Images and videos of atrocious things come at us from an endless array of sources, and seem unavoidable: You turn off the TV coverage of the latest mass shooting only to confront the same event on social media. Close that app and you may open your email to find a friend or family member has shared new footage or photos.
From the agonizing murder of George Floyd to the horrifying attacks in Israel and Gaza, all of us bear witness every day — often through these troubling, even traumatizing, visuals. And that’s nothing new: Photographs and film have been used as testaments since these technologies were invented.
But the rise of the smartphone, and its capability to produce imagery as well as share and view it, has turned a spigot into a firehose. And while these photos and videos can be valuable evidence in the public sphere and in court, they can also take a toll on our mental health.
In their new book, Graphic: Trauma and Meaning in our Online Lives, Alexa Koenig and Andrea Lampros draw lessons for everyone from the experiences of experts who work with disturbing materials every day. Koenig, co-faculty director of the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center,and Lampros, a former associate director of the center, founded its Investigations Lab in 2016.
In this episode, host Gwyneth Shaw talks to Koenig and Lampros about their book, particularly the increasing prevalence of disturbing imagery and what all of us can do to safeguard our mental health while still being intentional about how we connect with it.
GWYNETH SHAW: Hi, listeners. I’m Gwyneth Shaw. And this is Berkeley Law Voices Carry, a podcast about how our faculty, students, and staff are making an impact through pathbreaking scholarship, hands-on legal training, and advocacy.
In this episode, I’m joined by Andrea Lampros and Alexa Koenig, who just published the book, Graphic: Trauma and Meaning in Our Online Lives. Koenig is the co-faculty director of the Berkeley Human Rights Center, an adjunct professor at Berkeley Law, and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Lampros is a research fellow at the Human Rights Center and its former associate director. They co-founded the Center’s Investigations Lab which trains students and professionals to use social media and other online information to strengthen human rights research reporting and accountability.
One note about this episode. It was recorded before the recent events in Israel and Palestine. And so we don’t explicitly address it in this conversation.
However, my guests feel that it’s a particularly relevant discussion given the volume of disturbing imagery that has come out of that conflict.
Welcome to both of you, and thanks a lot for being here.
ALEXA KOENIG: Thanks for having us.
ANDREA LAMPROS: Thank you so much for having us.
GWYNETH SHAW: Where did the idea for this book come from? Obviously, its roots in this Investigations Lab. So if you could talk a little bit about what that is and how that work led to some of the ideas you have here.
ANDREA LAMPROS: The book really does come from our work with launching the Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. This lab was founded in 2016 and came about because– at the time because of smartphones and access to the internet, there was an explosion of imagery that everybody could have from around the world, from war zones.
And we founded the Investigations Lab in order to help make sense of that imagery to document it, to verify it so that it could be used more fully by investigators, by journalists, and others. And so we founded that to give students the opportunity to participate in that work as investigators and researchers.
And at the time, we were working with Amnesty International as we launched the lab and also something called the Syrian Archive. And what students were working with was primarily videos and photographs from Syria and the conflict there.
And so from the very beginning of this lab and due to the interest and work of our partner Sam Dubberley at Amnesty International and others there, we knew that we had to think about not only how do students work with this information and make sense of graphic material in order for it to be usable by others. But how do they take care of themselves along the way? That this was something very new that students were going to be often– students who were 18, 19 years old looking at very graphic imagery from around the world in order to use this in a human rights context.
And so from the very beginning of the lab, we knew that we needed to have think about science-based ways to help keep students safe. We also heard from some of our board members and others who said, wow, this is difficult work. How are you how are you going to think about the emotional and psychological safety of students?
ALEXA KOENIG: One thing I would add is really the Investigations Lab and its founding built off 30 years of work that’s now been done at the Human Rights Center here at Berkeley led by co-faculty director Eric Stover of thinking through how to introduce scientific and technical techniques into investigations in ways that would really strengthen the foundations of those investigations with the ultimate goal of making that fact-finding unimpeachable, so that we can better hold the perpetrators to account, and also help to provide the historical narratives that communities really rely on as they’re trying to deal with the aftermath of trauma.
And one of the things that Eric had done was he had a long history of working with students in different countries around the world to pioneer new methods and approaches to doing more traditional forms of investigation. Really that became the spirit and the animus of bringing forward this investigations lab.
