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Commentary: It’s OK to look away
Delmaine Donson/Getty Images

It’s OK to look away

When images of unspeakable evil found their way to my X timeline this week, I threw up. Undeterred, I continued down a rabbit hole I regret. Violence and terror gripped my curiosity, unlocking fears I didn’t know I had. I felt an exhilarating wave of rage, followed by guilt, confusion, despair. “Don’t look away!” talking heads insisted. “You have a moral obligation to look!”

It often needs to be said that many things can be true at once, so I will say it again. You can log off and still care that evil has been done. You can log off and still have a strong opinion. You can log off and still take a side. You can log off and plead ignorance. There is no moral obligation to stare into the abyss, no matter how much the interlocutor needs the world to understand his own anguish.

And that’s understandable. But prudence matters, too. I don’t have any moral obligation to stare at my phone while autoplay burns the images of dead children into my head for the rest of my life. Neither do you. Doomscrolling and fantasizing about World War III is neither productive nor helpful.

The internet has a way of fooling people into making proclamations based on very little information that ironically feels like an overwhelming amount of information while it’s being consumed. Informational modality on X (formerly Twitter) is all breadth and no depth — great for memeing aphorisms into the discourse, not so great for complex thought. Great for dramatic flourishes of pathos, not so great for subtlety. Politics may live in the former, but virtue lives in the latter. Proclamations feel like virtue, especially when they aren’t.

Your real-life responsibilities remain, no matter what is happening on the screen and no matter what governments outside our influence or control decide to do about an eternal conflict that no one, let alone a complete foreigner, completely understands. The closer you are to the conflict, the more genuine moral obligation you may have to pay attention.

But paying attention is not the same as doomscrolling. Friends or family involved in acute need of assistance? Absolutely, help! No attachments but your own sense of vicarious justice and proxy politics? Log off.

Sometimes — most times — there is really nothing to do but pray. It is only someone consumed by pride who thinks God needs his help more than the other way around. And there exists a special kind of narcissism of the uninvolved person inserting himself in order to feel part of something. It’s OK to look away.

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