Does nothing shock us anymore?

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Flower child or beast? In 1969 at the height of the hippie era, a guitar playing Charles Manson sent his young female acolytes to commit gruesome murders, leading many to question what a hippie stood for

WHAT has the power to shock us today, so deeply that we sit up and take notice? Could it be the increase of right wing demagoguery and nationalism in America that has peaked under US President Donald Trump’s reign? Neo-Nazi, fascist groups, anti-migrant and anti-Semitic, are on the rise in countries all over the world.

Or closer to home, could it be the rise of right wing and left wing populism in South Africa that shocks us? The elections that have just been completed this week will throw up many questions about this.

Talking about being shocked, let’s go back 50 years to a time when the world was profoundly stunned by a man called Charles Manson. Everyone knows the name and views it with horror. Manson signifies the depravity that can emerge from a seemingly benign mass movement when people stop thinking for themselves, such as the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s. He led a cult in California. With his long hair, charisma and ability to charm a crowd with guitar playing, he looked like a peaceful hippie filled with love and human fellowship1960s

He manipulated his followers into committing the most grisly murders: Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, was slashed 16 times with knives by Manson’s acolytes. His highly publicised 1970 trial irrevocably tarnished the hippie image, appalling the world. He was sentenced to death, but saved from execution when California’s Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972.

Why, 50 years later, do we remember Manson? It is because at that time the world was so astonished by his crime that it felt as though society had shifted on its moral axis. Nothing like this had been done before. People weren’t sure how to exist in a world where such a crime was perpetrated. And thus, the hippie movement ended.

In the 1960s, news was received in a measured way via newspapers, radio and television. There was a time lapse between the event and its coverage. Today, news goes via the internet – the instant communication of social media into which gigabytes upon gigabytes of information and sinister ideas are poured, bludgeoning people into confusion about almost anything.

We can’t react rationally anymore to killings and catastrophes reported from around the world every day, whether they are true or not. We don’t have the ability to be shocked anymore the way people were at what Manson did. It’s just too much, so we scroll down; there were similar items yesterday and there will be more tomorrow. Yet we can’t switch off the internet because so much of our lives depend on it.

The dangers of our times are many; we hear about them via the internet. One of the biggest, which we have hardly begun to address amidst the others, is destruction of our planet’s ecosystem, through which human life could be obliterated. Climate change activists are the equivalent of the 1960s counter-culture. Hopefully there won’t be a Charles Manson among them.

For readers of this paper today, a never-ending burden is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which fills their Twitter and Facebook pages. There too, people struggle to make sense of it; it is so unrelenting in bad news that many people stop reading, and scroll down. The exchange of fire this week between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is the most recent example.

Truth be told, all these things are scrollable, on our devices. But no matter how much Twitter and Facebook shake us up, we can’t switch the internet off. We have to find other ways of looking each other in the eye.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


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