Empathy is not a word you’d necessarily associate with the age of streaming video. Anyone who has been on YouTube, let alone ventured into its untamed-jungle comments section, knows that streaming video has a tendency to bring out the worst in human beings. But over the last few months, we’ve also seen an unexpected, welcome side effect to the constant recording and posting of everything and everyone: increased empathy for victims of assaults who, in ages past, would have likely been at least partially blamed for what happened to them.
Take some of the most high-profile recent videos of crimes, alleged crimes, and other forms of misbehavior: Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police in Staten Island; Janay Rice’s assault at the hands of her then fiancée and now husband, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice; Ferguson and St. Louis County police’s regular habit of pointing guns at nonviolent protesters and reporters, sometimes threatening them along the way, and now the police beating of Santiago Hernandez in the Bronx.
These incidents all have something in common: If they hadn’t been recorded, some powerful entity would have had much more freedom to frame what had happened in a beneficial way. And in the vacuum of objective information surrounding the actual incidents themselves, all sorts of bias and misconception would have taken hold, likely solidifying the official accounts. A lot of people, in other words, would have instinctively trusted the NFL or the police, and this trust would have obstructed attempts to attain justice for victims of threats and brutal assaults.
The Rice case is the clearest example because it allows for a handy, disturbing before-and-after look at how these incidents work with and without video.
The NFL and the Ravens couldn’t deny what had happened because of the existence of the first video, shot outside the elevator in which he assaulted her, in which Rice is seen dragging an unconscious Janay out of the elevator. Instead, the league and the Ravens engaged in a gross, gutless campaign to paint Janay Rice as being at least somewhat responsible for her professional-athlete fiancée knocking her out.
“Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” said the Ravens in a notorious tweet that was only taken down yesterday. NFL sources leaked to sympathetic reporters that hey, the league has seen the video and if you saw it too you’d understand why the initial suspension was only two games. Remarkably, in some circles this narrative took hold, and actual adult human beings who get paid to provide on-air opinions reflected on how we shouldn’t ignore Janay’s role in all this.
The moment that video was released yesterday, all the idiotic chatter ceased. Yes, there are a few scattered dead-enders claiming that this is more complicated than “Ray Rice did something horrible and violent,” just as there are scattered dead-enders claiming Eric Garner’s actions brought about his death, that reporters and nonviolent protesters in Ferguson deserved to have guns pointed at them, or (one can safely assume) that Hernandez didn’t comply with police quite obsequiously enough.
For most people, though, the videos tell undeniable stories. And without these videos, it would have been easy for other sorts of stories to take hold, especially among folks who have never had to deal with an abusive partner or police harassment and therefore lack a personal framework for understanding such incidents. Both ingrained bias and the just-world fallacy — a psychological tendency to blame the victim — would have twisted things in favor of the powerful entities trying to shape these stories: Surely Ray Rice must have had a reason to knock out his fiancée; surely police need a reason to detain, threaten, or physically harm people. The videos blow apart these silly tales.
Obviously no one should ignore the cyberbullying and other forms of hate the streaming-video revolution has helped facilitate. But this summer has revealed some positive benefits as well, because these videos force us to come face-to-face with incidents we might otherwise misunderstand, especially when powerful forces want us to misunderstand them.
It’s an observation written to be cynical, sure, but maybe Marge Simpson was on to something when she said, “You know, the courts might not work anymore, but as long as everybody is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done.”