Saturday, July 17, 2010

Placebos and hypochondriacs

I've been thinking a bit lately about the idea of a placebo – an unreal cause that has a real effect. Obviously the idea of a placebo is central to medicine testing and to the treatment of hypochondriacs, but it is also a tremendous metaphor for how people may sometimes relate to the world. More specifically, for me, it describes how people may be manipulated by news media.

Naturally, news media carry what we would happily call 'true stories'; journalists are required to report on facts more than they are asked to report on speculations or their own imagineerings. At least, that's what we like to think. The main problem I've noticed in South African newspapers, as is probably true of most journalistic outputs worldwide, is that they provide bite-sized snippets of events or facts without necessarily explaining or unpacking the context or the full consequences of these events or facts for readers.

Moreover, because of the nature of journalism, the 'mere facts' often miss the nuances and complexities of social scenarios and cultural contexts. In other words, the rhetoric of (apparent) realism produces what may be called the unreal. In an attempt to reflect only reality, what tends to happen (and this generalisation is by no means flawless) is that reality gets lost somewhere. Even the most neutral, factual, truthful journalism is a placebo of some kind.

So whether journalists are reporting on mass tragedies like 9/11 or smaller but equally terrible tragedies like the crime in South Africa or teenage hooliganism in the UK, the removal of these stories from the wider contexts in which they are found leads to what I describe as cultural hypochondria. A climate of fear is perpetuated. People feel like victims in the face of the insurmountable. People live too reactively.

I'm not saying that I have this idea completely figured out or that this idea is without its faults, but it is, I believe, a notion worth exploring in relation to how we engage with the world we live in. Even if I'm taking the idea too far, it is certainly worth asking if our perception of reality is largely constructed through a second-hand, mediated, vicarious experience of the world. It's certainly worth asking if most of our actions are born out of what isn't even real.

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