People are not mere tools. Not for entertainment or propaganda.
Human Issues have long been marked by chaos and violence. The reign of King Richard II (1377-1399) is instructive not because it was unique but because, historically speaking, it was not. The ruthless Parliament (1388), controlled by the Appellant of Lords, purged the capital of Richard’s supporters to weaken his power. Thomas Usk was one of many decent common people who were brutally executed. In By Thomas Usk Testament of love, medievalist Gary W. Shawver recounts how the scribe exposed an authoritarian mayoral candidate’s plot to seize permanent power in London. By his deeds, in 1387, the king appointed Usk deputy county director of Middlesex. His office was short-lived, however, as he was publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered months later. Eyewitness accounts provide the ensuing massacre in gruesome detail. The slashing of his head allegedly took more than 30 sword strokes. His body was then cut into pieces and the severed pieces were mounted all over London, near Usk’s relatives, to humiliate him.
It is now so clear to us that it can be easy to blame the execution of Usk, and the tens of thousands like her, entirely on the corrupt moral instincts of the rulers. But the mobs cheering for blood were also to blame. There is a certain type of spiritual death associated with such desecration of the human form, and it is not only experienced by the criminal. Thomas Usk was charged with treason and his head turned just a day after his trial began. The appellant of the Lords had taken power by force and Usk’s sentence would have been overtly political for the people of London. Yet citizens continued to appear en masse to witness the execution. And they failed to instill any loyalty value in the crown. They came to see the show, to see the blood. One can only imagine the anguish Usk felt in his last moments, with hordes of hungry eyes staring at his pain.
Arbitrary executions and purges are not as common now as they have been throughout much of history. Fortunately, most contemporary societies value human dignity enough to have cut back on overt displays of cruelty, gazed at by curious, interested, or delighted onlookers. But we are far from perfect. From the type of entertainment we consume to the ways we cover up the catastrophe, we continue to exhibit many of the same trends for which we criticize our “backward” ancestors.
Witness the “true crime” genre, which has exploded in recent years. Blogs, books and movies on the subject are everywhere. Don’t even get me started on the programs. Channel 4 announced a new platform dedicated to real crime content, True crime in 4, just a few weeks ago. Seduced, I will leave in the dark, Fear your neighbor, Evil lives here, American assassination, I am an assasin – all of these programs cover intensely traumatic experiences and episodes produced during the entertainment hiatus caused by the pandemic.
The hundreds of true crime podcasts are even more disgusting. Shows like My favorite murder covers some of the darkest experiences for hours on end. Listeners tune in for hours informal discussion about school shootings. One presenter speaks with growing enthusiasm as she describes the crime, while the other adds dozens of corporate and mandatory “uf” and “oh my gosh”. The podcast even calls itself a “true crime comedy podcast.” Of course, humor can be a useful tool to overcome tragedy. But hundreds of episodes that casually cover the tragedy only serve to minimize the anguish felt by each victim whose stories they discuss.
Each of these programs has a real cost to both the survivors and the families of the victims. Producers and writers have repeatedly covered gruesome stories without receiving any form of consent.. Mindy Pendleton begged Netflix to drop her project to cover her stepson’s strangulation, but hey, capital calls! It’s perfectly legal (writers generally compile their research from publicly available information) but that doesn’t make it any less gross. It is a cheap commodification of crime and turns sin into a spectacle. People watch and read in intimate detail about real people in the lower stages of their lives. About the sexual abuse and disfiguring injuries suffered by them or their loved ones. It is absolutely humiliating. And the producers, when criticized, hide behind the “awareness” banner. But as we have already commented, this is no excuse. Even if you raise awareness of what the monsters that roam the earth are capable of, it doesn’t matter. Victims do not deserve to relive their pain or become household names.
Whether they realize it or not, true crime binges are displaying some of the same urges as those who attended Usk’s execution. Both justify their audience citing acquired knowledge and awareness. But how much does one cost Really learn from episode No. 41 of whatever the hottest show of the moment, plus more reasons to be paranoid? At what point does the supposed desire for knowledge turn into morbid enjoyment? People who sit at home during a pandemic shouldn’t have to resort to the misery of others to cure their boredom. The victims deserve better.
This does not mean that we should avoid discussing terrible events. Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the infamous home invasion murders in Cheshire, Connecticut, has chosen to describe what his family experienced of their own free will. It is acceptable that we do not know every detail of the ills that people experience. Especially if it allows us to respect the wishes of those who were wronged.
Manifestations of pain have and will always have a curious effect on our psyche. The train wreck from which we do not depart is reflected in the crowd hypnotized by the woman at the stake. Sometimes these images can be useful in practice, as testimony to horrendous and large-scale atrocities that we do not wish to repeat, such as genocide. More often, however, it caters to a depraved desire for fun, disguised behind a false sense of justice. And no criminal rivals true crime, where the producers have made a business out of retraumatization. People are not mere tools. Not for entertainment or propaganda.