Correction made 12/5/13
If you’re careful, you’ll get through today without doing something morally monstrous. If you’re not careful, you won’t. It’s as simple as that.
It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a virtuous person, a well-intentioned but flawed person, or—at least in your private reflections—something of a louse. You have a fair chance of being morally good or morally monstrous every day—in part because the definition of monstrous can be such a slippery thing. Murder? Check. Looting a pension fund and bankrupting hundreds of retirees? Sure. How about ignoring a starving street person begging in front of a supermarket while you’re on your way home to tuck into a roast leg of lamb? To you, that’s a misdemeanor. To the hungry guy? It’s something else.
So what does it say about you if you listened to the 911 tapes of the Newtown school shooting when they became available today? What does it say if you not only listened to them but first went looking for them? Plenty of news outlets, including Time.com, have chosen not to post links to the audios. But they’re out there, and maybe you found them, listening to the terror of the callers and the gunfire in the background and knowing that children—babies, really—were being murdered by the bullets that each of those popping sounds represented.
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Does it make it better if you were horrified by what you heard? If it made you even more committed to stopping this kind of horror in the future? If it made you hug your kids and give thanks for their safety? Maybe, but there were other things you probably felt too: a sense of can’t-turn-away fascination; a guilty thrill that you were listening to an unfolding drama whose outcome you know (exactly how many will die, exactly who they will be) even though the participants in it didn’t. The JFK anniversary is over and you’ve had your fill of the slo-mo Zapruder film (the president had three seconds to live; the president had two seconds to live—and he didn’t know it!) and now the Newtown recordings come along. If you listened to the tapes—or you’ve been gaping at Zapruder—and didn’t come away feeling at least a little disgusted with yourself, well, you’re not thinking very hard.
Certainly you have a few moral lifelines to use. We are curious creatures—always have been and always will be—and we find it hard to resist things that are stunning and moving and unfamiliar. “Our lives are circumscribed by our everyday circumstances,” says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and ethicist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “When bad things happen, we want to know about them. This is why people rubberneck at traffic accidents.”
But there’s more going on than mere gawking. One of the reasons we rubberneck is the same reason we go to the theater. Haidt cites both Aristotle and the Hindu sage Bharata asking why we choose to spend an evening watching a tragedy. Why do we want to feel bad? “The answer,” Haidt says, “is that in the theater, we get to taste unfamiliar emotions from a distance. They’re not a result of bad things that are really happening to us; they’re not even really happening to the people on the stage. They’re as-if emotions.”
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The problem in the case of Newtown is that there wasn’t any as-if about it. Twenty children and six faculty members lost their very real lives in a very real way. “In this case,” says Haidt, “we’re not dealing with aesthetic emotions. This was real horror, a real atrocity. I would not dream of listening to these tapes and I assume that most people with small children wouldn’t either.”
But that argument can be turned on its head: if we cut ourselves off from horror, if we refuse to look at it, aren’t we in some ways failing to bear proper witness to it? The best ways to prevent such savagery from happening again may be to face the fact that it happened in the first place. If that’s so, aren’t we almost morally bound to listen to the sounds of Newtown—and isn’t failing to listen a form of moral cowardice?
Sorry, no—at least not in this case.”Some people are motivated by collective guilt at what happened so they might listen to help them deal with that,” says Richard Shweder, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Chicago‘s Department of Comparative Human Development. “Some people listen because it gets them feeling indignant about guns or mental health issues or other things they care about.”
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But stoking your personal outrage or cleansing yourself of guilt is, in neither case, about the victims. It’s about making yourself feel better. Nice try, but it’s morally greedy.
Shweder does feel that if the outcome had been different—if the police had stormed in or the killer had been subdued before he could commit his slaughter—there might at least be a colorable argument in favor of hearing the tapes. “Defeating evil is one thing,” he says, “but bearing witness to its triumph is a form of degradation.”
Disturbingly, in a culture that’s always on camera—whether it’s reality shows or smartphone videos or the ubiquitous security cameras in public and not-so-public places—bearing such witness is becoming easier and easier. That, Shweder fears, is just coarsening us further, giving everything the emotional distance of a movie—and leaving us with the same kind of emotional depth. Newtowns will happen—and happen and happen, it’s starting to seem. The more we respect them as private tragedies, not public circuses, the closer we may come to bringing them to an end.
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Correction: The original version of this story included the wrong name for one of the experts cited. He is Richard Shweder, not Robert.