Writer Stuart Slade on why breaking out of our safe social media bubbles, and opening ourselves up to stare trauma in the face, is the only way to change the world.
I bet the same thing happened to you as me, recently.
During the US election, and during the Brexit vote, I was totally and utterly certain that Trump would lose, and that Britain wouldn’t turn into Brexit nightmare with a side-helping of neo-fascism.
But I was wrong.
Why? Partially, I suppose, because I’m an incorrigible optimist about the kindness of strangers, but also because of Facebook and Twitter.
Every single voice in my news feed was anti-Trump, anti-Brexit (apart from my parents, and we kinda didn’t speak civilly for a long time afterwards – sorry Mum, I still love you and stuff). The echo chamber of social media, where you choose the voices you hear, and unfollow those you don’t like, means our perception of the world is increasingly limited to ‘People Like Us’.
And mostly this is fine by me. Lying in bed first thing in the morning reading my phone I simply can’t cope with reading hate from a bunch of alt-right sociopaths. I’m a little vulnerable first thing, and early morning fascism would really harsh my morning buzz, right?
Thinking about it though, this one-sided view of the world is starting to disconnect me from reality, cushion me from the uglier side of the society in which we live. And I’m not sure that’s healthy.
In the aid agency world people talk a lot about ‘compassion fatigue’. About how, after a while, people actively avoid seeing shocking, traumatic images of people caught up in wars or natural disasters. And I totally sympathise. I mean, I assume there’s a finite number of pictures of dead babies washed up on beaches or mashed by barrel bombs that I can take without totally emotionally falling to bits. You need to protect yourself.
On the other hand, rose tinted specs only get you so far.
I’ve got a play, called BU21, opening at Trafalgar Studios in January. It’s about the impact of a passenger plane being shot down by ISIS over London. Researching it was pretty harrowing – I spent a long time reading interviews with survivors of the Paris and Brussels attacks, of 9/11, of 7/7, of MH17 in Ukraine.
In the play, one of the characters, Izzy, is desperate to find out what’s going on, minutes after the crash – only to discover that her mother is dead via an extremely graphic photo on Twitter.
In today’s instantaneous, globally connected world, this nightmarish scenario is not only chillingly plausible – it’s increasingly a fact of life. Several family members of MH17 were reputed to have found out that their loved ones hadn’t survived via a Google image search, revealing horrifying images of broken wreckage and bodies in the cornfields of Ukraine just hours after the event. The immediacy of news can bring instant gratification, sure, but it also brings with it the sort of unfiltered, gratuitous horror that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Researching and writing the play I was staring hell straight in the face, and it was pretty hard.
Eventually, though, I realised that putting myself in a position of total vulnerability – exposing myself to a bunch of really horrible stuff – let’s call it truth – turned out to be enormously liberating.
Firstly, I learnt that people under extreme adversity are far stronger, more inspiringly brave, humane and kind than I’d have ever thought possible – which was awesome in itself. Secondly, though, I started to understood that refusing to shy away from the grim realities of the world – of daring to look – is empowering in itself. You gain courage by it.
And this is as true of Donald Trump as of traumatising photos.
I work in theatre, and part of what I want to do – probably what we all want to do – is to change stuff for the better, make the world a tiny bit kinder and more sympathetic. And that’s never, ever going to happen if we avert our eyes from repulsive stuff.
Wrapping ourselves in a social media duvet of like-minded folks is lovely and cosy, but in today’s increasingly scary world, I think we all need to venture out into the cold and engage with folks outside the echo-chamber.
Here’s a modest proposal for you: Let’s all re-follow that person from school that blames immigrants for the break up of his marriage. Let’s all look at the dead baby shots from Aleppo. Sod it, let’s even start reading the Daily Mail.
Let’s dare to put ourselves out there, naked and vulnerable. Let’s start to understand the people we disagree with, and let’s beat them on their own terms.
Because otherwise nothing’s ever going to change and that would be rubbish.
I’m in. Are you?
BU21 is at Trafalgar Studios from January 4 to February 18, 2017.
Image: David Monteith-Hodge