The Ethics of Looking

There is yet another piece of leaked media making the Internet rounds and causing all sorts of emotional upheaval and outrage. This time, it’s the video footage of then-Baltimore ravens player Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. Mainstream news outlets have — with breathless, parasitic glee — been showing and amplifying said video under the umbrella of its “necessity” for reporting the news. (Or raising awareness, or truth-telling, or whatever sort of claptrap bullshit justification serves as today’s flavor.)

Which means I am back to thinking about the ethics of what we choose to watch.

close_your_eyesFirst off, let me get the easy part of this out of the way. As with the photographs from CIPHA, if you wish to show any sort of ethical concern for women’s bodily autonomy, do not go looking for this video online!

I know I’m the queen of nuance and seeing the subtleties in almost any given situation,* but it really is just that simple. If you can at all avoid it, do not watch this video or add to the click-count of sites that are publishing it. (More on that “if you can at all avoid it” part later.) Because the repeated telecast and viewing of this video is done without Janay Rice’s consent, and it only serves to further victimize the woman initially victimized in February’s assault.

Frist, here’s some insight about the likely effect of this level of disregard towards Janay Rice on Janay Rice, as reported by Dave Zirin in The Nation:

I spent the morning communicating with people who work on issues involving domestic violence and violence against women nearly every day of their lives. They all said the same thing, without dissent: releasing this tape to the world is incredibly damaging to Janay Rice. Just as we would protect the name of an alleged rape victim, just as we would not show a video of Ray Rice committing a sexual assault, we should not be showing this video like it’s another episode of Rich People Behaving Badly. If Janay Rice wanted to show this tape to the world, in other words if she had offered her consent, that is a different matter. But showing and reshowing it just because we can is an act of harm.

Do you hear that, public people and media people? An act of harm. And in case you don’t get that yet, Katie McDonough in Salon further unpacks the insidious implications of the decision to propagate this video clip without Janay Rice’s consent.

People who abuse their partners do so because they believe their victims don’t deserve physical safety or bodily autonomy. The release of this video without Janay Rice’s consent is fueled by the same logic. Janay Rice isn’t a person in this footage. She is just fodder for the news cycle, a prop to teach Roger Goodell and the NFL a lesson. (emphasis added)

As far as the justifications that have been used to justify this video’s dissemination? Well, Zirin also devotes some space and time to the notion that seeing this event play out in its awful unexpurgated form is something that will change minds or raise awareness about domestic violence:

 I have serious doubts about this. If you were outraged by violence against women before, will seeing this video really change your mind? If you are not outraged by violence against women, does this video actually make a damn bit of difference? My fear, and this happens whenever you have videos that spark outrage until the next new cycle, is that all it will provoke are the kinds of reactions that don’t necessarily help anybody, least of all the victims.

Now, I’m not 100% in agreement with Zirin on this score. Language is tricky — metaphors can create safe distance from troubling things, and allow us to conceal the realness of things and events we don’t want to look too closely at.** Clinical terms and legal names — like the term “domestic violence,” for example — can also create an abstracting, distancing effect that conceals the awful, traumatic truth of a thing. As Vice President Biden said earlier today in an interview on The Today Show (via Jezebel):

The one regret I have is we call it domestic violence as if it’s a domesticated cat. It is the most vicious form of violence there is.

So I do believe that seeing the shocking, unfiltered reality of what it looks like when a man beats up a woman can sometimes help open eyes to the true ugliness of this crime. But — and this is a crucial piece for me — this kind of uncovering of the truth of things should only occur when the victim of the attack has actively, deliberately consented for her story and her images to be used for this kind of awareness-raising purpose.

And that sort of consent has not occurred here. Not in the slightest. Besides, while we’re calling out the truth of things, let us heed McDonough’s reminder about who/what the original “news source” of this footage is:

TMZ is a tabloid website that exists for no other purpose than to make money, and is now making that money off of images of a woman being brutally assaulted.

Let’s keep remembering that the primary beneficiaries of all of this are TMZ and the news-media vultures. But — and here’s the nastiness at the heart of the matter — the media wouldn’t provide this kind of content so rapaciously if we, the public, didn’t consume it so voraciously. To quote Hannah Giorgis in The Guardian:

That we feel entitled (and excited) to access gut-wrenching images of a woman being abused – to be entranced by the looks of domestic violence – speaks volumes not only about the man who battered her, but also about we who gaze in parasitic rapture. We click and consume, comment and carry on. What are we saying about ourselves when we place (black) women’s pain under a microscope only to better consume the full kaleidoscope of their suffering?

So I come back to where I started this whole essay: if you can at all avoid it, do not watch this video or add to the click-count of sites that are publishing it!

And yet. I gotta say, from my own personal experience, that this video has been very much more difficult to avoid than the CIPHA pictures were. Because this time “respectable” news outlets are getting in on the game. I tried not to watch the screen when the ABC morning news covered this story, but there I was, still supporting the news station with my viewership while waiting for the weather and traffic report to come on.

And then there’s the otherwise-pretty insightful article in a periodical I’m choosing not to name, because the author and/or air editors chose to embed the video in question within their piece — something I did not know until after I’d clicked through via the Facebook recommendation of someone I had expected to have similar sensitivities about protecting Janay Rice’s privacy. (Doh! Guess that’s my punishment for making an assumption.) I will admit, once I’d already and unwittingly “rewarded” them with an extra reader “hit,” I read the article (without watching the video), which is why I know it’s a pretty devastating exegesis on the ugly lived truth that can exist behind abstract labels like “domestic violence.” Still, however smart that analysis was, I remain so very angry with them for pairing that smart analysis with continued violation of Janay Rice’s autonomy and agency and self-determination. And angry with myself for being part and parcel to it all.

So yeah: don’t look if you can avoid it.

And if you figure out the most effective way to respond when one unintentionally supports news agencies who are mistreating Janay Rice in this fashion? Send me a pointer, okay?

* Seriously. I journaled for about a page and a half this morning about whether I should switch into a new blank book on my birthday — even though that would be somewhat wasteful because a few pages in the current “journal volume” would go unused. I can overthink anything, y’all.

** If, of course, you are lucky/privileged enough to have a chance at putting safe distance between yourself and troubling things. Which is not always the case. Not even remotely.


Image credit: “Close Your Eyes” by Elena Pérez Melgarejo. Unaltered. Used under a Creative Commons license. (Retrieved from: )

One thought on “The Ethics of Looking

  1. Pingback: The Ethics of Looking, Part 3 | Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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