Shraddha Chakradhar

Violent World or Violent Media?

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s overthrown dictator, was killed today near his hometown of Surt.
Nearly 3 weeks ago, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior leader of Al-Qaeda was killed by a drone strike in Yemen.
At the end of July, a right-wing extremist planned and executed terrorist attacks in Norway, killing nearly 80 people.
In May, President Obama announced that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been discovered and killed.

These are just a few of the events that have occurred in the past 5 months. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Colombian Armed Conflict, the Somali Civil War, and several other international conflicts have been on going for several years.

Violence, no matter the reason behind it, is everywhere. Or is it? Could it just be the media hyping up the conflicts when the world is actually pretty safe?

Cultivation theory, in the field of communications, looks at the long-term effects of television viewing on people’s thoughts and ideas, and one of the ideas that arose out of the theory is the “Mean World Syndrome.” It claims that people who watch a lot of television today are more likely to think that the world is a terrible place because of media coverage of violent incidents.

“When I was a kid, my mom used to let me wander around the city where I grew up and ride my bike wherever I want,” said Boston University’s James Shanahan, Professor of Communication. “Now we would never let our kids do that because the perception is that it’s more dangerous, but the reverse is actually true. It was more dangerous for me to do that back then than it is today”

I found some proof to support the idea that media hypes up terrorist and other violent attacks in an article I read in The New Yorker a few weeks ago. Elizabeth Kolbert, in a piece titled “Peace In Our Time”  profiled Stephen Pinker (pictured on right) and his new book on the history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, and asked for his take on the Norway shooting in July.

Clearly judging by the title, Pinker, a Harvard University professor of psychology, believes that violence in the world has declined. He also believes that the shooting was over-hyped. His argument, at least as showcased in Kolbert’s piece, is largely an historical one. He cites the fact that the European countries, for much of history, had been in constant, bloody war (100 years war, 30 years war, First and Second World Wars, to name a few),  but now Norway is not only one of the safest places in the world but is probably the safest it has ever been in the history of its existence. According to him, nearly 300 people in Norway die yearly from accidents, so why is the death of the 77 people in the shooting so important?

The answer: civilization. Civil-ization. As time went on, and people became more civil and educated (about everything), the way they began to think about others and behave towards others also changed. Literacy, the progress of civilization from feudal-states to more unified government, and the population burst are all reasons, according to Pinker, that contribute to people becoming more considerate of others.

There are several gaps in Pinker’s analysis, according to Kolbert (and I agree). For instance, he fails to mention historical evidence from anywhere except Europe. Even in regards to European history, he skips over the issue of colonialism, a pursuit that resulted in tremendous violence.

If there is evidence to support the fact that we live in a world that is less violent than in the past, why are we still affected by the events that unfold? Apart from the fact that we are human and we empathize with others? While education and civilization has allowed us to care about each other, it has also allowed us to be more technologically advanced. And much of this advancement is made in the field of weapons. It’s difficult for us to congratulate ourselves on becoming less like our feudal ancestors while simultaneously developing ways to destroy each other in more brutal ways than our ancestors did.

And it’s this paradox that is disturbing. When a terrorist attack or extremist gunman disturbs the peace, we are shocked into remembering the weapons available at our disposal despite the awareness against using them. We are reminded, as Kolbert wrote, that “hate, madness and cruelty haven’t disappeared, and they aren’t going to.”

Turning the Heat Down

A few days ago, being too lazy to cook, my fiance and I decided to try out a restaurant in the area. It was a hole-in-the wall Indian restaurant with a great Indo-Chinese menu.

Almost as soon as we took the first bite into our noodles, both of us impulsively reached for water. While the food was delicious, we had soon gone through two glasses of water each, we each had a runny nose, and the spice still lingered in our mouth. I remembered then that water doesn’t work to curb spice, and ordered some mango juice instead. And that did it. The spice began to dissipate.

Though I knew from friends and, well, personal experience that water doesn’t work to curb spice, I still didn’t know why. And the fact that milk is said to work better to tone down the heat? Why did that work? Most restaurants don’t have the option to order milk as your beverage of choice, so what do you do to relieve the spice?

After much research, I managed to find some answers. The molecule that causes spice is called capsaicin. Contrary to some opinion, capsaicin is NOT made in seeds of chili peppers. Rather, it’s produced in the fleshy white membrane that the seeds are attached to. But because capsaicin is in such high concentrations on the membrane, the spice is transferred to the seeds as well.

Red bell pepper with white placenta membrane and seeds attached 

This is what the capsaicin molecule looks like:

Note the long tail that the molecule has, i.e., everything to the right of the oxygen jutting down. This long tail, which is made up only of carbon and hydrogen atoms, is the reason that capsaicin is insoluble in water. It’s basically like an oil and water mix. The water does nothing but move capsaicin around your mouth, which is why sometimes you feel water aggravated the problem instead of alleviate it.

But the hydrocarbon tail also makes the molecule soluble in lipids, or fats. Contrary, again, to some opinion, milk and milk products are mainly helpful not because of their fat content, but because of the presence of a protein called casein. Like capsaicin, casein is also insoluble in water and soluble in fat. Like dissolves like, and so capsaicin dissolves easily in casein, dissipating the spice. So if milk is unavailable, look for other milk products like cheese and butter (If you’re at an Indian restaurant, ask for some ghee, or clarified butter; it’s a staple in every Indian household for this very use). Casein, or the lack of it, is also why some oily foods are still spicy. Chinese food mostly uses sesame and peanut oils and casein is found in animal, particularly mammalian, milk. Sesame, peanut and other vegetable oils still help because of their ability to dissolve capsaicin, but to a lesser degree than milk products.

So water doesn’t work, you don’t have any cheese or butter, but there are still a few other options to try. The first, luckily enough for some, is alcohol. Alcohol is fat-soluble. So it will dissolve capsaicin. And naturally, the higher the alcohol content, the more it will dissolve capsaicin. If you’re at Mexican restaurant and treat yourself to too much habanero, have some simple guacamole. The high fat content in avocados will help curb the spice.

And if all else fails, get some dessert. While they tend to be sweet, which will be a nice break for your mouth, they also tend to have a high fat content and will dissolve capsaicin.