Since 2011, the Human Rights Center had been really observing how information patterns had changed. As Andrea mentioned, really people around the globe were beginning to use their smartphones and use social media as platforms to try to communicate out to international communities. What was happening on the ground at sites of conflict?
And we had been working very closely with the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor to try to figure out how to strengthen their cases. They were dealing with really high-profile cases and incidents and perpetrators. But their cases were often falling apart at very early stages of prosecution.
One of the reasons according to the research that was done by a Berkeley student and others on the team was that they weren’t bringing in the corroborating information needed to meet the evidentiary threshold to hold perpetrators to account. So you need the corroborating and triangulating information.
Ultimately, because information patterns were changing so quickly to these digital media, there was a real need urgently to start training a pipeline of people who knew how to mine information from digital spaces. Verify the accuracy of that information given how much mis and disinformation we know flows online. And then ultimately, find new ways to get it out to the public, whether it was through reporting or through introducing it as evidence in a court of law. So this was a Wild West at the time.
I think we also brought into that. There were a lot of bad habits from the more traditional forms of investigations, journalism, legal practice of overwork of not really wanting to deal with the psychological side of a tough it out mentality either you can handle it or you can’t and get out. That I think increasingly, there’s beginning to be a shift across the field of practice of wait a second, we’re human rights organizations.
Shouldn’t we be thinking about the human rights? Not only of those who are being affected by war, but the people who are doing the work. I think we’re still at a very early stage of reckoning with that. And very tentative first steps of trying to glean as Andrea said from the social science research, from the lived experiences of people who are mining information from online spaces. What can be done to make sure that we can all do this for the long haul?
GWYNETH SHAW: You mentioned there is a long history of reporting on conflicts. And that information coming back to the public, there have been difficult imagery as long as we’ve had photographs. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic between imagery that journalists would say know serves the public interest?
Or is there to help push us into understanding that something is real? We might be talking about footage of say the January 6 insurrection, or other things that you would use to verify that an event happened and force people to confront it. And imagery or video that really seems gratuitous.
It seems that there used to be a divide between those two things. There used to be something that was declared news maybe by gatekeepers and fed to us in a filtered way.
ALEXA KOENIG: I would say it’s more a spectrum than a divide. You brought up this important issue of gatekeepers. And I do think thinking a little bit about the history of imagery and how most of what the general public used to be exposed to was information that had been captured by a professional say about war or conflict or whatever. And had been then carefully curated with an editor down to a handful of photos that were contemplated for their potential impact on readers or other audiences that were sensitive to the dignity interests of the people depicted in those images.
And really thought about, should we show the face of the deceased? And who will that potentially be impacting? In this new era of social media and digital communication, more generally, what we’ve seen is this rise of user-generated content.
It has a very democratizing effect in the sense that a much broader array of people can get their perspectives and their experiences out to the world. At the same time, the posts that we often see online are things that are designed not to help tell a story so much as to grab attention to the really horrific things that people are living through and to try to drive some impetus for international response or national response, et cetera.
So it’s often the most emotive content. I think qualitatively, it becomes very different when you have someone who’s capturing something. And it’s their loved one who’s just been killed or their home that’s just been bombed out. The emotional context around it is very different than someone coming in who may be very empathic about what they’re witnessing, but has a degree of emotional space still to be able to bring that more objective journalist’s vision to the capturing of that imagery.
So qualitatively, I think there’s a difference. And also then quantitatively I think there’s this huge difference. Whereas we used to see a handful of photos over and over from the same event.
Now we may have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of videos from something that just happened in Syria on the ground in Myanmar. And the volume is just so outside of what human beings are used to processing. That there’s a real need to figure out how do we better metabolize just the onslaught.
I guess the final thing I’d say too is that there was a control in the medium through which we engaged with these materials used to pick up your newspaper. And I still am one of those old-time readers of newspapers. But you knew when you were going to read your paper maybe.
It was with a cup of coffee in the morning, you’d flip the page, you knew the World News was going to be on the first or second page. So you were mentally prepared.
