My post on teaching children about evil contained a passing comment about adults and graphic images or descriptions of horrors. That comment garnered some mild and understandable dissent and question both from Paul Cella and from commentator Brad.
I do believe that we Christian (and all morally sensible) adults should be a lot more careful than I suspect most adults are about putting horrors into our minds. As far as I'm concerned, watching direct simulations of torture or rape merely as part of entertaining ourselves ought to be completely out. I realize that this may sound like a radical proposal to some, but I think it's important to realize that we are in a sense giving ourselves an emotional and spiritual whack when we watch such things. And we are engraving things on our minds that cannot be erased. Therefore, we shouldn't do so lightly.
But we may still ask under what circumstances viewing or reading about horrors in detail might be valuable or necessary. Brad raises the excellent examples of movies like The Silent Scream and photographs of emaciated victims of concentration camps. Since such images have value in bringing home the reality of evil actions, the humanity of victims, and so forth, they obviously are not wrong either to produce or to view. In fact, those who record such things are documenting truths that should not be forgotten. How and when, then, should we view them?
It seems to me that the person who is fully convinced that a particular act is horribly wrong has, prima facie, far less of a reason to view images of some atrocity or its aftermath or to read descriptions of it than someone who doubts that it is an atrocity. To choose a slightly off-beat example, if I am already a passionate opponent of fox hunting, it's plausible that I needn't and therefore shouldn't watch videotapes of a fox being torn to pieces by hounds. Something similar is true, I believe, of far more important issues. The passionate pro-lifer is really not the person who needs to be watching The Silent Scream. It is the unconvinced, the lukewarm, or the outright pro-choicer who should challenge himself by watching the movie.
But here I have introduced another idea--the question of how passionate one is about a certain type of evil. It's certainly possible to believe that something is wrong at a mental level but not to be passionate about that opinion, not to see just how wrong the thing is, not to have one's overall mental and emotional outlook rightly ordered regarding that act. In that case, disturbing images might bring home the truth of what one had previously known only "in one's head," leading to a more just appreciation of the truth.
There could possibly be one other reason for learning details of horrors: One might need information to answer others who are downplaying the evils. But here I'm inclined to waver, because a great deal depends on what sorts of details we are talking about. In what argumentative context is it actually going to help one to lead someone else to the truth if one can cite gory details of some particular act of rape or slaughter in a big city? In particular, is it likely enough that having those details ready to hand will be useful and valuable to make it worth it to put them into one's mind? Here I have my doubts.
But finally, I must stress that "watching or reading details of horrors" is a very large category. It may be excusable and even valuable to show 13-year-olds photographs of concentration camp victims. It is unquestionably not excusable or valuable to show them videotapes of torture, real or simulated. And even for adults, I think the following, which I posted in the other thread, is a pretty good principle: Watch horrors only in moderation and when you're sure there's a point to your doing so. Don't be quick to do so, and don't be too quick to think that you have a duty to do so.
Note: I ask that comments to this post not contain any links to disturbing images or detailed descriptions of torture or horrors, please. I also ask that comments themselves contain only general descriptions of or references to horrific acts.