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Ethiopia: From Pre-Election Euphoria to Post-Election Stress Disorder [PESD]?

By Tesfaye Habisso

December 26, 2005


The third national elections that took place on May 15,2005 represents a landmark in the history of our young and fragile democracy.  Nothing of that sort has ever happened before.  This election will always be remembered, for good or bad, by the people of Ethiopia for many decades to come.

Today, several months after a period of alternating euphoria and gloom regarding this much-talked about national elections we are still waiting for the dust to settle.  Many families still feel aggrieved and resentful, and are in a complete daze and shock, gripped by fear and grief, and in a confused state, not sure of what the future holds for them.  As repercussions of the post-election crisis continue to reverberate through most of the country, I am afraid, it will take us some time before the case is satisfactorily resolved by the state and the wounds suffered by the nation effectively healed.

Whatever the case, the events that surrounded the third national elections in Ethiopia have cast a dark shadow in the horizon for many thousands upon thousands of Ethiopians and foreigners alike, whether our young democracy will bounce back and revive again, or whether it will set in motion an ignoble setback that may force us to slid back to dictatorship or authoritarian rule and thus derail the incipient democratization process in the country.  I think the manner in which the protagonists in the political arena and all stakeholders inside the country, especially the incumbent government and party, handle the issue will decide the future of our young democracy. 

Social Scientists tell us that ideas are very powerful tools to mobilize social forces as agents that shape history.  A critical role to create awareness for the mobilization of social forces is, therefore, in the hands of catalyzing individuals, or elites.  And the most important single factor to trigger social change is awareness, defined as the sight of an alternative to existing reality.  Two widely accepted tenacious myths surround the concept among social scientists and social reformers.  The first is the tenet that the level of awareness and eagerness to take corrective action bears a causal relationship with the degree of pauperization.  Second, it is believed that change in awareness is impossible on short notice, for changing the mentality of people requires huge efforts during an extended length of time, sometimes even generations.  By inference, structural social and political change becomes utopian.  The history of Caribbean slavery, as narrated by Glenn Sankatsing in his seminal article entitled, "People's Vote Compatible With People's Fate: A Democratic Alternative to Liberal Democracy",  (Anton de Kom University of Suriname, 2004) however demystifies this defeatist tenet that only serves the status quo and the vague concept of mentality, nobody cares to define with precision.

Inspired by the Last Supper Jesus offered for His disciples and the attendant rituals performed by Him, a devout planter in colonial Cuba decided to line up his slaves and wash their feet during the Easter tide, offering them a banquet in addition.  Few days after that amazing spectacle, the slaves launched an attack on the plantation, making havoc of his possessions and killing his daughter in the uprising.  Historiography recorded this violent incident of slavery as the apex of ingratitude, rather than a salient example of awareness change.  The slave-owner had just committed the unforgivable mistake to destroy the discourse of White supremacy that justified and sustained slavery.  In the fear of his own God, he had admitted that the slaves were his equals by washing their feet.  His humane deed instantly liberated slave consciousness.  The expression on the face of the slaves was one of "Wait a minute!"  He was nothing else than a shameless tyrant, an abuser, and a despot, knowingly mistreating them to steal their labor and to chain their freedom.

In a span of minutes, the master accomplished what decades of suffering and pauperization in cruel slavery was unable to achieve among those docile slaves.  Slave 'mentality', whatever it may mean, evaporated on the spot by awareness with less than half an hour of incubation time.  Here history dramatically shows that one can only dominate people by controlling their minds, their thoughts and their consciousness.  It also provides the valuable lesson that under the weight of harsh reality avenues exist to trigger awareness on short notice.  Accumulated frustration and hopelessness alone are not enough, but there comes a point that naked reality can overwhelm the strongest discourse.  Time is then ripe for the minds and energies of people to be liberated, by watching the conditions of their own reality, unmitigated by false narration.  As Jean-Paul Sartre observed when unmasking false narratives in the aftermath of slavery in the Americas:

" Our victims know us by their scars and their chains, and it is this that makes their evidence irrefutable." [Jean-Paul Sartre's Foreword to Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1973, p.12]

Thus evidence turned into action always triggers the motor of history, effecting, most often, fundamental political and social changes in a society.

