Blackout ribbon: Avoiding grim news and spoilers

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There have been some horrific stories in the Canadian news recently, involving a combination of homicide, dismemberment, and some kind of atrocity towards children.

Or so I gather. That’s about all I know of the latest grim news cycle, because I have very deliberately avoided hearing any of the details or even learning how many nightmarish misdeeds have made it into the papers. I’ve stopped listening to the radio or watching TV news, and I’ve put off renewing our subscription to the Globe & Mail because I don’t want to be greeted with tales of atrocity.

I’m a big girl: I know that the world is full of human beings doing absolutely terrible things to other human beings, and when those stories have geopolitical implications — like the question of whether and how the international community should intervene in Syria — I try to absorb enough information to be a decently informed citizen.

But I don’t know how active citizenship depends on my knowing the gruesome details of individual crime stories. And I do know that hearing those details leaves me with haunting images that make it harder for me to function, to be out there in the world as a confident human being, or to just walk to my car at night without feeling terrified.

The Internet-enabled personal news stream has taken a lot of criticism for the way it disrupts the public sphere of discourse. As Cass Sunstein memorably wrote in Republic.com, “in a democracy deserving of the name, people often come across views and topics that they have not specifically selected.” But one big advantage of the personal news stream is that it allows you to avoid the stories that exist more to horrify than to inform.

Go offline, however, and it’s harder to find those filtering mechanisms. With discipline, you can skip over the creepiest bits of the newspaper, though photos and headlines will often tell you more than you want to know. And you can keep your finger on the off switch when you’re watching TV or listening to the radio.

But unwanted information has a way of creeping into conversation, too. I’ve had to cut off a few conversations in the past week, as people have begun to talk about the recent horrors — horrors that they often regret having been exposed to, and now need to discuss and purge. So how can I avoid being the person they purge onto?

One potential solution: a blackout ribbon. I’d like to designate a coloured ribbon that would be as universally recognized as the yellow or pink ribbon campaigns. See someone wearing this ribbon — let’s make it an obvious and esoteric colour, like neon orange — and you know that they don’t want to discuss the latest grim news stories.

If that seems like a burdensome act of self-censorhip, imagine running into a friend whose child or spouse was a murder victim. Would you think it appropriate to discuss the latest gruesome news story with that particular friend? Probably not.

Well, the world is full of people who have experiences or challenges that make them averse to hearing gruesome crime tales. They may have lost friends or family to violent crime. They may have personal experiences of violence or sexual abuse that make crime stories particularly resonant and emotionally difficult. Or they may just be sensitive, open-hearted people who feel deeply disturbed by the kinds of details others may filter out. Who are any of us to judge what others should or shouldn’t be able to handle?

And there’s a lighter case for the blackout ribbon: TV, movie and book spoilers. Now that on-demand media means that your cubicle-mate can be watching season 1 of Mad Men while you’re onto season 5, your water cooler chitchat can rob her of the joys of that unfolding narrative. I still hold a grudge against the colleague who thought it would be funny to tell me how Jane Eyre ends while I was reading it for the first time.

Preventing spoilers would require more than just a single blackout ribbon: it would require something like a Boy Scout sash that could be adorned with buttons and badges representing the various shows and movies you don’t want spoilered. OK, so it’s a bit of a commitment to go around wearing a giant sash full of different TV logos, but if you really want to keep your viewing experience intact, you’ll find a way to make the look work with your wardrobe.

Personally, I’m prepared to live with the risk of finding out what happens in season 4 of Damages before I get to watch it for myself. I’m more concerned about psychological damage: the kind of lasting damage I’ve experienced from hearing horrific crime details that haunt me to this day. Until a blackout ribbon gets widespread cultural recognition and acceptance, I (and many others) would appreciate you keeping your gruesome crime story details to yourself.

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