Yesterday morning I was making my usual rounds through the blogs when I habitually clicked over to Andrew Sullivan’s site, as I do every day because I dig the insight, variety and brevity of Sullivan’s writing even though I don’t always agree with him.
As I scrolled down through several of Sullivan’s posts there was something about The Simpsons, a Hathos Alert, a post about George Washington and Barack Obama, and then it hit me — a sucker-punch of revulsion, anger and mild nausea at what had, without warning or invitation, appeared on my screen. It was a photograph of three people in what appeared to be a back alley in Iraq during the war: two very sad-looking men, one of whom was carrying a child who could’ve been a boy or a girl and appeared to have been two or three years old. The child was wrapped in a bloody white sheet and he or she was clearly dead, as indicated by the morning sunlight showing through a large, grisly head wound.
Sullivan included this horrifying photograph in a post (WARNING! Death porn!) that served as a tenth anniversary “maxima culpa” for having supported the Iraq invasion and occupation so vocally throughout much of the previous decade. In other words, Sullivan is still (and should be) coping with his own guilty conscience, and so those of us who didn’t support the war and were in fact hectored as unpatriotic for opposing it were forced to look at this terrible photograph. And as much as I want to, nothing will allow me to un-see it. I will, for the rest of my days, carry the kneejerk manifestation of a stranger’s guilty conscience inside my physical body. And I viscerally resent it.
It’s death porn. I’m not necessarily describing fantasy or theatrical scenes of fictitious death, I’m talking about graphic, real life images of dying and dead humans or animals, displayed for the sole purpose of shocking unsuspecting viewers.
It’s nothing new or inventive. As a student of Civil War history, I’ve seen the first war casualty photos, captured on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg by Alexander Gardner. I’m familiar with the death porn videos of the 1980s — the Faces of Death series — and its various website copycats, even though I honestly haven’t watched any of them. I deliberately didn’t watch the Daniel Pearl execution, knowing from the descriptions how mind-blowingly grotesque it was.
These are just several examples, and I’m sure you can probably name others, but there’s an important distinction here. Most death porn photos and videos carry some sort of firewall, a warning or click-through, before actually seeing them. You have to decide to see Gardner’s battlefield corpse photographs or to visit one of the various death video sites. There’s a barrier between your eyes and the morbidity: a choice.
At 41 years old, I’ve seen a lot of heinous things and I’ve reached an age when I’d prefer to be a little more picky when it comes to which additional heinous things are implanted in the memory cortex of my brain. That’s not to say that I’ll shy away from a violent movie or TV series, or that I’ll avoid my Civil War texts. I simply don’t like being unexpectedly blindsided like I was by Sullivan yesterday, or on the other occasions when he’s stooped this tactic, or by The Huffington Post last week, for that matter, when it displayed a Brady Bunch style grid of death porn photographs at the top of the front page. In that case, it was a series of photos of dead children who had evidently been killed in American drone strikes.
And this leads me to a more salient point here. Forcing people to unwittingly view death porn images could be the cheapest, most hamfisted form of persuasion. It’s the last resort of the speechless — of activists and writers who are simply incapable of forming a stirring argument using words and (non-death porn) images. If you’re completely incapable of making a strong case against war or drones or whatever your pet issue might be without infecting your readers’ brains with death porn, then get off the stage. You have no business participating in the discourse. By using these images as a shockingly unexpected cudgel, you show total contempt for your readers, regardless of whether they agree with what you’re trying to do.
However, if you just can’t help yourself and you really, really have to post such photography and videos, have some decency and post it with a warning or within a permalink instead of in a place where it’s involuntarily viewed. This goes especially for Facebook friends (or former friends) who think it’s powerful activism to post photos of tortured animals in my feed. Not only is it a one-way ticket to being un-friended, but it only serves to repulse both the people who agree, and especially those who disagree. I’m a strong supporter of animal rights, and I’ve seen many of the animal abuse videos released by PETA and the others, but I’ve only done so by choosing to click on a link — not by force, either by a photograph or even a thumbnail on a video. That’s a crucial distinction. Again: choice.
Tell me, the next time you see anti-choice zealots protesting outside of a school or a doctor’s office, waving placards with blown-up photos of aborted fetuses, does the death porn convince you to support their cause, or does it repulse you?
I can’t really muster any sympathy for Sullivan or Ezra Klein or Jonathan Chait, even though I applaud their respective epiphanies and their subsequent honesty about their mistakes. These are writers I like and otherwise respect, but who fucked up and supported the biggest and bloodiest foreign policy blunder in American history short of the Vietnam War. But Andrew, please stop bludgeoning me with your own self-flagellation. Your penitence shouldn’t be my punishment.