In a similar vein, the events that preceded the third national elections in Ethiopia created a sudden upsurge and a great awareness among the masses regarding the need for a genuine and peaceful democratic transition and a more meaningful and income-generating economic development in the country, a yearning for better living standards and a modicum of safety and security, for positive, economic, political and social changes, for the protection of human rights and for the prevalence of good governance and the rule of law.  The role played by the media, especially by the state media, in this regard has been incredible and invaluable, to say the least.

Indeed, the run-up to the third national and regional parliamentary elections in Ethiopia witnessed one of the most exciting times in the brief and turbulent history of our young and fragile democracy.  As the incumbent party and government, either to please its  'development partners' or because of its unfounded overconfidence of mass-based popularity among the peasants who constitute the overwhelming majority of the country's population, promised to the whole nation, to the African Union and its development partners to hold a "flawless election" this time around, it wittingly or unwittingly opened up the political space widely and in a big "bang-bang" manner or at a stroke, so to speak, (contrary to its past policy of gradual and progressive political and economic liberalization), first, by amending the electoral law based on the specific demands of the opposition bloc and, second, by allowing sufficient access to the state media (broadcasting and print) for all opposition parties to freely propagate their political, social and economic programmes and their election manifestos, and to canvass for the people's votes without any impediments constraining their freedom of assembly, association, movement and _expression and their campaign programmes throughout the country.  Extensive civic and voter education programmes in collaboration with various NGOs were conducted for the electorate by the Government across the country.  A code of conduct for ruling party cadres and supporters was prepared and enforced meticulously, particularly before the polling day.  Similar codes of conduct were established for the civil servants, the military and the police forces so that they would all remain aloof and non-partisan in the election process to happen soon.

Numerous forums were also organized by the Inter Africa Group (an NGO based in Addis Abeba) and other NGOs in the country where lively public debates between the ruling party and opposition party representatives took place and these, most often rancorous, hostile and acrimonious debates, were broadcast live on the Ethiopian television and radio for the general populace to watch and listen to the political and socio-economic programmes of the contesting political parties and the would-be parliamentarians and be able to make informed choices and decisions regarding the elections to come.  Making effective use of the state media and their freedom of movement, association assembly and _expression opposition parties viciously attacked and criticized the ruling party for innumerable weaknesses and failures, real and imagined, regarding the nation's economy, politics and social affairs over the past decade or so. They hammered and harped, day in, day out, on the ruling party's failure to curb massive and growing unemployment and joblessness, corruption and gross human rights violations by its security forces, and its dismal performance to improve living conditions for the vast majority of Ethiopians over the past fourteen years of its rule. Many observers were surprised at the sudden positive changes in the political landscape in the country. Some even were heard saying that the ruling party was unwittingly preparing itself for a self-inflicted injury and a suicidal adventure, by 'tying up the hands and feet of its cadres and supporters' in the face of a belligerent, aggressive and hostile opposition bloc, blurting out scary campaign gimmicks against the ruling party and its supporters. 

As we all saw and heard, the general public was indeed mesmerized by these debates and yearned for more and more of such engagements to take place among the contending parties and independent aspirants for parliamentary representation at the national and regional houses of representatives. The whole country was in a political frenzy and the political temperatures were warming up day by day.  In the process opposition parties were able to gain substantial popularity among the electorate, especially in the urban areas of the country.  Public and private print media also carried the full messages of the protagonists in the political arena, their tit-for-tat arguments exposing the alleged weaknesses of one another (actually, it was the ruling party on one side and the opposition bloc on the other side) and appealing to the electorate to support their cause (s), thereby trying to woo or win the hearts and minds of the population in order to secure their votes in the national elections that was to take place on May 15,2005.  These successive events created a great awareness among the masses, offered them alternatives to the policies of the ruling party, and empowered them to make informed choices and decisions regarding their upcoming participation in the national elections.  There was so much euphoria and fanfare that was simply unprecedented and never seen before in the country's electioneering per se.  This was what we all observed and watched up to and including the polling day on May 15,2005, when more than 90% or so of the registered voters (out of approximately 26 million eligible voters registered) turned out to cast their votes for the parties and candidates of their own preferences, braving very long queues that often took more than 16 to 17 hours before they were finally able to vote.  This was indeed the first ever free, fair and peaceful election held in the country's long history, affirmed and commended as such by all local and international observers who observed the elections on May 15,2005.

