I was neither upset nor particularly surprised when– beginning a few days ago– the mainstream media began calling the Miami, FL cannibalism assault a “zombie attack.” Certainly, it had all of the right elements. (If you are reading this blog, I probably do not need to repeat the details to you.) It was sort of amusing, yes, and helped to make news of an isolated instance of horrible violence a little less awful to think about.
But then Gawker.com posted a graphic picture of the faceless victim under the “zombie attack” header.
The photo, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid seeing, is the sort of jarring medical-school image that the mainstream media (MSM) never shows. I don’t know if Gawker “counts” as the MSM according to classical definitions, but I think it comes close. (Certainly, there are news outlets– like VICE or The Exiled– where one can expect to see images of violence that are completely uncensored. But tellingly and connectedly, VICE and The Exiled are pointedly political entities, and do not strive for detached objectivity the way, say, CBS News or The Chicago Tribune do.) I think that Gawker made a rare exception to its usual editorial standards and showed horrible, actual gore because it was related to a story about zombies. My thesis in this blog post is that this is a bad thing.
Scott Carney— the celebrated journalist (whom I know from college)– saw the image and did a post on his Facebook page wondering why an image like this was allowed to be circulated when images of dead people in war zones are not. I decided Scott was on the right track. I also decided– troublingly– that the answer was zombies.
Why don’t we show images of horrible gore in the news? Just looking at it in terms of phenomenology, I think it must have something to do with being in a first-world country. Major newspapers sometimes do show front-page images of disturbing gore…in places like Mexico and Nigeria. Newspapers in first-world countries don’t. Why is this? One reason is the law.
In the USA, courts have consistently found that confronting someone with upsetting imagery they don’t wish to see is legally tantamount to physically assaulting them. (For example, you know how adult bookstores don’t display pictures of naked people or sexual activity in their windows, but instead have covered-over windows [or no windows at all]? There’s a legal reason for that. One of the precedents established in the Larry Flynt obscenity trials of the 1970’s was that turning a corner and suddenly being “confronted” by X-rated material is, legally at least, like being punched in the face. Thus, we now have safeguards to ensure that only people who desire to see these images actually see them.)
Another reason we don’t show graphic gore in the MSM is that it is deemed “too political.” For example, many would say that showing a horribly killed soldier is– by its very nature– a way of arguing that war is bad. The MSM believes– correctly, I think– that seeing gore is agitating to most folks, and that one has more difficulty maintaining objectivity when the results of graphic violence are displayed.
But in my opinion, sometimes agitation and political action are called for. And that’s what’s been lost here (or is in danger of being lost). Maybe seeing a man with a 80% eaten face should rile you up and should make you political.
What are potential “political” reactions to this Florida attack? Off the top of my head:
- “Bath salts” should be instantly made illegal everywhere
- We should do more to protect our homeless from being victimized
- We should do more to rehabilitate our troubled, drug addicted, and mentally ill citizens
These are just a few. However, notice that they are all legal and policy “asks.” They would require legislation and/or funding. That means effort and political action. (A conspiracy theorist might say that the government doesn’t want us seeing explicit things that rile us up because then we would be asking for changes and demanding that the government do more to improve things.)
What I didn’t like about Gawker’s decision to show this gory image was that Gawker tried–in the same breath– to say: “There is no appropriate political or policy reaction to a man rendered faceless by a drug addict. It’s just zombies! Ha ha! You know? Zombies! They’re so silly! They’re pretend movie monsters! Isn’t this funny?”
Gawker used zombies to take away the political impact of a very horrible, very real thing. And that’s lousy, in my opinion.
(Have I, as a “zombie writer,” helped to create an atmosphere where violence is automatically viewed as funny and apolitical when it is coincidentally similar to a zombie attack? I certainly hope not.)