When I was just a child, I watched footage of the Vietnam war and, later, the killing of protestors at Kent State in Ohio — on network television. Viewing these atrocities bolstered my stance of “diplomacy first, war never.”
A rhetorical context for these televised horrors was the technological advancement of journalistic equipment for filming such truly newsworthy events. At the time, the media was not in a position to turn away this content.
At the same time, the western world was experiencing counterculture: call them “hippies,” “drop-outs,” “bra-burners,” truth-seekers, or whatever; our world was suddenly teeming with people whose ideas, activism, and conversations bucked the hegemonic system. These folks were creating vocal and visible backlash to the rapid modernism taking over our culture and our planet, while fighting the forces of oppression, whether racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination against non-white, non-male persons.
Of course, the filming and televising of utterly horrific exterminations of Vietnamese people and American college students was not the beginning of the counterculture, which had its roots in 1950s during McCarthyism. Poets, musicians, artists, actors, and other peace-not-war minded people, along with people of color (or Blacks, or African Americans, whichever you prefer), were already speaking and acting out against McCarthy’s “House Un-American Activities” initiative and other witch-hunt policies, in addition to the overt “Whites Only” / “Blacks Only” segregation tactics. Then, in the 1960s, our nation was moved into the Civil Rights Era; and in the early 1970s, into the Women’s Movement, otherwise known as first wave feminism.
But I digress. Television footage of these Vietnam and Kent State events brought reality into our homes. People saw not only the scale and shocking violence of the war, but the magnitude of the protests against it — and the degree to which the powers-that-be would push to try to stop those protests. Yet after millions of viewers saw it all, there was no way to make them un-see it, and the political tides turned quickly to end the Vietnam war.
Today, the media — specifically, the mainstream media (MSM) — is for all practical purposes incapable of broadcasting such truth, and so it is difficult to change public sentiment about the numerous wars, atrocities, and military occupations perpetrated by power moguls in our nation, and beyond. Soundbites, newswire stories, and happy-human-interest bits round out what most networks call “news,” and viewers have become accustomed to the routine: it’s familiar, it requires no critical thinking, and it usually ends with jokes and joyful fluff. All of these qualities are comforting to the average viewer, who becomes shielded from the realities of the world while being entertained — and Americans are very good at staying entertained.
In fact, when we see snippets about war and violence on tv, it appears as entertainment simply because it is on tv. This a topic which Neil Postman wrote about in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (It’s a great read, and I highly recommend buying a copy now!) Basically, Postman says that television is a medium designed for human amusement, and so anything we see on it, including “the news,” becomes entertainment.
Now, we see new terms entering our vocabulary, like “tragedy porn,” which involves photographs, film clips, or gifs of people, places, and things that have been ravaged by human caused violence or natural calamity. Most recently, it is the Syrian “boy in the ambulance” who, adding insult to injury, will likely become another victim of tragedy porn, his image forgotten in tomorrow’s “news.”
Unlike tragedy porn, the vast majority of viewers did not forget the horrific televised images of the Vietnamese massacre and Kent State protestors being gunned down. In a similar manner, viewers in 2001 saw footage of the Twin Towers free-falling on 9/11, as television, satellite, and cable stations broadcast the destruction 24/7 for several days. Although the reasoning behind televising both events, roughly 40 years apart, was completely different, these were two unique times when tv became more than just an amusement screen while never succumbing to the current trend of tragedy porn.
As I see it, a significant difference between the Vietnam/Kent State and the 9/11 broadcasts is the two distinct cultural contexts: the earlier including a large, organized activist counterculture that focused on a single issue at a time (the war, in this case); the latter being made up of a scattered, sociopolitical disconnect in which there are SO MANY ISSUES do deal with, many people feel powerless to effect change and thus blindly follow the dictates of leaders (“go shopping,” for instance, was then-president George W. Bush’s urging to the American people). In other words, I argue that the counterculture revolution of the 1960s/70s actively resisted the fear-based messages of the hegemonic forces, while the majority of Americans in 2001 embraced fear and accepted the messages.
For myself, viewing the Vietnam/Kent State footage anchored me in my ideas of creating peace and resisting the call to violence. As a Communication Studies scholar, I wholeheartedly advocate for diplomacy first and war never: this goes to my vision for a planet and all of its inhabitants living in harmony and evolving in love. I know, we have a long way to go, but we can start now.