Now as Andrea, I think, really wrote a really compelling part in this book Graphic, talking about how you can be making breakfast for your kids, and you happen to pick up your phone, and there’s some news alert that a baby has just been killed. And it’s a picture of a dead child or you’re working out, and/or you’re chatting with friends, and you just happen to mindlessly start scrolling through Instagram or across TikTok and come across things that you’re not expecting to see.
So our worlds of entertainment and our personal lives are beginning to become so blurred from our exposure to these materials that we don’t always have the mindset in place that we know can be quite protective.
ANDREA LAMPROS: And our intention really in working on this book has been to not pathologize this or scare people away from looking at difficult imagery. I mean, it is very, very important for us to engage with the world. That is actually, I think, the greater intent of what we’re trying to talk about is how in this new time, as Alexa has described, that is really unprecedented for us to be receiving this flood of imagery at any time of the day.
How do we take some control ourselves? And how do we be more intentional about how we are engaging with it so that we can continue to engage with it, so that we can make change?
This really came into clear view with George Floyd’s murder because this was, of course, the time of the pandemic. And this is a time when so many of us across the world really collectively viewed this racial violence and experience this together. And that was unprecedented across our many identities.
Of course, people had different reactions, depending on their identities. But collectively, experiencing that and collectively grieving was something that I think hadn’t happened to that scale before, of course, because before that, yes, a flood of imagery, but had we all paused. And really took in what that meant, that racialized violence.
And so we had a collective response. And so that’s the other part of this is that this imagery is enabling more people to see what is happening, not just here in the United States, but of course, around the world. And how does that then feed into our collective action and response to it? And how is it a catalyst for change for action and in this case, movements for major change in societies.
ALEXA KOENIG: And maybe to piggyback on that a little bit, I think, Andrea raises such an important point around the intent of looking at these things. Gwyneth raise the point about gratuitousness. I think in many instances, gratuitousness is less about the content itself than it is about why we’re looking at that content.
So if you are looking because you are trying to better understand what’s happening in the world or because you’re planning to do something with that piece of content, maybe to push for some form of change, I think that’s a very different experience than looking at a video of extreme violence for almost the quote-unquote entertainment or curiosity aspects of seeing what’s happening in the world.
And for me, I think one of the things that we found in doing the research for graphic was really that we bring our identities to this viewing also. And so the impact that we’re going to have and the meaning we can give to these videos and these photos often really depends on how we identify with that imagery.
Are we someone who identifies with the person who’s been harmed in these videos? Because racially or because we’ve had similar experiences or whatever, the emotional impact on us may be very qualitatively different than if we’re someone who’s never had that experience or really doesn’t have that same relationship to that form of violence.
GWYNETH SHAW: I talked a little bit about this before the idea of gatekeeping. And Alexa, you really mentioned it a newspaper or a television news, where again, it’s cabined to a particular time or a particular part of your routine. Is this a convergence of both the rise of a smartphone and having the ability to scroll all day long and the fading of those gatekeepers?
Is that part of this as well in that there are fewer of us who are looking to that newspaper or that evening news show to get the news and are instead going through whatever platform or social media channel we want to look at all day long? Is that part of this too that this is a societal change that has led us to look more at a greater volume of these things?
ALEXA KOENIG: I think it is in many ways. One thing that we have definitely discovered in talking to so many people who’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time is just how protective a sense of community can be in helping us process the experience of looking at something like the killing of George Floyd or reading about his murder.
When we are just tethered to our smartphone and we’re looking at these things in isolation, and it’s embedded in our day-to-day experience. But we’re not processing that with anyone. And we’re not doing anything with it.
Some people have almost analogized that it can accumulate in your system over time. Some people use the analogy toxic waste. I think one thing Andrea and I both want to is we would never try to equate someone else’s pain with toxicity.
But to think about that analogy may help and just want to, in some ways, limit the exposure to when it’s needed and necessary and potentially empowering or helpful. And not just pass it on to others without being thoughtful about how they may engage with that material or how they might respond to it. But that we do have a chance to all come together.
If something awful happened, previously, like the killing of John F. Kennedy, or the explosion of the challenger, we were all watching the same broadcast getting the same framing and facts around it. And we were maybe sitting together watching the Nightly News or whatever.
Now we’re fragmented. And I think a big piece of the protection is about how do we begin to rebuild community when the smartphone is very isolating and its structure versus how we used to engage with the news.
