‘On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?’
– Thomas Macaulay
On what principle is it, when we hear the sound of sirens, we long for the sound of silence? Heads will drop and mouths will mutter an “Oh no”, as flashing lights career by, and we wish we had not witnessed the desperation of the scene. So much noise and so much rush just to perpetuate all this fragility. A solemn, microcosmic reminder that for all our struggles, life holds a cruel and harsh reality. At first they are long, drawn out wails from afar. The graveness of the situation begins to dawn upon us, and gets irresistibly stronger as the siren quickens with the beating of our hearts. A crescendo of panicked bleats is reached as the emergency vehicle blurs by, and we balance on thoughts of curiosity and hope for a moment, as we watch it. The wails become steadily longer and drawn out again, until they are out of earshot and we can forget them: out of siren, out of mind. Had those sirens not screamed into one ear and out of the other, our day would have been more peaceful, and the world a better place for it we feel. Indeed, we would have preferred the sound of silence.
But there would not be silence. There would be the groans of agony of the man the ambulance did not come for. There would be the howls of rage of the robbed shopkeeper who the police did not chase the perpetrator of. There would, most devastatingly of all, be the meows of the cat up the tree that the firemen did not rescue. I would prefer the sound of sirens.
There are indicators in this world that masquerade as proof of the ills of society, when they are in fact evidence to the contrary. People always got sick, people always robbed each other, and cats presumably always got stuck up trees. But whereas before there was a cacophony of groaning and raging and meowing, now there is the sound of sirens.
The news works in a very similar way to the sound of sirens. The headlines that blare through our lives each day are designed to grab attention and instil alarm. They pull our thoughts to something awful that is going on in that very instant and in giving it all of our concentration – as we feel obligated to do as good citizens – we are blinded to the context surrounding it. When that ambulance roars by, we worry for the dying person inside of it, and fail to recognise the magnificence of the roads it drives on, the altruism of the cars that dart out of its way, and the wonders of the hospital that it is going to. The problem with this, as the inspirational intellect Stephen Pinker puts it, is:
“When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs.”
In the chaotic state of pre-industrial times, a time of increased entropy according to Pinker, the idea that a motorised vehicle would whisk you loudly through a labyrinth of roads to a special building in which a team of people would spend all their energy trying to keep you alive, would have sounded more heavenly than anything written in the Bible (not that you would have likely been able to read at all back then). Life now is more ordered than ever before, and one of the greatest signals of that is to be found in the freedom of speech and freedom of press that are the hallmarks of every democracy. Ironically – not to mention tragically – increasingly the way the gift of media is wrapped is to suggest that everything is going terribly wrong.
Allow me to demonstrate this with a story from this day, Sunday 12th January 2020. There is nothing particularly special about today, it is just another day in which headlines must be written and columns must be filled. Take the appalling news of the eight children migrants who drowned this morning trying to reach Turkey. It is tragic – do not mistake my candour for callousness, it is heartrendingly tragic – and it is part of a wider narrative that shows how far from heaven we still are. Indeed it is worsened further by the nagging feeling that the immigration policies of the countries in which we reside are partly responsible for such tragedies, and as such we might be culpable ourselves. But – there was always going to be a but – a story such as this is also completely unrepresentative of the world we live in. This is an immensely important thing to remember, and also an immensely difficult one, in a life where headlines beam bad news day and night. If ever I am overcome by all the sadness I find in the news, I turn either to the aforementioned Stephen Pinker, or to a man who Pinker himself was inspired by: Hans Rosling.
After reading of the children, I picked up my Kindle, opened up Rosling’s book Factfulness, searched it for excerpts including the word ‘drown’, and I found this:
“Would I ever hear about children who don’t drown? Can I see a decrease in child drowning’s out my window, in the news, or in a charity’s publicity material? Keep in mind that the positive changes may be more common, but they don’t find you. You need to find them. (And if you look in the statistics, they are everywhere.)”
And they are. In a country like Sweden, only three in 100,000 children under the age of five die of drowning. Clearly the children who lost their lives this morning were from a country far poorer than Sweden, and that is no coincidence, but Rosling finds reason for optimism still:
“Child death from drowning is one of the many horrors that has nearly disappeared as the country has become richer. That is what I call progress. The same improvements are taking place across the world today. Most countries are improving faster than Sweden ever did. Much faster.”
I undertook this exercise almost at random: I picked a devastating piece of news and followed up on it to see the context that surrounded it. And I found hope.
Talking of hope, I also noted a strangely hopeful story in the news today about the flowering of plants in parts of the 15.6 million acres of land affected by the Australian bushfires. The message is clearly supposed to be that the emerging pinks and greens from the ashes are a sign of unconquerable beauty and life amongst this ravaged earth. And in this postmodern society, where we are hell-bent on seeing the terribleness in everything, it is only a small step for our Nietzsche-warped minds to extend this metaphor to a global one, and to suggest to ourselves that this is the make-up of our world as a whole: a ravaged earth with the occasional flower.
News outlets will allow themselves these occasional optimistic stories, but rather than challenging the hysterical foundations of their industry, such stories actually compound the feel of panic they are already seeking to induce. This is done by way of contrast: a story offers a glimmer of hope amongst the apparently ubiquitous despair – some flowers amongst the ashes – and it suggests to us this is what could be, but it is not what is. What this is, they tell us, is a world of sin and flames.
The media is a paradox. It is one of the greatest successes of the human race, but it is determined to argue that there is nothing but deterioration before us, despite there being nothing but progress in the rear view mirror. It is an ambulance that screeches through our lives, blazing bad news in the streets so prominently that we forget how incredible the very idea of the ambulance itself is.
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