Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Moment of Impact

Last night I saw two moments of impact. The first was enormous, the second was on a much more personal level. It seemed facetious to compare the two; only an accident of timing had brought them anywhere near each other and they shared little in common.

In the first, the Nazca plate off the coast of Chile thumped yet again into the underside of the South American plate. The result was an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale (about 10x the magnitude of the one that hit Haiti earlier). The reverberations resulted in tsunami warnings for places as far away as Japan. Despite the intensity of the quake, the death toll is not expected to cross 250.

In the second, promising Welsh player Aaron Ramsey took a hit from a horrified Ryan Shawcross in the Stoke City-Arsenal soccer match. Shawcross missed his tackle and fractured Ramsey's lower leg so badly that the foot was hanging loosely off the joint. It was clear that players from both teams were badly shaken. Ramsey is 19 years old, 5'11"; Shawcross is only 22, 6'5" and was just called up for England.

How can you compare the two? You can't. The first is a natural event in which more than 200 people lost their lives. The second is an unnatural event in which a young man has broken his leg. But the fact is that they are juxtaposed in our consciousness, and human empathy is such that it is easier to imagine breaking your own leg badly than to imagine the agony of 200 deaths.

When I saw the first event in the media, it was hard to assess my immediate emotional response. I must confess I felt relieved that relatively few people had died. When I saw the second, my heart sank. When the cameras pan away from the scene and the last thing you saw was a crunching impact that leaves someone's leg looking wrong, there's a more visceral sensation.

That highlights the difference between an objectified event and a subjectified one. The former was big, and you felt you ought to feel bad for victims of such a disaster. But the latter was more personal. You felt bad at once. You felt bad later when you realised you honestly felt worse for Aaron Ramsey than for Chile. Emotion is a funny thing.

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3 Comments:

Blogger xylph said...

Maybe it's something like what Stalin said?
(The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
-- Joseph Stalin)
It's easy to symphatise with one, but we are more detached when it comes to many. Crude of me, but I would say it is a good defense mechanism for our psyche. If we are so overwhelmed by big numbers that we become numb and distant; it is for good. Otherwise we will all become nervous wrecks.
-yossa

Sunday, February 28, 2010 3:16:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Hi Yossa! Long time no see. I had no idea you read this blog. :) I think you're right.

Sunday, February 28, 2010 4:48:00 pm  
Blogger xylph said...

I just added to my RSS feed subscription =)

Sunday, February 28, 2010 4:49:00 pm  

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