Mud and War: Sympathy in the Twitter Age

In an age of media saturation, Caragh Medlicott asks how can we learn to navigate the emotional complexities of the news cycle, and how do come to terms with our own prejudices?

Under the shadow of a thousand technological advancements, news has become more multi-stranded, contradictory and sporadic than anyone could have predicted. From declarations of fake news to substance-less clickbait, our news consumption is both a constant affair and confusingly intersected with the social realm. What makes headlines has always been a weighty, politicised issue – but with the demands of an audience that is reachable 24/7, the foot is pressed harder and harder on the accelerator. The result? A higher turnover of stories and daily breaking news updates. The consequential frequency and fleetingness of global affairs often spreads our sympathies too thin. Which is why when I found myself impassionedly debating the Cardiff mud dumping controversy – and with more vigour than I had discussed almost anything in months – I had something of a wobble.

It’s not surprising that we are more notably affected by things which are close to us – whether that be literally, or emotionally. Sympathy can essentially be boiled down to how much we can relate to another’s position, or at the very least, can imagine ourselves in that position. Still, intaking story after story about the 300,000 tonnes of nuclear mud dredged from the Hinkley Point nuclear site to be dumped in Cardiff Grounds, I found myself particularly annoyed. It felt there was so much missing from the coverage; we do not exist in a vacuum removed from the context of time. And yet, no one seemed to see the irony that England – a country with a long history of drowning welsh villages to provide water for its own cities – is now returning to Wales to dump nuclear mud in Welsh waters.

For me, the whole affair is wrapped up in hypocrisies and patronisation. On the most unscientific level, you’re pretty hard pressed to hear the words “nuclear” and “dumping” shoved together without an alarm bell sounding somewhere inside. Of course, the huge clincher in the entire controversy is the unscientific position of the average citizen. There’s been a tendency in both the media and political debates to put a spin on the opposed activists; to imagine them as hippy caricatures of the frequently mentioned “concerned surfers”. The descriptions of those troubled by the dumping does not convincingly represent the varied number of activists, politicians, academics and citizens counted within their numbers. The nature of their appeal is rarely put plain: more testing, more clarity.

I’ve found myself discussing the entire issue with a permanent raised eyebrow. Perhaps inevitably, I am suspicious of the long-term safety of the mud, annoyed by misrepresented statements (EDF incorrectly suggested that Greenpeace had accepted the mud as non-toxic), and even angered by comments such as that from John Wheadon permitting services manager for National Resources Wales which have bordered on the intimidating. Broadly, I have been frustrated and disheartened by what the event signifies: the go ahead for Hinkley Point C, the guaranteed generation of nuclear waste all of which is just extra salt in the wound of the rejected Swansea Bay tidal lagoon proposal. Still, there has been one thing more than anything which has niggled me, a feeling that I can’t quite shake: and that is the pressing worry that I only care because I am close.

What if I had never come to Cardiff for university? What if I hadn’t studied Welsh Literature modules, read the same number of Welsh writers or had any of the informative conversations I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy with Welsh peers? Reading statement after statement defending the safety of the mud, I’ve been frustrated by how curated they are – each of them surely in line for a PR award – but would my reaction have been the same if I still lived in Birmingham? On a deeper level still, I find greater sympathy stems from my position being one of Irish descent; the experiences of close relatives which mirror the same unequal power structures between England and Wales, as England and Ireland. And that’s the rub. Our personal relationships will always, to some extent, dictate our capability to find emotional resonance. And this is what bothers me; how can there be adequate response to social and political events when our reactions are so hugely shaped by our sympathies – and when these sympathies themselves are derived so closely from personal experience?

It’s a troubling issue, and one which plays into a social hierarchy of power and privilege. This isn’t to claim that people only care about what they know; more accurately, it can be surmised as a kind of obliviousness. Depressing though it may be, there is societal value attached to each life, and this is reflected in the priorities of the media. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when it comes to any form of large-scale tragic event; be it a natural disaster, terrorism or something else – white lives count for more in making headlines. This comes lumped with the natural by-products of disaster – incomprehension, desensitisation. When a tragedy is so huge, it inhibits our ability to react appropriately – the recent earthquake in Indonesia left more than 2,000 people dead, and over 2,500 seriously injured. Surely it’s impossible for any person to scratch the surface of sorrow that would be proportionate to that amount of lives lost and destroyed. Yet, it is an almost certainty that if such an event had happened in a country with a white-majority population the news coverage would be stretched out longer, the intensity would be greater and the number of tributes would increase tenfold.

With an endless string of major political events unfolding at present, it is imperative that we are able to avoid indifference. We must avoid falling prey to the short memory of fast-running news cycles, or the numbness that comes from hearing – say – yet another appalling statement from Trump. It is the powerful who stand to gain. When a mass shooting took place at a school in Parkland, Florida, many were moved by the powerful response of the grieving students. The incredible speech by Emma Gonzalez “called BS” on Trump and demanded change. For a brief moment it felt possible that this time was different, that something would finally happen. Cut to the present, and despite the continued efforts of the campaigning students, the media platform which had briefly been offered to them has left as fast as it came. Now, the heartbreak fades to just another date on the calendar of school shootings – all equally ineffective in impeding on the wealth and power of the NRA. It’s not hard to see why we get defeated. But holding onto that anger and increasing persistence is not futile, it’s essential.

On 11th September, ships came in the night to dump the first 2,000 tonnes of mud in Penarth – it caused a small murmur of articles to appear. Two weeks on, and things are starting to wind down – looks like the thoroughness of the mud’s testing will have to be discovered the hard way. Now, more than ever, we must not allow apathy to inhibit our ability to act. Be outraged and be engaged. If the mud dumping scandal has taught me one thing, it’s that we could all learn a little from reacting to events which play out on the world stage, as if they were actually playing out on our own doorstep.


Caragh Medlicott is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review