You probably don’t want to read this

 | Wed 15 May 2013 12:02 ICT

The body of a second year student from Chulalongkorn University, hanged from a tree during the Thammasat Massacres of 6th October 1976. The photo was famously used as the cover for the Dead Kennedys single ‘Holiday in Cambodia’. The photo was taken by Neal Ulevich.

I am aware that some terrible things happen throughout the world.

Mexican drug dealers’ heads are severed with chainsaws by rival gangs, to name one thing. I am aware of this because the press showed me the other day, and I have deemed this significant proof that it happens. I am also aware there are videos of these executions available to watch online. I’ll grab my popcorn, shall I? Or should I give it a miss?

Bombs fall from the skies over various countries where alleged men of terror live alongside their collateral brothers, sisters and cousins; bombs spat out of hideously expensive drones employed to do damage too despicable for the human eye. The melting or vapourising of these bodies is something we don’t often see. It’s tactically more viable to leave the public feeling indifferent, so instead we give them numbers like this: 3 dead, 4 injured. We can then watch the news without too much blood staining our otherwise decent day.

But occasionally we do become privy to these semi-secret wars and their victims, unveiled to us at random through mediums such as the Wiki-leaked video of innocent Iraqi men being shot up by a US helicopter gunship while the killers guffaw at their work like they’ve just split a piñata. However awful, I feel it’s something we ought to be aware of: Politically motivated murder by apparent psychopaths in uniform. If the politics of war is above our heads, we might at least ask what it is that these soldiers found so funny.

I am aware that children are raped, exploited and trafficked right under my nose in Chiang Mai, or that some people in this city live in abject poverty as a birthright and will likely not evade a lifetime of exploitation, while others in the same suburb drop a million on a watch that they won’t ever wear. I’m aware that Thai students were raped (some reports say raped after they were killed), hanged from trees, set on fire because it was thought they had dangerous values that seemed radical in the face of dictatorial political institutions. I’m aware of this not because I study or studied Thai politics or social science, but because I read a lot, and much of my reading is done online.

I am aware that incredibly inhumane things happen every day, mostly because of what I read online. I think I’m glad that I am aware these things happen. As much as it upsets me to understand the depravity of mankind, I wouldn’t like to think life was as it is told in Hollywood, or as hunky-dory as some government propaganda tells us. I’m also aware that 90 percent (okay, that’s a rough estimate) of people do not want to hear about these things. Bring up some of the aforementioned transgressions at parties or events and you will become about as popular as a man talking about his recalcitrant hemorrhoids. Try it if you don’t believe me. There is never a right time or place to confer the really bad stuff, not in public anyway. And you can’t blame people for not wanting to be reminded of all these terrible things that happen in the world. But strangely, as taboo as these subjects are, in private it seems that we can’t get enough of them.

We know this because web statistics tell us what we read and what we look at; the stats on this very site also validate my claim. Violence, murder, inhumanity, corruption, even pain, are the biggest hits, followed closely by subjects relating to sex. But I don’t think we should make any moral judgments about people who can’t resist privately looking at the odiously attractive taboo. It excites, scares, shocks, and upsets us and we can’t help but look at the things we are not supposed to see. The gothic novel and the horror film were a way of watching the un-watchable in times past. Today, the real thing is available online.

Our reaction to these horrific incidents may explain if we are psychopathic, cold, or overly-sensitive. It may, but it may not. Arguably this generation, having seen so much more than previous generations saw, will have different reactions to certain taboos, making a psychological evaluation seem warped if it’s not made in the context of cultural history. You can’t call your kid a psychopath because he laughs at car crashes, or is unresponsive to Golden Showers. He or she grew up seeing these things, has probably compartmentalised them as just ‘shit you see online’, and perhaps doesn’t even associate them with real life events. My mother reacted very badly to the compound noun blow-job. It’s probably a good job she died before the advent of online porn. I, on the other hand, am quite liberal with the world blow-job, but I wonder how liberal I should be. In response to that overly simplistic interview question that compels everyone to tell lies ‘What do you like to do in your free time?’ should I mention I like blow-jobs, or are there some things that should remain taboo?

Correct answer by the way: exercise and staying abreast of current affairs.