However, all our optimism, for not only a free and fair but also a credible election, that is, an election that would be acceptable to all the political parties that participated in the contest and all our hopes for a peaceful and smooth transfer of political power to the new government to be formed after the election were dashed and in tatters due to a sudden and unexpected declaration of a state of emergency, a one-month-long ban to be specific, in Addis Abeba by the Prime Minister on the eve of the polling day, May 15, 2005. This sudden move by the head of the executive branch of government and the chairman of the ruling party, without the approval of both the Council of Ministers and the House of People's Representatives as stipulated in the FDRE constitution, to declare a state of emergency and to prohibit street demonstrations and public rallies or gatherings in Addis Abeba for one month created serious doubts amidst the opposition parties who immediately and openly begun alleging the ruling party of foul play and of its secret agenda of tampering with the ballot boxes, vote buying, rigging and manipulating the election results, as it used to do in past elections. These accusations of vote buying and rigging forced the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to delay the release of the official results. As widely expected, when the official results of the vote counting were released, after a delay of more than one month, by the NEBE declaring the ruling party (EPRDF) as the majority winner in the parliament and thus mandated to form a government, the main opposition parties, namely the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) categorically rejected the outcome and condemned the NEBE of colluding with the ruling party. Specifically, they rejected the poll results of 299 parliamentary seats and demanded the NEBE to organize and hold a re-run of elections in those constituencies. Thanks to the willingness of the National Electoral Board, the ruling party, opposition parties and the intervention of the donor community, not only a re-run of elections in those constituencies where it was confirmed by the NEBE that irregularities indeed occurred, many of the complaints raised by the political parties, including the ruling party, were investigated by joint commissions formed by these parties in close collaboration with the NEBE, the election observers and the donor group. And yet the outcome of these investigations and repeated elections was not acceptable to the opposition parties, especially the CUD. The latter, despite its sweeping victory in the capital city, Addis Abeba, snatching 137 seats out of the total 138 of the city council's seats and in addition securing 109 seats in the federal parliament, publicly announced that it will not join the government to be formed and subsequently made a call to its supporters to oppose the election results and to boycott joining the parliament. The alleged call and subsequent activities by the CUD opposition party to provoke civil disobedience, illegal demonstrations, political violence and/ or 'street insurrection,' dubbed 'Orange Revolution', akin to the "people power" propelled revolution that allegedly erupted in the Ukraine Republic in the year 2005] to challenge the ruling party and, if possible, to reverse the electoral outcome in their favour thereby ousting the ruling party through unconstitutional means and snatching political power via violence constitute serious allegations of crimes committed that are now brought before the country's courts of law, and thus I dare not attempt to cross the red line as these are legal cases which are unambiguously sub judice, as the lawyers teach us. Be this as it may, this precarious situation sealed off all our hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict through the available constitutional mechanisms and legal means or via dialogue and democratic negotiations, though the latter options were half-heartedly attempted by the contending parties through the interventions of the do

Subsequent activities, overt and covert, by the opposition parties, particularly the CUD culminated in widespread violence and bloody clashes between the CUD supporters and security forces in many towns and urban areas across the country, resulting in the death of several dozen civilians and security personnel.  More than three hundred forty persons, mostly members of the police force, were lightly and seriously wounded during the skirmishes, and considerable damage was wrought upon public and private property in many urban centers, especially in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Jimma, Ambo, and Awassa.  Many thousands of urban youth were rounded up from several towns and rural villages, and detained in numerous detention centers across the country, pending police screening and investigations to identify the culprits who were responsible for the disturbances and the damages caused in the process. There have been numerous reports of widespread arbitrary detentions, beatings, tortures, disappearances, and the use of excessive force by police and soldiers against anyone suspected of supporting the CUD/UEDF detainees. Today, the entire senior leadership of the CUD is in jail and charged with a total of 15 separate charges, including conspiracy, armed insurrection, attempting to subvert the constitution, treason and genocide.  These are indeed very painful and tough times for the many thousands of Ethiopians whose family members were either killed, wounded, tortured, maimed, beaten or incarcerated in the aftermath of the unruly disturbances and violent showdowns between the urban youth and the police and paramilitary forces in various places in the country.  These unfortunate incidents have left indelible scars on the nation and deeply torn the hearts of many thousands of families and, sadly, these will need a long time to heal.

