Content warning: This column discusses police brutality.
Reactions to human rights abuses, such as George Floyd’s killing, often result in the mass publication of graphic imagery online. The constant consumption of shocking media desensitizes the public to human rights abuses through a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue affected me during the summer of 2020, as I was bombarded with graphic media depicting police brutality and violent counterprotests within my hometown of Minneapolis. Nevertheless, I found Laurence Ralph’s Op-Doc “The Torture Letters” about police brutality in Chicago profoundly engaging. The documentary crafted narrative-based accounts of suffering instead of displaying explicit content, compelling viewers to listen to and center its subjects. “The Torture Letters” makes persuasive ethical claims on its audience because its first-person narration and focus on children’s experiences allow viewers to empathize with victims of police brutality.
Stylistic aspects of the documentary alleviate compassion fatigue, as Ralph tailors the aesthetics of the documentary to suit his target audience. The documentary was published in The New York Times, and its epistolary style of narration — in which Ralph writes open letters to victims of police brutality in Chicago — forces the Times’ educated, wealthy audience to empathize with Ralph’s pain rather than abstractly incorporate accounts of torture into their privileged personal perceptions of police violence. Ralph stated that he narrated in an epistolary manner to “convey the emotional reality and the nature of torture in a more humanizing light.” His narration allows viewers to internalize the pain inflicted through torture, while emphasizing that victims are human beings rather than an abstract, categorical other.
Furthermore, Ralph’s first two letters focus on children’s experiences with police brutality and combat the misleading representation of Black youths because Black children and adolescents are often treated as adults by law enforcement. To counter these perceptions, “The Torture Letters” emphasizes the youthfulness of adolescent victims. When Ralph narrates the story of children detained by the Chicago police, the kids are drawn disproportionately small relative to the officers, which juxtaposes the overwhelming power difference between the detained youth and the police. Ralph empathizes with the children by detailing a traumatic childhood experience he had with the police, in which his older brother was interrogated for hours by an officer at a mall. In the animation, when his brother is released, young Laurence nervously hesitates before hugging him in a tender embrace. This moment reminds viewers that police violence is excruciating for victims’ loved ones, and that such trauma leaves lasting scars on children.
Tragically, police violence in Chicago toward Black children and other children of color persists, as politicized human rights media continues to foment compassion fatigue, which often supplants actual mobilization against systemic injustices. This week, video footage depicting a Chicago police officer killing Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy, was published by various news outlets. Necessary systemic police reform is unlikely to occur as long as the public remains desensitized to the suffering of minority communities at the hands of the police. However, compassion fatigue is likely to remain widespread unless media outlets produce more content like “The Torture Letters,” which helps audiences empathize with victims of human rights abuses.