BURNING MONK: SOCIAL
MEDIA’S WARNING TALE
An insight into the relation between rational thinking and the burning monk
By Ryan Oakmont
Thích Quảng Đức dropped a lit match, igniting his body covered with gasoline. This act was his individual protest and, with it, he intended to draw attention towards the religious repression of the Vietnamese government towards Buddhists. What he did not know was that, as the lit match ignited the gasoline covering his body, an American reporter was shooting an image that would immortalize the moment.
Fifteen hours and twenty minutes after the photography was shot, it would start to be printed on American newspapers, making Thich’s protest against the Vietnamese government the topic of conversation of half the nation. The image was received as a powerful, direct witness of Vietnam’s situation, and consequently moved public opinion against the leader of the government, Diem.
Nevertheless, history has taught us that witnesses, whether animate or inanimate, do not always tell the truth or that, sometimes, they present an incomplete, decontextualized truth. The image that the general public saw in the newspapers had, without a doubt, a strong influence in shaping public opinion in America against Diem’s government. The powerful testimony that the photography of a burning monk depicted overshadowed, or significantly prevented, any discussion regarding the multiple ramifications and political subtleties of the issue by the general public.
The image is, in a way, an example of non-intentional manipulation: burning monk, although depicting an emotionally shocking event, only shows one side of the argument. The image is one piece of the puzzle that, once completed, will give us a full depiction of reality. Nevertheless, the temptation to believe that the piece itself represents the whole puzzle, the whole reality, is very strong, due to its highly emotional content. We must acknowledge the temptation, and avoid falling towards it. A rational analysis of the whole puzzle must ensue, but we must not let emotional witnesses influence our analysis.
The image, and the way it so easily shaped public opinion against Diem’s government, moved the CIA to help Minh’s coup d’état and bring down Diem. This event augmented social tensions, which would later metamorphose into the Vietnam war. The effect that an emotional image, a partial witness, would have in Vietnam was devastating. The cause is clear: taking decisions based on a non-complete analysis of reality can bring devastating consequences.
What is really worrying is that with social media we have found the perfect medium with which to share images and videos, new means of communication that, although they can shine light on previously unacknowledged issues and conflicts, present an appalling medium to share emotional, partial witnesses to complex issues. The risk, again, lies in these witnesses being taken as a complete representation of reality and consequently acting based on this incomplete analysis.
With social media, we have found the perfect tool to surround ourselves with content that confirms our worldview, to create a reality based on witnesses, images, and videos that complements the reality that we have chosen to live in. Nowadays, it seems that people prefer to live in a comfortable lie rather than in a cutting reality. The social tension that can arise from citizens living in essentially separate realities is self-evident, and in many cases has lead to a deep division of society: Brexit, the Catalan conflict, and the US’ political spectrum division are examples of it.
We must be especially careful of not being taken away by emotional witnesses, and analyze conflicts rationally. However tempting emotional pictures may be, we must not let them stop us from executing a full analysis on the topic at hand and, much less, to fall into the temptation of surrounding ourselves with media that blindly supports and one-sidedly reinforces our worldview.
These are challenging times for the rational thinker as imperfect information is more widely available than ever before. It is, therefore, our job as responsible citizens to filter and use information in a responsible way when shaping our worldview.