ANDREA LAMPROS: And I think it underscores the importance of journalism really and trusted news sources. Yes, it is a different moment without the gatekeepers. But there still are important journalistic outlets and media that are being able to provide really important backhaul reporting and context to the atrocities that are happening in our world, and to climate change, and to all of what we’re experiencing in a really difficult way that is, in so many ways, provides such a more important frame and does provide a frame for the trauma we’re experiencing and witnessing in disparate ways as we watch disparate videos.
And so I think that we’re in a time of flux. And I think we shouldn’t just say, oh, well, we don’t have journalism anymore. We do have journalism. And we’re going to have– and maybe we need to double down on that and say, yes, we need more of it.
We need more accurate storytelling that provides this important context for people so that they can take this in ways that are actionable. And that are in ways that they can use both their heart and their brain as they experience something. And so I just think it speaks to that and saying. Let’s not forget that or throw journalism away because it is so vitally important right now.
ALEXA KOENIG: I want to that point about the importance of traditional journalism. One of the things that we did in conducting research for the book was to ask everyone we interviewed. Did you watch George Floyd’s murder? And did you see that original video put out by Darnella Frazier?
And at least anecdotally was a bit of a divide around ethnicity and also around age where there were a lot of what we read in terms of background research, but also in conversations reflected something like if you were black, I didn’t need to watch that video to know that violence against Black people happens. And so no. Or if you were working in social justice movements, where you’d already been significantly exposed to that, for a lot of those people, they mentioned that would almost feel gratuitous because it wasn’t needed to know what had happened.
Also, some younger people really said to us, no, I chose not to watch it. Even when there are people that worked in human rights on social justice issues. I chose to read a newspaper article about it or a magazine article because I wanted to know the facts of what had happened.
But I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to watch the killing of a Black man. And that felt almost wrong or overly invasive. So I think that we need to make sure we can get access to the news and the facts of what’s taking place.
But I think there are so many smart choices people are beginning to make about how and when do I engage with the toughest material. And the role of traditional journalism for even young people to get access to that news.
ANDREA LAMPROS: And just one more point on that. What we learned in reporting for this book is that newsrooms, and specifically, the New York Times in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. And the coverage of that, they really were looking at how do we cover this, and when do we share videos like this, and when don’t we.
And what is some of the thinking around that? And I think that’s really important to know that important newsroom was really grappling with that. And as I’m sure newsrooms all around the country thinking that through.
And when and why are we showing this? And I really appreciate that.
GWYNETH SHAW: From your experience at the Investigations Lab, and the students who came in to work with you, what are some of the things that you learned from them during the course of this whole endeavor that might be useful to the rest of us as well? Because they’re relatively young people.
Maybe not with an extensive background in human rights work. This might have been their first exposure or early exposure to this thing. What are some lessons that you learned from them?
ALEXA KOENIG: A few things. I know I think it’s such a privilege to work with people who are at the very early stages about thinking what they’re going to do with their life and what their contributions will be. Berkeley students are so creative, so passionate.
Many of them are digital natives just given the era in which they’ve grown. So I think they are able to contribute so much methodologically to the space. I think when you empower them to though, they’re able to tell you when you’re just totally getting it wrong.
I think Andrea and I were in the position of having to build the plane as we’re flying it to figure out what’s working and what’s not from the best research that we could find out there and from the guidance of people who knew so much more than we did. But the students were often really good about saying this just isn’t enough, or here’s how I’m feeling overworked, or I’m not getting credited for something that I’ve given my heart and soul to.
I think that’s a big piece of it is recognizing the dignity of everyone who’s engaged. That provides an opportunity to help shift the culture of journalism law and social science in ways that I think over the long-term really give me hope that we’re going to have more sustainable workplaces in the future.
We’re always going to be in tension with profit motives of any organization. Or if you’re in a non-profit, the drive to do more and more all the time, and the natural tendency of all of us to be so committed to the work that we drive ourselves even to new extremes, that can be unsustainable.
But I think if we can do one thing in our lives, whether it’s professional or personal, it’s to open up some room to at least have honest discussions. And to put everyone on an equal plane to realize that no one person’s perspective should be overvalued above everyone else. That we’re trying to build something new. And we need all of us in our insights and our experiences to build it responsibly.
