“In a perfect world, newspapers would report facts and leave the drawing of inferences to their readers. It is not, however, a perfect world” – Tony DeWitt, “Perception vs. Reality. ” Can anything be deemed as “real” when our perceptions depend on an infinitude of things? This question leads us to believe that reality, a product of our psychology, bias, and overall nature, is unique to every individual. Reality is a variable concept defined by our edifice of belief and perception. Our claim of what is “real” is only what we perceive of it; not what is so.
The mechanism of perception is defined by a conflict between the endeavors of writers and artists to establish an actuality and our efforts to convert it into a self-absorbed perspective. Regarding the Pain of Others is an analytical text by Susan Sontag that connects modern portrayal of horror and how we respond to it. Sontag’s rhetoric exemplifies this relationship between perception and reality and ultimately begs us to wonder whether our perception of reality has become insidiously dulled or rightfully galvanized by the stream of gruesome imagery.
The jarring reality of violent imagery provokes us with the burden of complicit guilt, stimulating us to counteract what we newly perceive as evil and glorify what we perceive as orthodox. The realism of gruesome photographs not only appeals to, but develops our sense of perception. The reality of war photography and the mainstream barrage of painful images shapes the way in which we perceive the world and its people. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag captures this relationship in terms of rhetorical questioning : “Are viewers inured – or incited – to violence by the depiction of such cruelty?
Is the viewer’s perception of reality eroded by the daily barrage of such images? ” (Sontag, back cover). The “reality” of a photograph is grounded and rationalized into perspective by the viewer’s perception of it. Violent war imagery encumbers us into self-culpability by evoking empathetic feelings of remorse, shame and pain. On the other hand, those who become numb and desensitized to human suffering and pain lack the capacity of empathy, sympathy and condolence.
Those of us who sympathize with the incongruous realities of human suffering are provoked; we are beckoned by intrinsic virtue to thwart what we perceive as inhumane. Perceiving the reality of human suffering evokes sadness, but gradually fosters a new beginning by making us more inclined to redevelop our perception of the world. As witnesses and victims of human adversity, it is upon us to uphold a constructive initiative and not to become incited by common impulse.
In her analysis, Sontag relates the attacks of the World Trade Center (9/11) and the persecution of the Jews (The Holocaust) to the notion of how actuality is conceived based on our individual perceptions, and how this engrains within us a newly developed perception that helps us avoid global calamity in the future. Sontag suggests that the attack of 9/11 was a “wake up call” to humanity. On every screen we witnessed the reality as it was: planes crash into the buildings, evolving into a fiery explosion that engulfs the lives of thousands, ultimately crashing down on one of the greatest civil developments of humankind.
Terrorism recognizes this destruction as a triumph. Humanity perceives it as a clash between rationality and barbarity, civilization and backwardness, and freedom and oppression. As global citizens, this sudden act of terrorism provokes us and appeals to our senses of sympathy, empathy and condolence. It confirms the evil nature of terrorism and promotes a widespread hatred of it, and at the same time, fosters the drive to rebuild, strengthen security and avoid future mishaps of the same kind. These newly developed perspectives affect our overall perception of the world.
The jarring realities of the Holocaust, similar to those of 9/11, developed our perception of the world as we witnessed the Nazis rejoicing in triumph over the mass murder next to the Jewish people (if you could call them a people at that time) who were neglected, malnourished and starved of their freedom, right to worship, and comfort of being with their families. These tragedies reinforced and redeveloped our perception of good and evil, provoked us to rebuild our civilization and stimulated us to hinder and counteract Nazism and genocide in whole.
In summary, the sadism revealed by war imagery provokes within us a sense of self-culpability from which we indirectly learn to thwart the antagonism we perceive as evil and promote what we believe to be conventional. Sontag has thoroughly exemplified this point using her captivating rhetoric and contextual examples. She, along with endless historical tragedies, have confirmed the true nature of reality and human perception and how they’re interrelated with infinite complexities.