Never Let Media Violence Kill Empathy, Compassion

by Jacques Brodeur

As media educators and aware citizens, we watch the news knowing that big media rarely miss an opportunity to use human sufferings to catch viewers’ attention. The media industry knows that human beings care for each other, and they’re in the business of catching attention for commercial purpose. Not surprisingly, in March 2016, images of the suicide bombing at Brussels Airport were used as major hooks to fuel consumers’ fear and attract more viewers. Following the morning of March 22, the media repeatedly offered online images of pain. This had a double effect: to inform us about real-life dangers (positive) and deteriorate our faculty of empathy/­compassion (negative). Neuroscience and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have taught us about empathy deterioration during and after massive exposure to media violence. Humans want (need) to be informed about danger in order to become more aware, more supportive of risk-­reducing measures, and more supportive in rescuing victims. Research suggests that watching images from explosions, assaults, and other violence over and over—ten times, fifty times, a hundred times, thousands of times—has the dramatic effect of transforming caring attitudes into powerlessness, anger, or hatred.

In the early 1990s, George Gerbner wrote that “Bombarding viewers by violent images of a mean and dangerous world remains, in the last analysis, an instrument of intimidation and terror. It makes legal repression more easily provoked and accepted. Even more troublesome is the thought that legal formalities may no longer be necessary. In other words, our basic power of empathy­/compassion becomes crippled, neutralized, at least partly and sometime entirely.

The more these images are shown on screens, the more we hear people around us asking for more revenge, more bombings, more sales of guns, more spying on airwaves, more approval for denying human rights; the more we hear louder applause for the promise of building walls to prevent strangers from entering our countries, more people begging their own governments to block refugees and migrants, and more approval for refusing asylum to people fleeing the destruction of their homes and cities, trying to save the lives of their children.

After the explosions in Brussels—as after the shootings in Paris, in Orlando, in Montréal, after the bombings in Boston and the suicide plane crash in New York City—our own empathy was reduced, even as we tried to “understand the deep motivation of the suicide bombers or mass killers. Further, as media educators, some of us became aware of lasting damage to this basic human faculty.

Strength of Spirit and Solidarity
Along with the violent and cruel turbulence damaging the real world around us, there is one particular event—or rather the news treatment of a specific event—that deserves media educators’ attention and appreciation. Four days before the Brussels Airport attack, the International Olympic Committee announced that the Games in Rio de Janeiro would, for the first time, host a delegation of refugees.

Students of all ages enjoy being informed about news that can teach them lessons of humanity and hope. While media violence, whether in fiction or in news, teaches despair and fear, education promotes social power and togetherness. Among all the people fleeing their homes and countries because of wars, including bombings by military forces from our own richer countries, including killings by organizations fueled by secret services of our own countries, were athletes who wished to participate in the Olympics. The IOC decision will allow them to follow their courage, and fans all over the world will have the opportunity to express admiration for them.

The Mardini sisters, young swimmers from Syria, are among these athletes. In November 2015, the Seattle Times told their story:

The Mardini sisters eventually left Damascus in early August 2015, joining a fresh wave of Syrians who had given up hope of seeing the conflict end soon. The sisters traveled to Lebanon, then Turkey, [but] Turkish coastguards drove their boat back on the first attempt. The second time they boarded a small inflatable dinghy at dusk. Within a half hour it was taking on water, hopelessly overloaded with people, most of whom couldn’t swim.

…Yusra, Sarah and three others who were also strong swimmers jumped into the water in order to give the boat more buoyancy.

“I was not afraid of dying, because if anything happened I could swim to arrive at the island. But the problem was that I had 20 persons with me,” said Sarah. “In Syria I worked in a swimming pool to watch people not drowning, so if I let anyone drown or die I would not forgive myself.”

For three hours they clung onto ropes hanging from the side until it reached shore on the Greek island of Lesbos.

…Eventually, the sisters made it to Austria and then Germany. Shortly after arriving in Berlin a local charity put them in touch with the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a swimming club based near their refugee shelter.

The club has embraced its newest recruits, putting them straight into a daily training routine.

Reports from other sources emphasize the spirit and humanity of these survivors. According to a March 2016 article in The Guardian, a U.K.-based news source, after the girls were welcomed at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04,

yusra swimming

©Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images For IOC

Coach Sven Spannekrebs immediately decided that Yusra was good enough to be part of the team. …Mardini made better progress than expected, and the club started to talk about whether she could be a candidate for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. ‘But then things developed faster than we expected,’ Spannekrebs said. A lot of people could take her as a role model, said her coach. “Yusra is very focused. She has clear goals and organises her life around them.

Her level of organisation was almost German, he said – a comment which Yusra denied with a vigorous shake of her head. “We are like that in Syria!”

The story also was covered in numerous other news outlets outside the United States, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the New Zealand-based news site Stuff, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.


In March of this year, the International Olympic Committee made their decision to form the refugee team:


©Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images 2004

For the first time in its history, the International Olympic Committee announced [that] the nations competing at the summer Games will be joined in Rio by a team of refugees, made up of athletes who would otherwise find themselves stateless and excluded. … The athletes selected from Kakuma [a huge refugee camp in northwestern Kenya] have been transferred to Loroupe’s training facility in Nairobi, while the camp itself, home to 180,000 people, has developed its own sports infrastructure, including a league with over 160 football teams and more than 60 basketball teams. Most refugees live in camps struggling to survive.