ANDREA LAMPROS: The investigations lab has really been a collective effort of so many people of students, staff, partners around the world. And so this work that we’ve tried to document really comes out of that experience of so many people. And the students have been incredibly instrumental in informing this.
And so it’s really credit them with being open about their experiences and sharing what’s worked and what hasn’t as you deal with really difficult material. We have a sign up in the lab that said if you want, it’s a proverb, an unclear origin. But it’s a proverb.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. And people have probably heard that.
But it is really the idea of that collective experience and that we are stronger emotionally, intellectually, in all ways if we are together in community. And so that’s been something that we’ve learned a lot is that students talked about the importance of having somebody else know what it’s like to look at that atrocity that happened on the streets of Myanmar to see it in the same– to both see something and to be able to share that and talk about it.
Because even UC Berkeley students are all having different experience. Our students in a lab might go home to housemates who have no idea what they’re talking about. And yet these students have had this really heavy experience.
So it’s been really important that they have that collective community to be able to go to talk to somebody to let out their emotions about it. And of course, that pertains to all of us. How social media can be very isolating experience? So how do we make it not so, so that it is something that we are talking about with others?
So that’s one thing. The other thing that I think that students really taught us is the importance of agency in all of it is– and social science research, of course, backs this up.
But how do you make sure that you have agency to decide you want to look or not look to decide want to work on this very difficult project or not work on it, or change projects, or realize this is just too difficult for me right now. And so that is hugely important to know that you have that.
We talked to a lot of content moderators for this book, people who are hired by social media companies to look at take things off the internet. And that’s one of the big takeaways. And many others have documented of the fact that they haven’t had agency that there just have to look at these terrible things. And not know what happens afterward can be very psychologically damaging.
And then that feeds into the third thing. I think we really learned from students is around the importance of action. Knowing that you can do something with what you’ve seen.
And that it might be a very difficult experience. But you can do something with the information, whether that is just simply bearing witness. The anthropologist Paul Farmer talks about the importance of bearing witness.
And that just has meaning in and of itself. It may be just hearing somebody’s story, watching a video that tells something that’s happening. But to know that somebody else halfway around the world is able to do that is important and valid.
So we try to really talk to students about that and reinforce that. That has meaning in and of itself, even if it doesn’t result in a court decision that changes someone’s experience or a news story or something else. But of course, those things are important as well. So, of course, there’s a whole spectrum of action that can be taken.
ALEXA KOENIG: I’d add two things to that. And I think that’s all so incredibly important. The first is techniques that are being used and have been discovered by the open source investigations community more generally as minimizing the risk of harm.
And then second, how you can process that harm if and when it occurs or to try and help alleviate it? So the first on the tips and tricks are things like– and I think everyday viewers of potentially upsetting material can use all of these. One is if you’re going to watch something that’s potentially quite upsetting to maybe minimize the sound.
So you’re lowering the emotional resonance. There’s so much pain and the person pleading for their life or a child screaming for its mother, that you don’t necessarily need that. If you think about going to the movies, you’re looking at it on a huge screen.
And the sound is way up. And they’re trying to just immerse you in whatever emotion they want you to feel in the moment. I think almost countering that by minimizing the screen, by turning down the sound, or even some techniques that have been used by professionals is like changing the playback speed.
For example, if you’re watching on YouTube, it’s very easy to put it at double speed or half speed so that you’re telling your brain you’re not here in this traumatic moment right now. You’re actually watching it from the safety of wherever you are in the moment. Looking at this through a piece of glass that, I think, can help your body then minimize the risk of actually taking it as if you were being traumatized yourself.
The second thing I’d say is that when you’re beginning to feel the effects of this, or as Andrea put it, as you’re more aware that you’re maybe deviating from how you normally eat, sleep, behave, et cetera, is to recognize that what helps each person is so unique to that person. That we really as organizations, and for ourselves need to think about a diversity of options so that we can experiment with and play with what works for us.
Or if we’re managers of an organization, that we’re giving a lot of entry points to help. And when we first started the lab, and people wanted to talk about what they were experiencing emotionally, I was super hurt in the beginning because people often didn’t want to go to me. They would go to Andrea, or they’d go to each other. And I’m like, I like to think I’m an accessible person.
