Virginia Woolf’s commentary on the origins of war from her novel Three Guineas explores the inevitability of war, and the role of graphic imagery in the public’s view and opinion on conflict. Most people have the same reaction when viewing violent content- disgust, sympathy etc., and from Woolf’s perspective, these images can arouse anti-war sympathies. Publishing these images, although they are difficult to look at, forces the privileged populations who are not in the midst of the conflict to face the horrors of the situation. However, one may also argue that because violence is so widespread and inevitable, these images are not deterrents so much as the objectification of the subjects and the reminder of this violence. Additionally, graphic war-time images do not always elicit the call for peace one would expect- one can recognize the horror of the situation and yet call for revenge, continuing the cycle of violence.
Gruesome images can be exploited to gain support for either side of a conflict, and although one would believe such violent images would discourage war, they often have the opposite effect.
Similarly to Gourevitch, Sontag employs the story in The Republic where Leonitis fights against his desire to look at the dead bodies, and ultimately succumbs to his urge, despite feeling disgusted at himself. This analogy demonstrates people’s universal repulsion yet attraction when faced with violence, gore, horror, etc. She also includes historical justifications for this strange urge (for example, an inherent, “love of mischief”), but it is clear that a morbid fascination with other people’s suffering is a shared characteristic among humanity. Sontag also explains how today we are inundated with violent images and stories, which has increased our tolerance for such graphic imagery and made us more apathetic. She explains that one’s reaction to such images has repercussions: one could simply switch the channel and try to forget, or face the horror of the situation in hopes of changing it. Sontag also brings up an interesting point that a display of sympathy towards those suffering is not necessarily the correct response, but rather displaces blame from oneself and illuminates one’s privilege.
Experiencing an inexplicable attraction to gory scenes is a theme common across humanity and time, but the sympathy we display upon viewing such violence may actually be an inappropriate response as it excuses us from blame and asserts our privilege.
Sontag asserts that memory is an ethical act and we need to remember painful events. To reconcile and come to a solution for an extended conflict we also need to recognize that all people do horrible things to one another, because if you constantly dwell on past grievances, you will not ever reach a solution. We can choose to “switch the channel” and not view images that make us uncomfortable, but people’s suffering will not be recognized if they do not have an audience. However, turning away from the images is not a moral defect. Rather, choosing to view them is an invitation to explore the root cause of the issue, and its possible solutions. Although viewing violence through media is frequently viewed as a cop-out, every form of observing carries an element of detachment. Even if one is to immerse themselves in the situation, they will still be detached from the victim, as one’s vision only allows for observation.
There is nothing immoral about observing a difficult or graphic situation from a distance because this attachment allows one to reflect and draw reasonable, useful, conclusions.