Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece is from a special issue of the RGHF Rotary Foundation newsletter which can be viewed here.
Too often, the news leaves me speechless. Stops me in my tracks, occupies my mind, won’t let me go. Hearing, on N.P.R., that masked Taliban gunmen gunned down a 14-year-old girl for publicly speaking out about her desire for an education, had that effect. I was outraged, infuriated, saddened, helpless! Nothing I do will change what happened to Malala Yousafzai. I’ve little chance of even helping others like her.
But hearing her story shook me. It made me think about the value of my education, and the daily trips to school my daughter takes for granted. It reminded me that those who would insist on different rights for people with different genders, skin, beliefs or culture are still powerful and in some cases ruthless.
I see a value in being shaken in just that way. A few weeks ago, at a party, I had a casual conversation with a man who declared that he refused to listen to the news, and in particular, N.P.R., anymore. “It’s just one story about the downtrodden after another,” he insisted. “And we just listen and pat ourselves on the back for our sensitivity and nothing happens, and the next day it’s yet another story.”
In his essay “Unreal” in his book “The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity,” Richard Todd said much the same thing. “You have to keep a cool eye on yourself when you are outraged over something that remains secondary to your life,” he wrote. He described his reactions when the evening news showed pictures of soldiers killed in action — looking up from his kitchen cutting board, respectfully not sipping his wine, shaking his head sadly. “And then I began to realize that there was something about this ritual that had nothing to do with pain on my part, something that was indeed shamefully self enhancing.”
How “meta” are Mr. Todd and my acquaintance, so carefully examining their reactions to the news and pushing me to do the same? How clever to question our own responses to the outrages and horrors that are “secondary” to our lives only through accidents of birth or geography or fortune. And how convenient to conclude that unearned emotion is an indulgence, because that’s the only conclusion that would allow us to look away from Malala’s story, or any front-page outrages: the doctor who considers drugs the only hope for children in failing schools; the Syrian refugee crisis.
Maybe it’s a valid worry, that our emotional reaction to a news story gives us the comforting illusion of having taken action, thus freeing us from the burden of taking to the streets in protest, collecting donations or even voting. But is it a worry that we can afford? Would we be better off with silenced radios and folded newspapers?
Without the media trying to show us what’s happening in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, where Malala Yousafzai lived and where, in 2009, the Taliban forced the closure of her school, Malala Yousafzai would not have had the opportunity to blog about her experience, or been the focus of documentaries for The New York Times and other media outlets. Her story would never have generated outrage or interest on the part of the public — or the Taliban. But it’s also possible that had her story, and others, never been told, the Taliban would simply control Ms. Yousafzai’s world. And it’s certain that the Taliban did not want Malala Yousafzai’s voice to be heard.
What will you do with what you now know about Malala Yousafzai’s fight? What will you do with your anger at those who are proud to have struck her down, temporarily or permanently (she is now in critical condition after surgery)? I don’t have easy answers to those questions. What will I do? I will vote. I will tell my daughters her story. I will look for ways to contribute to education for women in parts of the world that still long to leash and muzzle half their population. I will think of Anne Frank, and how clear the most complex situations can appear in hindsight. I will stay outraged.
And I will keep listening to, reading, and reacting to the news.
K J Dell’Antonia is a writer for the New York Times. This article was first published October 10, 2012 at the blog “Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting“