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september 2022

How the media stabilise our society


by Hans Durrer

Left: Forms of Nature, Santa Cruz do Sul, Brazil, 11 December 2021 (photo by the author)

On 8 September 2022, a 96-year-old woman died in a castle in Scotland. The media let the world know of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. The British media did so around the clock, the regular programme was suspended. Normal life, it seemed, had come to a standstill. All media repeated for days pretty much the same: service, duty, humour, stability etc.

I was switching channels in utter disbelief, clicked aghast on newspaper websites, thought it unbelievable that the whole world was made to believe that the death of a 96-year-old woman who died in a castle in Scotland was an earth-shattering event.

Well, by the look of it — it was. And, it felt more than surreal. Two air hostesses on a British Airways flight from New York upon hearing the news started to cry, people in their thousands flocked to the gates of Buckingham Palace, the Royal butcher was interviewed. "Thousands queue through night to see Queen's coffin after King leads royal vigil," titled The Independent-Online. Don't get me wrong: I've got no objections, none at all, although I did find it all pretty silly — we humans are like that.

  Sure, dissenting voices could also be heard when this extensive official mourning resulted in food banks being closed, funerals postponed, cancer scans cancelled. Nevertheless, the show had to go on for we prefer distractions to the reality of our daily lives. Even the critic inside my head had no chance against the media bombardment of pictures and words. When I learned that football player David Beckham stood in line for twelve hours to see the queen in her coffin, I did not wonder why he did that but why his wife and children did not accompany him — distraction works in many ways.
  How come people succumb to such mass hysteria? How come the media are helping to produce it? Because we are lost in a vast universe. And, since this is a reality we prefer not to confront, we look for a way out. Our reference point — contrary to our belief — is not the world as it is but the world as we want it to be: a stable place in the universe that makes sense.
Next One of the often-overlooked functions of mass media is to stabilise our society. They do that, for instance, by presenting formats that show the exchange of arguments as the normal way to deal with pretty much all issues imaginable. What they do not show is that you cannot argue with nature, the law of gravity or with Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan or Trump (to name just a few).
  Rarely has this stabilising factor been more obvious than after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Would the transition to Charles be accepted by the public? Nobody seemed to doubt it. The elaborate and largely incomprehensible ceremony that proclaimed him Charles III followed many very, very strange rules. No questions were asked by the subservient media, critical inquiry was totally absent.
  For most of my life, I was convinced that a well-informed public is the best guarantee against dictators. Nowadays, I'm not so sure about that. The majority of the British electorate knew that Boris Johnson was a serial liar, many Americans who voted for the Mafia-guy from Queens knew that he wasn't telling the truth. Yet this knowledge did not make any difference, it did not influence their choices and their subsequent actions.
  The idea that we decide consciously what is good for us is a myth. Education that aims at making people better informed as well as media-literate won't change much for the better. Instead, it will perpetuate what is already there. How come? Because we can't bear reality (when Woody Allen was asked what his relationship with death was, he said: "I'm strongly against it.") and so we constantly distract ourselves — with politics, sports, the royal theatre, with basically pretty much everything.
  The Buddhists think that our brains are wrongly wired. We know that everything is impermanent, that everything is constantly changing. Instead of accepting this, we look for certainty — for this is what our survival instinct, that dominates all other instincts, is demanding. In other words, we are most of the time incapable of doing what we know we should be doing — for we have other priorities.
  As Sigmund Freud famously said: Man is not master in his own house. The idea that we have of ourselves — that we are conscious human beings who know what we do — is a joke at best. As Richard Feinman once said in regards to physics: The first principle is not to fool yourself. And, you are the easiest person to fool.
Next The media spectacle that accompanied the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the proclamation of Charles III as the future King was — among quite some other things, of course — an illustration of our inherent inability to deal with life on life's terms. We can't accept that we — given what we know of the universe and of ourselves — are basically insignificant entities who float around planet earth for some time. We demand that we are somebody, and proclaim that our human existence must make sense.
  To watch former English Prime Ministers trying to look sombre, gun salutes being fired into the air, soldiers parading in gala uniforms, Charles III signing documents, Royal historians and former Royal press secretaries explaining that it is often difficult to decide what to make public and what not, left me ask wondering: Do we really believe this to be real? The so-called sane-ones do, the others often end up in psychiatric wards.
  The media offer a platform on which we can celebrate our illusions. As long as we take them light-heartedly, that is just fine.
  2022 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes