Facebook struck what it thought was a blow for freedom of expression: It is now going to allow beheadings to be seen in its newsfeeds.
Said the house of the billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, "Since some people object to graphic video of this nature, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see. This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content.''
I am sure this oh-so-reasonable distinction without a difference is being celebrated at this very moment in some cave in Afghanistan by the crazies who delight in chopping off heads as acts of terror. They do it so that their handy-work will be seen. Facebook is ready to oblige them in the name of giving their members more control over the means of shocking others.
Earlier, when their decision was roundly condemned, they qualified their pro-gore fatwa in this age of Zombie lovers everywhere, and just in time for Halloween, to put a liberal face on a decision that makes chopping off faces more visible.
They said with a straight face and no sense of irony that these grotesque uber-violent videos would only be allowed if they are condemned as atrocities or shown as news.
Before you hit "Like", consider that it is going to make cool atrocities that are likely to gross people out, or legitimise the practice, or desensitise viewers.
Best of intentions
I produced a human rights TV series, Rights & Wrongs for four years. Originally, we sought out videos that showed abuses on the theory that they would outrage viewers and lead to more support for human rights protection.
What we found is that many in the audience were shocked and disgusted, and became alienated and stopped watching the show.
Many saw it as exploitative.
Their sensibilities and sense of humanity were violated. The images overshadowed the information we offered at the same time. We later learned that they much preferred stories about human rights heroes who challenged violations and opposed brutality.
Not everyone views violence as negative especially in a society where, as one time civil rights leader H Rap Brown said, "Violence is as American as cherry pie."
Popular video games, films and TV shows are overloaded with violent imagery. Violence is accepted and now, it looks like beheadings will be too.
Don’t let the 'virtual' nature of the torture deceive you. A conscious decision to inflict sadistic cruelty is more than just a mind game; it damages the soul and the psyche of the cyber-torturer. Consider what happens interiorly when the player realises that he or she must 'become' the torturer in order to move successfully to the next level.
A new movie on slavery, "12 Years A Slave", offers unrelieved scenes of blacks being beaten, whipped, lynched and killed.
The point, you would think, is to show how awful slavery is.
But there seems to be an unintended consequences too, as black movie critic, Armond White, explains in a review that suggests what we are watching is really "torture porn".
He writes, "These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories ('It makes me angry') further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance - and martyrdom. ... And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like '12 Years a Slave' to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with 'The Exorcist', there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. [The slave’s] travail merely make it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad."
He believes that films like this accustom moviegoers to accepting violence and brutality.
Back in 2011, Facebook was spammed by vicious pornographic images. Their security people did not welcome them, but worked hard to remove them
Redeye reported then, "Graham Cluley, a consultant with Web security firm Sophos, said that "explicit and violent" images had been flooding the News Feeds of Facebook users for the past 24 hours or so including hard-core porn; photo-shopped images of celebrities, including teen pop star Justin Bieber, in sexual positions; 'extreme violence;' and at least one image of an abused dog."
Disgusting, right? Do we want our children or even adults exposed to this avalanche of sleaze?
Setting a new virtual precedent
But somehow, now that Facebook has liberalised its privacy rules for teenagers, it thinks about access to beheadings as a new right.
We know that hard-core porn begets more hard-core porn with the truly deranged among us often anxious to imitate what they have seen.
One witness at a US Senate hearing some years back testified that pornography "increases the likelihood of sexual addiction... Sexual addicts also develop tolerance and will need more and harder kinds of pornographic material."
Video games like the best-selling Grand Theft Auto help viewers show what its like to torture someone.
As Mary Rice Hasson warned on MercatorNet, "Don’t let the 'virtual' nature of the torture deceive you. A conscious decision to inflict sadistic cruelty is more than just a mind game; it damages the soul and the psyche of the cyber-torturer. Consider what happens interiorly when the player realises that he or she must 'become' the torturer in order to move successfully to the next level."
Beheadings are now a subject fit for dinner table discussion. A Wikipedia entry explains: "Decapitation has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. The terms 'capital offence', 'capital crime', 'capital punishment", derive from the Latin caput, 'head', referring to the punishment for serious offences involving the forfeiture of the head; i.e., death by beheading. Decapitation by sword (or axe, a military weapon as well) was sometimes considered the honourable way to die for an aristocrat, who, presumably being a warrior, could often expect to die by the sword in any event; in England it was considered the privilege of noblemen to be beheaded."
So I guess there is a tradition here that is coming back into acceptability. Is this progress?
Lest you think that only Muslim madmen cut body parts off, remember that during the Vietnam war, many desensitised US servicemen collected enemy "ears" as trophies.
Next, we may have beheadings in prime time in the name of fun and higher ratings.
I was on Al Jazeera TV on Tuesday, making the same argument on air that I do in this commentary. I was happy to note that "Al Jazeera has already stated, 'Al Jazeera has never and will never broadcast a beheading. Our journalism upholds the strictest guiding principles of accuracy, impartiality and objectivity'."
I wish other outlets would follow their lead.
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits MediaChannel.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.