But I needed to recognize that I was in a position of authority above them. I was maybe their professor or I was the quote-unquote boss for certain parts of the team at the Human Rights Center. And that I wasn’t necessarily the right person to help them process that experience.
And in fact, maybe it could be seem dangerous or harmful to them to share and to be vulnerable with me given the role that I play within the organization. So I think just recognizing the importance of some of the students started like a peer counseling session. And that never really took off in a formal sense.
But knowing that there’s openings to talk together, to partner on investigations so that you have collective wisdom around what you’ve experienced, to have pathways to professional care which for some people is a great response, for others may not be. To create opportunities to do yoga or meditation. To find what really helps you process that I think is a really individual phenomenon.
ANDREA LAMPROS: Getting back to that idea of having a community to process this information. And I think this was something that really was very prominent during the 2020 election, the concept of doomscrolling, of staying up late at night, and just aimlessly scrolling through the news and the bad things that were the pandemic, and the election, and climate change. And make your own list of things that just depress you every night when you look at your phone.
But it’s also a flip way to say, oh, I’m torturing myself with this information. And so I don’t want to trivialize it. What are some of the signs of things you should watch out for in yourself, in your kids, or other loved ones that you’re just having– you’re exposing yourself too much or they’re exposing themselves too much to a wide variety of things.
ALEXA KOENIG: The piece that I hope people take from the book is really maybe perhaps more thought than they may have given about where, when, and how they engage with this kind of information. So as you said, I think it’s so easy to pick up your phone and start doomscrolling. If nothing else, I would hope people at least container that or think more consciously about when they do.
Ideally, they’re not doing it right before bed when they’re exhausted, which I think is a tendency many of us have is to start just scrolling social media. Because we’re brain dead at the end of a long workday or whatever. That’s potentially the worst time to do that.
So even just moving from your bed to a chair across the room, if you have that opportunity, or if you’ve got a larger space to not use social media in your bedroom, I think it’s a habit. I’ve certainly made that change in my life. And I’ve really appreciated that change because it’s made me more conscious about when I’m going to engage with the difficult stuff so that I can be more mindful when I do, and actually more conscious about what am I going to do with this information when I see it.
ANDREA LAMPROS: We actually used to start some of our training with students with this quote from Rachel Naomi Remen who said, the expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. And we have that quote in the book as well.
And I think that mindset from the beginning is really important for everyone to have not just those who are journalists or human rights workers working with this material on a daily basis. But all of us are being exposed. And we’re going to be affected.
And to have that from the get-go, we are going to be affected by what we see as we should be. Because this is trauma around the world that people are experiencing this is violence, people are experiencing, we should know what is happening in our world and in our communities. That said, knowing that watching something will affect us.
And there’s going to be a whole spectrum of effects from simply feeling empathy to feeling actually when it gets overwhelming in ways and to a whole spectrum. And we talk about secondary trauma in the book. And that is a very an extreme a result of this, which would be then what does that mean. It would be really having unlike firsthand trauma, secondary trauma would be still having really some of the same physiological reactions to something that you would have firsthand.
And so having unhealthy actions as a result of that, whether that’s using alcohol and/or using alcohol or drugs as a way of numbing or other things retreating from the world, or retreating from the people we love, or not doing things that we normally do. And so there’s a whole spectrum of things that could come about.
So one thing that we think also is really important is to know what is normal for you and have awareness around how are you in the world when you’re happy and joyful, and what are some of the ways that you are– how are some of the ways that you’re moving in the world. And then how might that be affected by your connection with social media and the doomscrolling that you might be doing. And then how can you think about calibrating that?
So it is really taking some of that responsibility for yourself. We know that social media companies are driven by profit. And the idea is that you’re going to click on things.
And so some of the most painful and salacious material is going to be put out there in hopes that you will. And so it is until we find ways to mitigate that on a structural level, it is really up to us as individuals, as parents to think about how are we being intentional for ourselves and for our families so that we’re engaging respectfully with this content and not just mindlessly.
ALEXA KOENIG: I think there’s a real opportunity here to as people become more aware of when they begin to deviate from how much they normally sleep, or eat, or drink, or whatever about also what makes them feel better, and what are the positive things they can put in place as opposed to the numbing practices that Andrea mentioned. There is a really promising body of psychology known as positive psychology.
