choose love and peace, and to open their hearts to each other across the globe, and do what is right.  


  1. I think, this time around, that I have finally become able to feel compassion for the uncompassionate. I am not so concerned about the media, or the public voice of the right wing, as I am about the ordinary people I know, a large percentage, who want an eye for an eye and who believe that everyone who is not of their orthodoxy is evil. How do we bring the message to them and help them stop their suffering?

  2. Tom, I guess we just fundamentally disagree. I don't regard this incident as something that happened to me or you more than the events elsewhere. For most Americans outside Boston, unless this story has a connection to something systematic, why should it be on the news constantly? I know more people in El Salvador or Mexico than in Boston. There is something about media coverage that makes some people feel I should care more about murders in their town than about murders closer to me. It is my experience that even those of us who try hard to resist are deeply affected by media narratives and they have far more power than we acknowledge to shape our emotional focus. I have heard it said that lots of Americans care more about the people, even the fictional ones that they see on TV than about the people next door. Why else would someone who has more emotional response to a particular news item than I do make feel I am heartless?

    News items are meant to make us feel strong emotion so that we will pay attention to them. Sometimes it is for altruistic reasons as when Nicholas Kristof tries to call our attention to the plight of little girls who are enslaved. Sometimes it is for propaganda. Sometimes it is for ratings. I can't entirely resist this. When I step back, I can see I have been manipulated emotionally. I always feel like I am detoxing from the American media environment when I travel abroad or even listen to foreign news. I think UU's are too reactive to media. I think the church's job is to be somewhat countercultural in its leadership and can't be if it can't take a balcony view.

    I realize we also have to join people where they are, but sometimes you are doing one thing and sometimes the other. As horrifying as this crime is, there are equally horrific crimes that it might be more useful to society to focus on because they are probably more predictable and preventable.


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