In last Saturday’s post I previewed a 60 Minutes report on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. The report ran on Sunday. Over 12 million Americans watched.
In many ways it was an excellent primer on the nature of the disease and the need — practically and ethically — to address the disease at its source. Those watching met competent and committed Americans bravely serving on this very important front.
But unless I zoned out, there was not a single interview with a Liberian. Frankly this only occurred to me toward the close of the report. If my memory has failed, please correct me. In any case, I am sure Liberians were mostly presented as victims.
There are several problems with this image, but to start: it is simply not accurate. Liberians have been courageous, creative, and self-sacrificing to a degree that has to inspire anyone who takes notice. If the transmission curve has indeed been bent in Liberia, it has mostly been the achievement of Liberians.
Given an American audience, the interviews with American health care providers in Liberia makes some sense. There is a tribal aspect to most of our narrative realities that any story-teller does well to acknowledge.
But the 60 Minutes report — in what it omitted — patronizes our tribal tendencies to a point that distorts reality. The omission is even more treacherous because I expect it was unintentional.
I raise this issue because if the producers, directors, and reporters at 60 Minutes can fall into this very narrow trap, it suggests the challenges homeland security faces on a wide range of issues.
Terrorism is deeply rooted in human tribalism. Introducing a new flood map into many communities makes introducing a new religion look easy. You want to enhance private-public relationships? It helps to be familiar with anthropological literature on tribal conflict.
We usually see, hear, perceive what we are prepared to believe. Our self-identity is the principal determinant of what constitutes the other… and therefore the threatening. We can escape these blinders. But it is not easy. These are deeply wired predispositions.
I am concerned that media is, as Sunday’s report gives evidence, serving — both intentionally and unintentionally — to divide us into more and more distinct market segments (tribes).
More than a half-century ago Marshall McLuhan suggested the rise of television and other electronic media would reverse the objective stance encouraged by the written word and retrieve the subjectivity of the visual. This process would also, he argued, result in “retribalizing” humanity.
In a 1969 interview McLuhan commented,
The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences… All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in. As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.
It’s been more than forty years, the prediction seems more true everyday. Does this confirm his hypothesis?
The WHO released a new Ebola update on November 12. The death toll is now over 5000. Sierra Leone’s transmission rate is not — yet – bending. Several new cases are threatening an outbreak in Mali.
More detailed analysis this weekend.