The younger generation, for the most part, will no doubt grow up with the knowledge of what it looks like when a person’s skull is shattered by a bullet. They will likely know all the ins and outs of what it looks like to have double, triple, penetrative sex. They’ll have seen cats frying, and dogs being thrown from bridges. The next generation may grow up to be far less sensitive than my generation about such matters. It will undoubtedly affect how they will live, but I am not sure how. I’m not sure what this means in terms of socio-cultural evolution.  Is it a positive attribute to society that the population can see more gruesome things (the Russian man cut in half after a motorcycle crash in Phuket last night, May 14th, went viral), or lose their virginity to a mouse? Will it mean a more desensitized population or will it mean a population imbued with unwarranted fears and outlandish fetishes? Maybe my generation will become the prigs of history, just as my parents’ generation became, and we’ll be laughed off the field, as they were.

But didn’t the past have public eviscerations and the books of Marquis de Sade?

I’ve read Marquis de Sade. I think it’s bloody important literature and fantastically well-written. It’s certainly not the literary equivalent of torture porn, like someone being scalped in congress, something I witnessed in the most pointlessly grotesque film of 2012: Maniac. Sade delves in the murky part of human consciousness, taps into our acumen for cruelty, our sexual depravities. He also turns things on their head. The good guys in power are often, if not always, the bad guys, and the poor tossers at the bottom of the socio-economic heap are often the victims. It’s social criticism, as well as an experiment in how depraved a human act you can imagine. Sade was alive throughout an epoch where people were tortured and publicly executed. Perhaps he felt an overwhelming presence of hypocrisy when the governing institutions that enacted these depravities in the name of morality arrested him for his alleged immorality. His writings, it was said, were corrupting society. If so, what in society had corrupted Marquis de Sade? I think he states a good case: it might have been the institutions that governed him. What’s my point? I think it is that I like Sade, and I don’t like Maniac. Sade uses human depravity in a way that enables us to learn something about our own misdemeanors. Maniac uses it for shock value. I think there’s an ethical basis to Sade’s stories, however disturbing they might be, that is not present in much of the torture porn entertainment of today.

I never thought I would see anything in real life like I read in Marquis de Sade’s books. That is until the other day, when I did. It reminded me specifically of one of Sade’s most disturbing works, 120 Days of Sodom. It was posted on someone’s Facebook page, though it has since been taken down. In fact, there is no trace of the film on the web, nor anything relating to it.

The video, on a Thai website, commented on by Thais, may not have been made in Thailand. The people in the video may have been Chinese, Thai, Malay, Indonesian, I don’t know and I haven’t been able to find out. I did/could not watch the majority of the film and turned it off halfway through. The film, around ten minutes in length, shows a woman beating and sexually assaulting a baby. Yes, a baby. First the baby is beaten and assaulted while lying on a bed, later the baby is tied by its legs to some kind of rope from the ceiling and then beaten and sexually assaulted again. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. The woman wears nothing at all but a mask on her face. The film disappeared the day after I saw it. I have since reported what I saw to an authority that might be able to help the child. They haven’t replied to me yet.

I did not share this video at the time even though it may have helped to find out who the culprit was and possibly save that child from a life of torment. I thought about it at the time, and I decided against it. I’m still not sure about my decision. The majority of online viewers of the taboo are voyeurs, unconcerned, I suspect, with the welfare of the people they are watching being hurt. And should those people who cannot help have images like these shoved into their inboxes as they get their own kids ready for school on a Monday morning? Should people be made aware that these things happen at all? On the other hand, by sharing the clip or writing about it I may have been able to find out who made it. I was in a moral quandary. One thing was certain: by just ignoring the video, that child wasn’t going to be taken away from a person who was severely hurting it for her own gratification.

So now I’m aware that something else horrific occurs in the world. I’m even more educated to the inhumanity that happens behind closed doors. I think about how this will affect the next generation (the disclosure of the world’s violence in their inboxes), but I also sometimes wonder how it affects me. There is a lot of proof that violence in the media on a daily basis has many negative effects on our psyche. We just don’t need to see all this pain that we can do nothing about. It creates a sense of fear and hopelessness. It’s an extreme we can’t deal with, an overload of terrible information that will make us sick.

A Taoist philosopher wrote in a book I was reading the other night how this overload was so very detrimental to humankind. But am I being irresponsible if I don’t look? Do we have a duty to seek the truth? Or should we free ourselves of this overload of troubling sights that pop into our lives daily? I guess my question is, how aware should we be?