Recording Casual Violence and the Banality of Evil

Updated April 21, 2016 12:32pm PDT
Mcdonalds Fight

Over sixty years ago, the political theorist Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “banality of evil.”

Arendt, a Jewish woman who had fled from Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, used the term in her series of reports for the New Yorker on the trials of Adolf Eichmann; the term also appears in the title of the book that collects those pieces, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

At its broadest, the term refers to the terrifying way in which acts of evil can be done by people who don't seem like outright monsters, but by ordinary persons. Evil can come to seem banal, utterly commonplace.

Horror, in other words, can become casual, like in the violence wrought by the Tonton Macoutes in parts of Haiti that the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat records so powerfully in stories like “Children of the Sea,” or in the terrifying way that violence against black bodies on slave plantations was simply the norm, which the Jamaican novelist Marlon James beautifully and chillingly describes in The Book of Night Women.

I think, too, of how I'm no longer surprised by the media reporting yet another trans woman’s life having been taken from her, a trans woman who I always think could, one day, be me or one of my friends; here is one of the most reported, least-reduced commonplace evils in the past year in the American media.  

But there is another, one that hardly gets mentioned at all. Decades after Arendt coined the term, I find myself thinking of it repeatedly in a very different context: the way in which the casual filming of violence on cell phones, tablets, or other devices has become so commonplace as to almost seem like a genre unto itself. I don’t mean filming violence that reflects injustices, like police officers using excessive force against civilians. Such recording is justified and necessary.

What I am referring to is the way that fights between non-authority figures in particular are so commonly filmed and uploaded online with no connection to calls for justice or reform; these fights are uploaded simply for shock value or for the pleasure of viewers. They include people and places of all kinds: high-schoolers, adults in fast-food restaurants, people in backyards, back alleys, and subway trains. 

Many of them feature minorities being attacked or stereotyped—black men fighting, trans women being attacked by men that we ‘tricked’ somehow. That the filmers can occasionally be heard shouting out the titles of the websites they plan to upload the video to while it is being filmed—YouTube, the notorious site Worldstarhiphop, Facebook—only reinforces that a genre of sorts has arisen around capturing the spectacle of violence on film—and doing nothing about the actual violence as a bystander. 

I have become all too accustomed to having videos like these passed along to me, particularly when they involve trans women being attacked in some way.

Perhaps the most controversial site where such videos may end up is Worldstarhiphop. Created in 2005 by a Haitian-American high-school dropout, Lee ‘Q’ O’Denat, the site has become tremendously popular, functioning as an aggregate of both user-uploaded videos and a variety of newly launched music content, the latter of which is primarily hip-hop. With over a million unique visitors a day, the site had an Alexa Rating, which measures Internet popularity, of 301 in 2012, placing it, at its most popular, above sites like NBC, The Daily Beast, and Gawker

O’Denat wants it to have an association with news. "This is the CNN of the ghetto," he once described the site.

What makes Worldstarhiphop stand out from other sites, to me, is not simply the incredible prevalence of videos depicting bloody fights, homo- and transphobic tirades, or shock videos; it is the trend, which seems to have also started around 2012, of uploaders shouting out ‘Worldstar!’ as a fight or incident breaks out, signaling they anticipate uploading the video online even before the incident is over. 

It signals the uploader will do nothing to stop the incident— it's the raw event viewers presumably wish to see and laugh at.

While there are far too many examples of such films to generalize about all of them, it’s nonetheless clear to me that the impulse to film violence purely with the intent of then uploading it to social media reflects a kind of desensitization, an apathy, a way that brutality and pain become all too banal. The pain of others, for the people who make such films and call out website names, I can only assume has become somehow unreal or unimportant in the moment. 

This is radically different from people who do not intervene when filming a confrontation with police officers; at least there, it is always understandable why the person filming might be justifiably scared of the consequences of intervention. We have many brave individuals to thank for recording instances of true injustice and uploading them for wider audiences to see—this has led to police brutality becoming so visible a topic in the American media that it is almost impossible to ignore. It's different from violence being depicted in a way that may effect social change, like the panels showing Iranians being tortured that Marjane Satrapi includes in her graphic novel, Persepolis, or the videos brave bystanders record when police officers use excessive force on someone else’s body. 

Uploading random fights and acts of civilian violence purely for pleasure affords the viewer the opportunity to partake in the byproducts of oppression (as many of the people filmed in this genre are visibly marginalized in some way) without engaging critically with its causes. 

I am not offended by these uploads, nor do I wish them to be banned or censored. It would be a denial of reality to call for violence, broadly, to be censored. What offends me is the reasoning, implicit and explicit, behind their proliferation. I worry their existence reflects a kind of desensitization in a time when we should be more sensitive than ever to the suffering of others. 

I would rather the would-be-filmers think twice about filming an incident for shock value and decide to either intervene in an incident, if possible, or at very least not contribute to creating spaces in which human pain becomes fodder for viral humor.

The creators of the sites where these videos end up seem to be aware of this.

O’Denat, for instance, argues that Worldstarhiphop exists not to promote the kind of violence it has become known for, but rather to reveal, or even deter, it. You don’t "want to end up on the site looking foolish," he said to Gawker in 2014. 

No doubt the many other social media groups that contain such content, like Real Fights Caught On Camera on Facebook, could make similar claims if pressed. O’Denat has also argued that his site simply records the truths of its users. "Technology," he said in an interview with the Huffington Post in 2014, "has given people the ability to show how they truly behave."

There may well be some truth in those arguments. But even if the creators of such content-aggregators genuinely believe their sites function as deterrents, it is hard to imagine, at very least, that it's working.

 It's hard not to become somewhat desensitized to suffering if you keep up with what is going on around the globe—perhaps we need to be desensitized, a bit, just to process such continual violence. But surely: those of us who have the luxury of uploading such videos can do better than to capitalize on the brutalization of other humans’ bodies. 

Perhaps, if we can do that, we can make one kind of evil begin to seem a bit less banal.

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Gabrielle Bellot is a writer from the Commonwealth of Dominica. She has contributed work to or has work forthcoming in The New York Times, Slate, Tin House, Guernica, VIDA, Lambda Literary, The Toast, Autostraddle, and other places. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University and is working on her first novel.