Things You Can’t Unsee

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The City & The City
by China Melville is a weird one. It is both a crime novel and speculative fiction, telling the story of a police detective who lives in a city that lives within another city. The trick is that these two cities, with different cultures and histories, are mortal enemies. They can’t acknowledge each other. To see the other city, to acknowledge its existence, is a crime. Men in Black come and take you away. The story is as confusing and delightful as it sounds.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, especially since the inauguration. Specifically, since the viral inauguration pictures.

A Picture and Its Story: Crowd controversy: The making of an Inauguration Day photo

Since when were pictures taken at different times a matter of politics? As a matter of fact, when were facts so dependent on political party? Relations between the two parties and party lines have haven’t been so toxic since the eighties. So have we gotten to the point where we just… unsee the other side?

I am completely serious in drawing this comparison. Throughout the book, protagonist Detective Borlu notes the seemingly sourceless hostility between the two cities, chalking it up to cultural differences. A review in The Guardian by Michael Moorcock says, “Subtly, almost casually, Miéville constructs a metaphor for modern life in which our habits of “unseeing” allow us to ignore that which does not directly affect our familiar lives.” A summary of the play adapted from the novel on The Only Animal by describes the “big question” posed by the book as, “How do communities construct myths of belonging and exclusion?… Who and what do we choose to see and unsee in our day to day lives, and how does that affect our conception of our world?”

blog infographicCreating an echo-chamber reduces the ability to empathize. It was always ambiguous as to how the two cities grew apart. Could this have been how? Was it a simple matter of incompatible cultures? Is the book a metaphor for our need for a world that revolves around our viewpoint? How dangerous is the polarization of the American public, and how did it get to this point? There are many theories. Some similar to theories behind The City & the City, a split in the time-continuum notwithstanding.

For us, the theories most strongly supported are the deregulation of radio news and the shift of public taste from news programming to a more entertaining brand of information. People like to listen to people who are going to agree with them. With the rescindencion of the Fairness Doctrine this allowed more extreme and more niche radio and talking-head shows on cable TV.

People glom onto worldviews that conform with their own. The internet exacerbates whatever talk radio started and now provides a platform to whatever ideology someone adheres to, and this is compounded by the fact that anger is a whole lot more catchy than niceness. A study done by R. Kelly Garrett, Brian E. Weeks and Rachel L. Neo published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication shows that people who consume sharply partisan news are less likely to admit they’re wrong even when presented with facts. The echo-chamber builds blinders without even making us aware of them. 

In the end, Detective Borlu becomes disillusioned with the separation between the two cities and actually meets The Men in Black characters that keep the cities separate. He is indoctrinated into them, because now he can’t unsee. He knows a whole other world exists, and now he can’t live in either. This whole “price of knowledge” trope has been excersized in science fiction since the first first story, Frankenstein’s Monster, and it echoes through every story ever written in the genre. Detective Borlu’s world changes because of his newfound knowledge. 

We think we know the other side so well because we live with it day after day. But do we even see it? And if we ever did visit the other side, could we come back the same?



1 thought on “Things You Can’t Unsee”

  1. A good, thought provoking essay.

    People start to seek out news sources that agree with them (point 6 above). This leads me to point out the presentation of news to the masses via what is called the mainstream news media (MSM). The MSM decides which stories are given air time or are printed and which are not. This is powerful stuff. Consider, that it was only on non MSM channels or stations that at least some of us heard of the horrific rape and brutalization of a 14 year old girl in a Rockville Maryland high school this past week. Why was there a news media blackout of this story? Likely because the 2 assailants were illegal aliens from Central America, and this conflicts with the MSM’s bias in favor of illegal immigration into the US.

    My point is that the MSM’s long held ideological bias is a big part of the problem in the US. Is the proper role of the news media and journalists in a democracy to shape public opinion (even if that requires the suppression of inconvenient facts) or merely to inform the public of current events?


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