And there’s been some great work being done on the Berkeley campus, as well as around the country and globally. But one of the concepts that I think are so important to remember is that when people are exposed to potentially traumatizing material or upsetting material, there’s been research that shows that the majority of people, when they go through a trauma, after a few months will recover to some baseline of quote-unquote normalcy.
There’s a small percentage that may be permanently impaired by that experience. But there’s also a small percentage of people who experience a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth. And there’s a lot of research being done right now about how can we skew that bell curve towards post-traumatic growth so that people who are engaging with traumatic materials or going through traumatic experiences may actually come out of this more empowered, clearer about their commitment to justice, feeling stronger and healthier despite– and not ignoring the trauma that they’ve gone through or the difficult times, but actually having gained new skills and techniques.
And I think for human rights practitioners, for journalists, and for the general public, just knowing that exposure to bad things doesn’t have to be permanently impairing. But there may be things we can work on to become stronger individually and as communities can really give us hope for a better future.
GWYNETH SHAW: It seems like a real three-point here is getting out of that isolation of viewing some of these things on your own. That whether it’s in a work environment, or it’s in a personal environment that reaching out to other people and using that sense of community to help you work through this is something that’s really pretty important to what you’re talking about.
ANDREA LAMPROS: Yes, absolutely. The community element is incredibly important. Because I go back to something that Eric Stover, the faculty director of the Human Rights Center really underscored for Alexa and me as we were working with students.
The difference between doing some of the human rights work that we’re doing in a digital environment and doing the boots-on-the-ground traditional human rights work that he and many others have done. And of course, Alexa has done as well.
But it is a difference. One of the things that he really pointed out is that when you’re in person versus online, you’re so much more able to have that community. You’re able to maybe you’re doing very, very difficult work. You’re hearing very difficult stories.
But you’re in proximity to people who also you can feel their pain, but you can also feel their gratitude and appreciation for you being there and for working for justice in community in a real, real sense. So that’s a lot easier to develop versus in the online digital context for students, or human rights workers, or journalists, or anybody were removed. So we have to be more intentional about how we’re thinking about and creating community.
I just wanted to add one other point around awareness around how sometimes we think that because we are not the ones experiencing that trauma firsthand, that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves or that we shouldn’t worry about it, or that who are we to feel overwhelmed, or sad, or incredibly affected by this. And I think that’s been the mindset of journalists and others over time.
And as Alexa to talk about, before that tough it out attitude. And we really hope that we people can start changing that mindset and start thinking about no it really is important for the long haul how we relate to the information, how we are intentional, how we create community, how we do all of the things. Because then that keeps us engaged for the long haul in working for human rights and for justice, or just in bearing witness to what’s happening in the world.
ALEXA KOENIG: A common theme that we heard from people we interviewed anecdotally and have repeatedly heard from students, I just heard it from one just this past Monday, is there’s such a sense. When you’re really engaged with this material, and you’re watching people say who’ve just lost their children in Ukraine, or in Myanmar, or wherever in the world, to feel a sense of guilt that you are–
If you’re here in the United States, and you’re relatively physically safe like guilt, that you can put your kids to bed. And they haven’t been killed. And you’re not like trying to figure out your next meal or whatever.
And while I think it’s so important for us to be aware of our privilege, I think guilt can be very demotivating in terms of our response and our ability to act. So I think one thing Andrea and I begun talking about is like this almost can we shift the mindset from guilt to gratitude for what we have. And then gratitude for those privileges that then put us in a position to maybe have impact so that we go from something that’s very demotivating to hopefully a sense of something that can motivate our own engagement to try to fight for the change we needs to happen.
GWYNETH SHAW: Thank you so much for this fascinating conversation. And I think be something really interesting for folks to think about. I have been talking with Andrea Lampros and Alexa Koenig, whose new book Graphic: Trauma and Meaning in Our Online Lives has just been published.
And thanks again so much for joining me, and really appreciate your time.
ALEXA KOENIG: Thank you so much.
GWYNETH SHAW: And thank you listeners for joining us on this episode of Berkeley Law Voices Carry. If you liked what you heard, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, I’m Gwyneth Shaw.