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If you have been following the news in 2019, there is no way you aren’t suffering from compassion fatigue
If you have been following the news in 2019, there is no way you aren’t suffering from compassion fatigue

Ways of seeing 2019

  • 2019 has been grim. If you feel you have already seen too much, here's a reminder that there are other ways of seeing
  • For our year-end special, we chose to bring you the less-explored sides to 2019’s key events. Where there’s Kashmir after Article 370, we speak to the people of Kargil. Where there’s concern about pm in Delhi’s air, we investigate the role of Co2

We are exposed to all the news all the time which makes us feel like we have to care about everything all the time."

Hasan Minhaj signs out of the year-end episode of his popular Netflix talk show Patriot Act with a rant about “compassion fatigue"—and a suggestion. Minhaj equates our current state as “50 tabs open in our mental browsers all the time". We are about to crash, he cautions, and something’s gotta change. His suggestion is that you shut a couple of tabs in your brain.

Minhaj says his own goal for 2020 is to close his tabs on plastic straws, brownface and North Korea. I, for one, am definitely shutting down the tab on people hating on Minhaj, claiming he didn’t speak long enough about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on his show. It’s not the sole responsibility of a 34-year-old Indian-American stand-up comic to fill in the blanks for what Indian TV anchors aren’t saying.

Minhaj got me interested in the idea of compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress. Used primarily for healthcare workers, it is a phenomenon that leads to a gradual lessening of compassion. Symptoms include hopelessness, a decrease in experiencing pleasure, constant stress and anxiety and a pervasive negative attitude. If you have been following the news in 2019, there is no way you aren’t suffering from compassion fatigue.

But can you really close the tabs and sleep peacefully? How do you choose what to continue to care about? The climate emergency remains real even as news of police brutality in Uttar Pradesh comes in snatches; and women are getting raped in their homes and on the streets even as hundreds of thousands are in limbo because of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). How do you process the information and the misinformation? And how do you continue to function in daily life while being a conscious citizen?

Journalism is partly to blame. A 2008 Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma study concluded that news media has caused compassion fatigue in society by presenting decontextualized images and stories of suffering, eventually desensitizing the public. But ending your newspaper subscription (well, please don’t) or choosing Netflix over news every evening is not going to make the issues go away.

Running parallel to compassion fatigue is the added pressure that people may feel to display concern. As an editor with access to web analytics to track what people read online, I have been noticing something peculiar and disturbing for a while. What people share on social media—by which I mean what people pretend to be reading—is often not what they are actually reading. Let me give you an example. Last week, we published Tear Gas, Stun Grenades And Sound Bombs In Aligarh, a piece by Lounge columnist Natasha Badhwar in the aftermath of the violence on the Aligarh Muslim University campus. It was a piece that was widely shared on social media. But a pitiably low number of people actually read it. This could, of course, be for a number of reasons. They had read too much already, they couldn’t take it, they thought they would read it later, they just wanted to “show" they cared.

This happens often. On social media, people share stories about social injustice and minorities, about sustainability and food security, all to virtue-signal or to seemingly do their duty. But they actually read stories about the future of sex with robots.

The year 2019 has been particularly grim, with waves of horrific news leading to shrill, circular conversations. It’s hard to be balanced or objective when it comes to a rape victim being burnt to death in Hyderabad or an eight-year-old succumbing to injuries during protests in Uttar Pradesh. As a concerned citizen, as I will assume most Lounge readers are, you have possibly reached a saturation point too. You have left the WhatsApp groups with bigots who can’t see reason. Now what?

For our year-end special, we chose to bring you the less-explored sides to the key events of 2019. Where there’s Kashmir after the effective revocation of Article 370, we speak to the people of Kargil. Where there’s obsessive concern about the level of particulate matter in Delhi’s toxic air, we investigate the role of Co2. While MeToo cases carry on in courts, we profile those practising restorative justice to aid survivors of sexual harm. This is not to disregard or have any less empathy for the primary issues, but to remind you that it’s not this or that, it’s also.

Art, poetry and satire also provide new ways of seeing the world around us (don’t miss Sarnath Banerjee’s special feature on a miraculous panacea for all our troubles).

If you feel you have already seen too much this year, we hope our year-end special issue is a reminder that there are other ways of seeing. You can’t close the tabs just yet. You must aspire, instead, for more memory.

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