Our Lying Eyes

George Floyd. Adam Toledo. Daunte Wright. Ma’khia Bryant. We know the tragic threads that draw each one of these four names together. Each of their stories differ in important details, but each was a black person whose life was ended by a police officer. The circumstance of their deaths is not all they share however. It is also true that many of us have witnessed their deaths personally over and over again. Each one of these individuals (and many others) had their deaths captured on video which was subsequently broadcast to tens of millions of people.

I can’t help but wonder why. What social good is served by broadcasting these videos? Don’t get me wrong; I understand the legal good that is served by making these videos available. But what is the social good? What is the social good in watching a 13-year-old lose his life? What is the social good of analyzing the video of a 16-year-old getting shot in the way that we might analyze a slow-motion replay from Monday Night Football? I remember a time when videos showing the deaths of people were almost never broadcast. It was regarded as uncivil. A person’s dying moments are sacred and were not meant to be made available for public consumption. But that was a long time ago. Now, we are routinely buffeted by videos showing the most intimate, sacred, and painful final moments of a person’s life. And whatever brief moment of emotion we might feel – anger, horror, sadness – is quickly dissipated as we keep scrolling. Obviously these videos have sparked a lot of public outcry and outrage, but I wonder if the net effect of these videos over time is that we are left increasingly calloused to the reality of life and death.

It is typical of our mass media age. There is nothing that we won’t broadcast – from our morning coffee, to a gender reveal, to a customer berating a cashier. Everything is now public and common. Everything is just a plastic performance; our morning coffee and the death of a teenager. In broadcasting these videos, we are helping to empty life of its sacredness. Every video that goes viral on Twitter makes life a little bit cheaper. Our voyeurism isn’t right.*

Now, I know the rebuttal that some people would offer. The social good of these videos is that they help to raise public awareness and accountability. In fact, this was the promise of digital technology. In 2013, Eric Schmidt, one of the founders of Google, wrote this in The New Digital Age. It’s a long quote, but I’m sharing the whole thing because it is so revealing.

The data revolution will bring untold benefits to the citizens of the future. They will have unprecedented insight into how other people think, behave and adhere to norms or deviate from them, both at home and in every society in the world. The new found ability to obtain accurate and verified information online, easily, in native languages and in endless quantity, will usher in an era of critical thinking in societies around the world that before had been culturally isolated. In societies where the physical infrastructure is weak, connectivity will enable people to build businesses, engage in online commerce and interact with their government at an entirely new level. The future will usher in an unprecedented era  of choices and options. While some citizens will attempt to manage their identity by engaging in the minimum amount of virtual participation, others will find the opportunities to participate worth the risk of the exposure they incur. Citizen participation will reach an all-time high as anyone  with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability and transparency. A shopkeeper in Addis Ababa and a precocious teenager in San Salvador will be able to disseminate information about bribes and corruption, report election irregularities and generally hold their governments to account. Video cameras installed in police cars will help keep the police honest, if the camera phones carried by citizens don’t already. In fact, technology will empower people to police the police in a plethora of creative ways never before possible, including through real-time monitoring systems allowing citizens to publicly rate every police officer in their hometown. Commerce, education, health care and the justice system will all become more efficient, transparent and inclusive as major institutions opt in to the digital age. People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners. With more data, everyone gains a better frame of reference.

Has the reality lived up to this promise? In some ways, I suppose it has. But are we really living in an era of “critical thinking?” Has access to more information really made us better informed? Or has it left us more susceptible to confusion and even manipulation? Is mere awareness necessarily the same thing as knowledge?

I know I’m treading on some dangerous terrain here. There are people who are no doubt suspicious of anyone who questions whether it is a good thing for the public to see these videos. They might suspect I’m trying to make some political point. I’m not. I’m only making the observation that we shouldn’t assume that what we see in a video is telling us the entire truth. Take the video below for instance. I show this video in one of my classes on interpretation to illustrate the point that we often see what we want to see or what we are directed to see. Something can be staring us straight in the face, but we might miss it because of bias or perhaps because we are just not careful observers.

So when you see a video of a police interaction online, are you sure that you are seeing the truth? Are you seeing only what you want to see or what you have been encouraged to see because it supports a certain narrative? Are you seeing the whole picture or only a part of the picture? Are you filling in the gaps of your knowledge with unjustified assumptions? Or what about the fact that only certain videos go viral? Doesn’t this fact twist our understanding of reality potentially sewing in additional biases? It’s not my intent to offend anyone or try to argue the specifics of any particular case, but these questions need to be asked. Yesterday and today, Twitter was full of amateur law enforcement experts breaking down the video of Ma’khia Bryant. People who have never been in law enforcement, who have never been in a chaotic, violent situation where life and death hang in the balance, who in many cases have never fired a weapon or used a taser were all weighing in on what the cop should have done in the situation. “If it were me, I would have shot her in the leg.” Really? Are you quite sure? Of course many others were absolutely sure that what they saw was yet another act of brazen racist violence from rotten law enforcement. Never mind that there was zero evidence of this or that the act was done in the protection of a black life. We know what we saw. Right? Do we even need an investigation? After all, our eyes don’t lie. The video doesn’t make us think. It turns off our thinking.

Anyone who has watched the NFL will tell you that instant replay often helps to get calls right. But there are a lot of other times where the video actually makes the call more questionable and unsure. Replaying the play over and over again can add confusion and not clarity. Every act of violence caught on video is now treated like instant replay, but it isn’t just the referee in the booth reviewing the play. We are all reviewing the play and taking our judgments immediately to our online community. The world must know our ruling! None of this transparency is leading to clarity though. It is leading to more confusion. More frustration. More misinformation. It’s leading to more outrage because we are all so convinced that after viewing a short grainy video on our phones we absolutely know the truth of what happened.

I began this post asking if there was a social good to these videos being shared. I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, but I’m dubious of their social good. I wish I knew the solution. Surely, ignorance isn’t preferable to transparency. How can we make changes in a society if we don’t have any awareness of those things that need to change? I get it, and I agree. But it’s still hard for me to see how they are a social good. Not only do these videos turn us into voyeurs stripping away the sanctity of life; they also reveal the false promises of a transparent society. In reality, the transparent society of the digital age has given way to a more paranoid, outraged, and anxious society.**

*I am glad that many news outlets have decided to stop sharing these videos for some of these exact reasons.

**Only a handful of you will care, but Michel Foucault predicted this paranoid and anxious self-surveilling society of social media in the mid-70s in his essay Panopticon. The panopticon was a method of incarceration dreamed up by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Foucault saw the panopticon as a metaphor for the control that characterizes modern society. He anticipated a society where we all are always spying on others while also being spied upon. This keeps us anxious and under control. “The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed. The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may with to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.”

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