There was a time, not too long ago, when television made the world infinitely bigger. Reporters went into unknown areas, for the first time people could see with their own eyes from their own living room – still via one channel – what was going on on the other side of the world. Where everything was different, everything was strange. Viewers were presented with new ideas, new perspectives. Viewers also became a bit new themselves. A little different and a little strange.
Fast forward to now. Today there are hundreds of channels and you are surrounded by dozens of screens. Sitting on the couch, all I have to do is move my thumb or index finger to see everything, hear everything, feel everything. Here are the photos of a destroyed city in Syria, in Ukraine, here is a video of a koala rescued just in time from a forest fire, here are images of riots in Hong Kong, of farmers in the Netherlands, of the baby of the neighbor, here is a refugee just walking out of the sea, here Jan Rot tells in ten minutes what it is like to die, here is another advertisement for fuller lips, smoother skin, did you see that refugee?, oh, and here is another super sweet, super inspiring video of a boy cuddling with a chicken!
Every day I am swept up in a maelstrom of news, anecdotes, advertisements, opinions, memes and jokes. It flows and it swirls and it ripples and it foams, but nothing in there has weight anymore. In an existence that is becoming more and more virtual, the line between real and unreal disappears, reality sometimes feels like a dream. The one constant in all those images, those tidal waves of information, is that they converge in me, in my body, heart and head. That I, the viewer, the consumer, am the one who filters and judges. I am the core of the maelstrom.
The explosion of screens and channels has not enlarged my world, but made it smaller. She locks me in myself. Because everything keeps coming together in me, I have come to think that I am also the measure of things.
‘We make recognizable programs for all those people’
So what to do? Representatives of the traditional media, television and radio makers, journalists, they too see the problem: the crazy individualism of today, all those selves who think they are the measure of things, who suddenly do their own research, think for themselves! , the multitude of voices, that gigantic lack of support. It has led to a fragmented society, atomized and polarized. How do you get people together in that? How do you make a connection? In the end we will have to do it together.
The solution that seems to be used again and again is recognition. The NPO, for example, states this explicitly; in the The mission statement states that broadcasting is ‘a binding factor in our multiform society’, ‘where people feel connected despite differences’, and: ‘we make recognizable programs for all those people’. But opinion makers and thinkers also insist on it in newspapers or magazines. We should listen to each other more, it is constantly said, have an open mind, recognize the other as ourselves. Because once we see what we have in common, the idea is what we share, we will eventually understand that we are much more alike than the current polarization suggests.
And hence the enormous emphasis on emotion that dominates today. After all, by the same reasoning, we are all equal in that regard. Our circumstances may differ, you may be poor / rich / famous / a refugee and I am not, sadness, infatuation or desires are equally hard for everyone.
How does it feel to lose a child?
“How does that feel?” is the approach of almost every interview or conversation, whether in newspapers, on radio or TV. How does it feel to be sick, successful, queer or a refugee? How does it feel to lose a child, cheat, climb Mount Everest, what did that do to you?
If the question cannot be asked directly, such as a while ago in an item at On 1 about the famine in Somalia, it is presented to two Dutch white photographers who were there: how does it feel to walk around in a refugee camp, how does it feel to see hungry children? Yes, that seems very heavy indeed.
Debates are conducted on the basis of one’s hurt feelings, one’s sense of insecurity, one’s desire to just say what he thinks it means. More often than not, personal stories seem to be initiated by a desire to inspire others with this and let viewers know they are not alone.
It is a comforting message, healing, positive and reassuring. It is mainly television as therapy. Meant to heal the soul and society. But meanwhile it is made all too clear what the correct feelings are. From the famine in Somalia to your mother’s too-short skirt (Hotter than my daughter) or your own overweight body (any health program). Morality has become emotion, and vice versa. The question is more and more who has the good feelings and who has the bad ones. Whether the view is open enough, enough empathy is expressed, enough compassion for those who deserve it, enough emphasis is placed on learning to listen better to achieve connection.
But in the end, of course, that premise is false. When it comes to feelings, people are anything but equal. Emotions are related to one’s circumstances, one’s background and moreover: for a single individual, one cat’s infatuation or death is not the same as another, let alone how big the difference is between people. The grief of one mother who loses her child, I have recently come to know up close, is incomparable to the grief of another parent who has suffered the same thing. my girlfriend read Tonioshe read Raw (about one of the five surfers who died in Scheveningen, red.), but she didn’t recognize herself in anything.
Every experience is subjective and irreproducible, every band unique. There are things you will never understand until they happen to you, and even then you will experience them differently than a fellow sufferer.
No matter how hard I try, in the end what I think I recognize in someone else is mainly myself. I project my own emotions onto someone else’s personal story, and push that other person in a mold that fits me well.
I remain trapped in my own gaze and imagination. I remain the measure of things.
Had Jan Rot not given ten minutes, but hours, one night
What I need is therefore not yet another confirmation, not the conviction that the other is like me, or should be like me. What I need is escape from myself.
This is almost impossible online. Recognition is now the norm there. After all, algorithms give me what I already know. They always base themselves on the past, on what I previously clicked, looked out for or gave a thumbs up to. What they predict I’ll like is what I liked before. Algorithms thus pin me to who I once was and will therefore never be able to open a new world or future for me.
But traditional media can. By not focusing on recognition, but on alienation.
Give people what they don’t know, didn’t know and certainly weren’t looking for. Give them the unknown and the incomprehensible. Show them the abnormalities, the ones that don’t function, that don’t feel the way they should. Don’t put friendly faces next to it, usually from a celebrity, to mediate things, but let the madmen and the outsiders make something themselves.
Remove all celebrities from TV anyway. Put down people who might stutter, falter or remain silent, people who are not thoroughly media trained, but who do know something, can do something, have something different to say for once. Had Jan Rot not given ten minutes, but hours, all night, with three bottles of wine, so that not only the positive, grateful feelings had been addressed, but also the fear and anger.
Show the violence of normality, as the philosopher Herbert Marcuse instructed artists. Don’t make the strange familiar, but the familiar strange. Let it scour, sow confusion, ignore all the angry letters that will undoubtedly follow, all the mails or tweets from people who are so eager to recognize themselves in what they see and hear, refer those people to an online existence of algorithms, ignore the ratings, let break the target group thinking, break open my world. Because only then will real connection become possible.
When I run into the limits of my imagination and realize that I am not the center, not the measure of things, but that the world is infinitely larger and richer than I ever imagined. Only then can I not only see others, but also allow them to appreciate them. Just because they don’t look like me. It will be a liberation.
This essay is based on a lecture Marian Donner gave at the NPO Innovation Festival.