Negative news and the compassionate revolution

On 29th April 2015 convicted Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran were among a group of eight people executed by firing squad in Indonesia. The case had drawn a huge amount of media attention, not only because the pair were Australian, but also due to the exemplary rehabilitation they underwent during their incarceration. Despite living under constant fear of execution for nine years, the pair had both managed to better themselves as individuals during this time, and give help and support to fellow inmates.

I remember following the case myself, and signing all the relevant petitions to have the pair released, or at least not executed. Sadly it was already clear that these petitions would be ineffective, but it felt important to try and do something to help them. I assumed that everybody would feel the same way I did, and would be campaigning for both men to be shown mercy. However, I soon learnt that this wasn’t the case. In fact, it was quite the opposite. A large percentage of people I spoke to, both online and in person, believed that because Andrew and Myuran knew the risks, they deserved their punishment. The more I heard this opinion expressed, the more concerned I became. If a person goes driving without a seat belt on, and subsequently dies in a crash, would anybody say they deserved it?

It was the case of Andrew and Myuran that made me realise just how easy it can be for many people to dismiss the suffering of others. Especially when that suffering is not happening right in front of them. The rise in social media and the bombardment of negative news stories we each face on a daily basis may have a role to play in this. Negative news sells, and in a world where hundreds of channels have to fight for your attention, networks rely on getting the highest ratings however they can. Studies show that humans instinctively seek out negative information, and that this negative bias actually makes us remember and repeat bad news more often that good news.

Due to our societal preference for negative news, mainstream media today shows up to seventeen times more negative news stories than positive ones. Is this a sign that we live in a predominantly negative world? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It is, however, a sign that good news simply doesn’t attract enough viewers or readers compared to bad news.

This rolling coverage of negativity, delivered to us by 24-hour news channels and social media may feed our appetite for “survival-relevant” information, but it also desensitises us to the awful things we see when we watch or read such news stories. A study in 1982 by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that regular viewing of violent images on the television can cause children to not only become more fearful of the world around them, but also become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. This certainly seems feasible, especially when you consider the findings of a study by the University of Michigan which found that college students today are significantly less empathetic than those in the 80’s and 90’s were. Not only does the decrease in empathy seem to correlate with the increase in exposure to violent images on the television, but the biggest drop seems to come after the year 2000, which coincides with the rise in popularity of social media. The study of over 14,000 students over 30 years found that modern students are roughly 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 to 30 years ago.

This data is easy to believe. A short scroll through the comments section of any news story will attest to the fact that compassion and empathy are fast becoming rare commodities. The coverage of the European migrant crisis demonstrated this perfectly, as huge volumes of people criticised those who fled the ravages of war, not giving any thought to whether or not they would do the same in that situation. Commentators such as Katie Hopkins compared migrants to cockroaches and called for their boats to be shot at; and people cheered her on, blissfully and intentionally ignorant to just what it was those people were fleeing.

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It may be that a lack of compassion is an intentional trait, used by many as a shield to protect themselves from the horrors they see in the world. By justifying something that feels wrong, we create rationalisations that help us assuage feelings of guilt. These techniques make it easy for animal lovers to eat meat; for parents to buy clothes made by foreign children in sweatshops; and for defenders of democracy to call for bans on certain ideologies. We are able to do these things either by justifying the suffering our actions cause, or indulging in apathy. Perhaps the scariest thing would be to admit to ourselves that we care.

A world of rapidly decreasing empathy is a welcome playground for governments and large corporations, many of whom rely on exploiting resource-rich foreign nations. A society that is caring less each year about family, friends and neighbours is increasingly unlikely to make a fuss about unethical foreign policy. The British government can sell weapons to Saudi to be dropped on Yemen, and the outcry from the people of Britain will remain minimal. Even when the wars we fund spill out into the wider world, we can turn a blind eye and convince ourselves that whoever is suffering, even when it’s at our hands, probably deserves it.

Of course, it’s never too late to make changes. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools that not only help those who wield them, but also improve the lives of others. If we all endeavour to make more compassionate decisions, and inspire others to do the same, then we stand a better chance of creating a better world for future generations to enjoy.

Human history has been shaped to this point by three major revolutions; the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the next step is one that liberates us all in a way that nothing before it ever has. It starts with looking at how we treat one another, and how we care for the animals with whom we share this planet. It might involve making small changes such as where we shop, what we eat or what we buy, but ultimately it will empower every single individual to make choices which have a far reaching positive effect. It’s when we all make these small changes that big changes will follow. Future generations may look back at us now and question how we came so close to abandoning our principles, stuck in this era of apathy. But perhaps they’ll also be looking back at us from the other side of the most important stage in mankind’s history; the Compassionate Revolution.

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