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At the beginning of March this year, while still in the doldrums of winter and on the first day of the last month of the Baha’i calendar, I decided to stop watching all local, national and cable news on television.
During this period of abstaining from television news, my hope was to actively apply a central principle of the Baha’i Faith: independent investigation of truth, to constantly increase our knowledge and develop the ability to ascertain truth. This is an active, not passive process: one must read, reflect, take time to analyze information from various sources, and contemplate on how to apply this information to one’s life.
I had just finished reading “Humankind” by Rutger Bregman, which examines the insidious toxicity of visual media “news” and its links to “entertainment” — conspicuous consumerism and rampant materialism. Bregman analyzes three historical events of the 20th century written about in contemporary news media and compares coverage of these events to his research on the actual circumstances surrounding each event.
For me, it was a revelation to read that, for instance, the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City was not, as it was called at the time, an example of urban indifference to violent crime. In fact, Bregman recounts that Ms. Genovese did not die alone: many of her immediate neighbors called 911, went to her aid, and did not ignore her calls for help. Her murderer was a burglar who was apprehended shortly after the crime.
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After reading “Humankind” and reflecting on what I have read of the Baha’i writings, I decided to spend the Baha’i Fast not just focusing on abstinence from the material world of food and drink, but also using my time to pray, meditate, and to abstain from “talking heads” — those media entities that enter my consciousness at least once a day for several hours when I turn on the news “to find out what’s going on.”
The news media, according to Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, has a highly significant role in increasing knowledge:
In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of diverse peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behooveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should inquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.
However, during his lifetime, Baha’u’llah was maligned by the newspapers of his day. He wrote that: “most of the things reported in the newspapers are devoid of truth. Fair speech and truthfulness, by reason of their lofty rank and position, are regarded as a sun shining about the horizon of knowledge.”
Print media readership has declined for years. Most of us get our news from television or online outlets. The world’s media is in a race to survive in the digital information age: “if it bleeds, it leads” is the order of the day’s stories: a frenetic, global effort to get and keep eyeballs on screens, to meet the voracious demands of advertisers and media corporations’ bottom-line profits. Major television networks and streaming services format their information to keep viewers watching, adding commercials at increasing frequency and at greater lengths.
Watching and re-watching the most salacious, outrageous, and horrific tales of man’s inhumanity to man can send cortisol levels soaring. Television offers a never-ending diet of violence, injustice, degradation, and inhumanity on the nightly news. The odd “Human Interest” story, tacked on in the last ninety seconds of a typical evening broadcast may not be enough to lower elevated cortisol levels!
As a Black woman in the United States with two Black sons, my stress hormone levels were unhealthily high over the past year, with news about racial injustice, health, economic, and social disparities on the screen every day. By abstaining from visual television news, my intention was to start carefully reading and analyzing digital media, to allow my mind to absorb and reflect on the information I received about current events. This process would also allow my cortisol hormone levels to decrease.
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To me, fasting from the news is not “burying my head in the sand” or practicing an ebullient, “What, me worry?” carefree optimism. Fasting from television news for the past few months has given my soul and spirit a chance to “reset.”
My perspective now is calmer, with more equanimity towards the society I live in. For example, this fast has helped lower my anxieties about being Black and female in America, to recall Baha’u’llah’s observation in the 19th century, as quoted by his son and designated successor, Abdu’l-Baha, using the accepted terminology of the time: “Baha’u’llah once compared the colored people to the black pupil of the eye surrounded by white. In this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the spirit shineth forth.” Reflecting on this with a mind clear from anxieties helped me restore my faith and renewed my desire to help build a truly peaceful, multi-racial society.
Taking this indefinite period away from TV news has allowed my spirit to recuperate to refresh itself with hope and commitment to change. It has enabled me to prayerfully plan and act to create unity within my family, my neighborhood, and my community, unencumbered by the artificial perspectives of media entities whose desire to investigate truth may be compromised by corporate dictates.
In these tumultuous days of 2021, my soul seeks to demonstrate in deed and word the oneness of humanity and the promises of world peace contained in the Baha’i writings, despite a parade of negative news events. My soul gains peace, solace, and resolve to focus on my individual actions and practice what Baha’u’llah says is my adorning as a human being: deeds not words.
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