Fiona McCade: Empathy alerts set alarm bells ringing

Picture: Complimentary
Picture: Complimentary
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Some readers may find the following column upsetting. It’s unlikely, and I genuinely hope they don’t, but if they do, that’s not so bad, is it? At least they will have felt and thought about something, rather than merely getting on with yet another bland, emotionless day on Planet Earth.

I struggle with the sort of warnings that precede television programmes, especially some of the more harrowing news reports. So often, you hear the newsreader say something like: “Some viewers may find the following scenes distressing”, and then we’ll be treated to myriad shots of dead or dying children, people howling with misery and body-strewn, gun-strafed streets.

Is it just me, or is it a normal, human reaction to find scenes like that distressing? In any civilised society, should it not be a prerequisite of being alive to find scenes like that distressing, upsetting, affecting, disturbing, heartbreaking and downright unbearable?

Sometimes, they even have the cheek to announce: “Some of our more sensitive viewers may find the following scenes upsetting”, as if to say (cue eye-roll) that: “Most of you ordinary people won’t give a toss about the dead Syrians you’re about to see, but hey, just in case there are any namby-pamby Soft Walters out there who are likely to get their knickers in a twist about it, we suppose we should give them time to get behind the sofa.”

The more I hear these sort of warnings, the more I want to be upset; the more I want to be shaken out of any comfortable, impassive existence. I actively want to be one of the sensitive ones, who can still watch a news report and see it as reality, in all its truthful horror, rather than an unwelcome distraction from enjoying my tea.

Of course, I completely understand that the television companies have been instructed to safeguard our sensibilities. After all, nobody ever rang up Ofcom to say: “I wasn’t remotely upset by the news tonight, although everybody said I would be. Refund my licence fee immediately!”

What does upset me – although not quite as much as the onscreen agony – is the inference that most of us won’t be moved. Only “some” will be; only the “sensitive” ones, who aren’t yet comfortably numbed to this sort of thing. Everybody else, all the rational people, will be just fine. After all, this stuff happens every day, doesn’t it? What’s to be upset about?

However, while news of our fellow man being maimed and killed should only affect the delicate few, when it comes to fictional people suffering, the television companies must be equally careful.

Before last Sunday’s Downton Abbey, we were duly warned about “violent scenes” and how upsetting they “may” be to “some” viewers.

I hope that every single viewer found it upsetting. It should be upsetting to see someone beaten and raped, even when it’s just a character in a show. But when the scene is both well acted and well written, it’s drama at its most powerful. However, more than 100 people have complained, calling the episode such things as “gratuitous”, “obscene” and “irresponsible”.

The British sensibility is a very puzzling thing. From where I was watching, the Downton scene was brilliantly handled. It was shocking without being gratuitous; brutally clear without being obscene; and represented a hideous reality as responsibly as could possibly be wished. The programme was post-watershed, so only adults should have been watching. Why the indignant uproar, people? Did a bit of nasty realism curdle your Sunday evening cocoa?

It seems to me that some of us have got our sensitivity slightly misplaced. We’re in real trouble if the thing that upsets us the most, that makes us most uncomfortable, is when our cosy night in front of the telly is disturbed by depictions of suffering.

We’re supposed to be shocked and upset by bad things, whether real or fictional. We’re supposed to feel, and empathise and react. It’s called being human and being alive.

We live in a world where we get the same warning for the news as we do for a period drama. Our values are already askew. So, why not go the whole way and have the announcer say: “If you don’t find the following scenes upsetting, better see a psychiatrist.”