With this action, the IOC hopes to capture the unifying spirit that many believe drives the very existence of the Olympic Games:

“By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” IOC President Thomas Bach said after the team was announced. “Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in the Olympic Village.”

[…] Yusra is keen to inspire people across the world. She said: “I think first of all I want to do it for all the people; I want to inspire everyone. When you have a problem in your life, it doesn’t mean you have to sit around and cry like babies or something. The problem was the reason I am here, and why I am stronger and want to reach my goals. So I want to inspire everyone that [they] can do what they believe in their hearts.”

team 2016

©UNHCR 2016


Education is Essential
Terrorism has roots. It does does not come out of nowhere. Along with enormous flow of information about the horrible damage that terrorists perpetrate, however, there is an almost complete dearth of information about the military industrial complex that keeps generating wars and profiting from conflicts. In such a context, educators must not miss opportunities to keep the flame of education shining high, and this includes critical media literacy education.

In 2012, when she was fifteen years old, the now-famous Pakistani Malala Yousafzai was shot by a member of the Taliban for promoting girls’ right to education. In the four years since, Malala has become a powerful activist in her own right and has offered humanity many wonderful and powerful lessons, including this one popularized in Internet memes: “With guns, you can kill terrorists. With education, you can kill terrorism.” This is another lesson for all educators, including critical media educators worldwide. For such inspiration, we offer thanks to Malala, to the Mardini sisters, to all refugees who kept hope for freedom alive, to all our fellow citizens who supported refugees in their hearts, to all decision-makers who opened their frontiers to host refugees, to all educators across the world who place empathy and compassion above fear, suspicion, hatred, revenge, guns, and bombings.

The situation of refugees worldwide has become a major issue in education, media manipulation, politics, economics, public health, international cooperation, and public affairs. Guiding students of the twenty-first century through these issues is part of the mission of all teachers on planet Earth.

In 2015, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, at Brown University, evaluated the situation of refugees from three countries. The insecurity that Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis face extends far beyond the guns and blasts of the war. It includes lack of secure access to food, healthcare, housing, employment, and clean water and sanitation, as well as loss of community. For war refugees, these problems are exacerbated in the face of exile. Approximately 6.7 million people (nearly the population of the state of Massachusetts) in these war zones have been displaced and are living in grossly inadequate conditions. Refugees also face difficulties in renewing visas, denial of civil rights and services, fear of deportation, and anxiety about the future. Many displaced persons, usually poorer migrants who lack the finances necessary to travel abroad, have had to relocate within their countries. For example, in Baghdad, internally displaced persons (IDPs) often squat in bombed­-out buildings with no water, electricity, sewage, or garbage disposal. Precarious living conditions are further heightened by unemployment. Those who have managed to escape the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fled to nearby states, including Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. The refugee influx into these countries has strained their resources and the livelihoods of their urban working classes.

Statistica-Refugee-StatsGiven the continued reluctance of Western states to resettle Iraqi and Afghan refugees, the limited international assistance received by host states, and the uncertainty as to time of return, the refugee situation continues to worsen. According to the anti-poverty organization Oxfam, the world’s six wealthiest countries—the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—host 2.1 million refugees, less than 9 percent of the world’s total. “In contrast, more than half of the world’s refugees—almost 12 million people—live in Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Pakistan, Lebanon and South Africa, despite the fact these places make up less than 2% of the world’s economy. Furthermore, “more than 65 million people have left their homes due to violence, war and human rights violations, the highest number since records began. Most of these (40.8 million) are displaced within their own country, with 21.3 million as refugees and 3.2 million awaiting asylum decisions in industrialised countries. The conflict in Syria has played a large role in this displacement, as have conflicts in Burundi, Central African Republic, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.”


refugees 1

©UNHCR 2016

Refugees deserve to be helped, not ignored, shunned, or shamed. As citizens of the world, we all should do our part, and such efforts must include education, open dialogue, and action. To further conversation, to establish some starting points, I offer the following statements:

Statement 1. Refugees are not cowards, nor beggars; they are real-life heroes.

Statement 2. Refugees deserve hospitality in our countries, from us and from all our fellow citizens, including Canada and the U.S., countries full of sons and daughters of immigrants.

Statement 3. Education means sharing. Sharing is necessary in good times and in bad times. Supporting each other, rescuing each other, allowing the best to bloom in each of us—all of these are part of our human responsibility, particularly for educators who spend their lives fighting ignorance, struggling for education, freedom, and solidarity. It is my belief that all schools should take time to make the Refugee Olympic Team 2016 known to students, along with the horrible situation of refugees worldwide. In 2015, 65.3 million people had to leave their homes and countries because of war and persecution. These refugees are Real-Life Survivors, unlike the “survivors” of the so-called reality TV series. The current world situation forces all of us educators to share information with youth at a time when refugees are trying desperately to find shelter. Critical media literacy education includes, at its core, representation of groups as well as individuals, questioning of the power structures that too often control information and therefore guide our lives, and building knowledge to provide a foundation for activism—or action. Exploring the plights of refugees and the coverage of their struggles, particularly with a focus on those near or of an age with our students, provides an excellent CMLE lens, a great starting point for media education for our youth.

Jacques Brodeur is the founder of Edupax and a veteran media educator. He is also a physical and health educator, freedom of information activist, founding member of the Action Coalition for Media Education, and creator of the 10-Day Screen-Free Challenge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s