As conditions are today, without the exception of those who supposedly stand to benefit directly (and immediately) from the current political arrangement and structure, there are few idealists who have not felt disillusionment, of extreme degrees, with the fashion in which democracy functions in the country.  The consequent sourness manifests in many ways; cynicism, stoical resignation to fate, mute rage, anarchic preponderance, and such negative reactions are commonly articulated by people right across the social scale, especially among Ethiopians in the diasporas.  They say, a certain amount of skepticism is a sign of a healthy democracy, provided it is braced with an underlying faith and optimism.  What we have here however is a barren pessimism which grows darker by the day.  For the last seven months or so, the functional components of our Government __the politicians, bureaucrats and the Armed Forces personnel_seemed moving away on an oblique tangent from the mainstream of public life, the hollow clatter of their voices fading away into a fog of incredulity.  In fact, without any exaggeration, the Government seemed deeply incapacitated of properly functioning; most of its institutions were not working as expected; it was almost dead.  After all, systems, mechanical, financial or political do not function by themselves; their efficacy is directly dependent upon the quality, commitment and vigor of Executing Agents, and these, already scarce commodities in the Government bureaucracy, were all dazed, in despair, confused and with no green light at the end of the tunnel to be seen, so to speak, following the mayhem that followed the national elections. Many universities and high schools are not yet opened. Travel by tourists and other foreigners to Ethiopia suddenly dwindled to a bare minimum. Potential investors seem to have postponed their visits to Ethiopia until the dust settles, and we don't know when? On the other hand, the masses have been left forlorn to a throttled terror of uncertainty, arousing the primitive instincts of survival at any cost.  The subsequent retrogression to the lunatic call by the CUD leadership for ethnic segregation, social ostracism and boycotts of travels to Ethiopia and by Ethiopian Airlines, as well as boycotting purchases from ruling party-affiliated companies are but just some visible indicators of our domestic politics gone awry and becoming a suicidal and 'dirty game' because of our own power-hungry and short-sighted politicians in the political marketplace.

Are these the best of times or the worst of times? For many, these are the worst of times.  What happened? What is happening? What is going to happen? So many people, possibly more than half the country, are, to varying extents, casualties of the times and are standing helplessly in the face of an extremely bleak future; a colder, darker and more dangerous country and subregion in store for our children-- political instability and uncertainty in the country with more than 5,000 citizens still incarcerated and awaiting trial, pauperization and physical insecurity haunting us daily, and war drums echoing from our immediate neighbor, Eritrea.  What are the psychological implications, the emotional affects, the impact on our level of functioning and quality of life?  Can we consider Post Election Stress Disorder (PESD) a diagnosis whose time has come?

If so, Post Election Stress Disorder (PESD) is the reaction to the emotional and psychological disequilibria brought on by the economic, political and social development, domestically, since the last decade or so, and more so since the last election was held on May 15,2005.  It's an affliction, a malaise on a mass scale; the magnitude, severity and duration of its effects impossible to measure.

How are people coping with the realization that their country and society is divided? Political, ethnic, religious and ideological differences are nothing out of the ordinary, but they were never as dramatic as this last election made them.  Those on the losing side watch those on the winning side align with the programme, proceed blindly ahead; whether gullible or oblivious buying into the idea that they are somehow better off and safer, the country is a better place and that Ethiopia is applauded for its efforts to bring democracy and development to its people.  In contrast, the rest of the country especially the majority of Ethiopians in the diaspora see with demonic hatred and utmost hostility towards the ruling party and government and its supporters an all-time high, and climbing.  The general public is still dazed by the extraordinary events of the last seven or so months, more so since the riots of June 8 and November 1-4, 2005 where a total of more than eighty individuals were killed in Addis Ababa by the law enforcing security personnel.

From a psychological or mental health perspective, how people cope with stress and change varies from person to person.  There is a spectrum from those who generally function well in life to those not so well, those whose functioning is hampered by depression, addiction, emptiness or numbness, and further along are those barely able to get through the day.  There is a range from those more (emotionally) insulated to less insulated; those who are more emotionally impacted, more in touch and expressive and those less so.  How much one normally allows oneself to think and feel about what is happening around them is their " baseline," and everyone's is different.

However, when a crisis or a traumatic event occurs, one's normal level of functioning usually dips below his/her baseline.  In order to cope with a stressful situation, the depressed person tends to become more depressed; the addict more addicted; as pain or frustration increases, so does the need for relief.  Someone who is generally emotionally removed or cut off tends to become even more insulated and alienated, for that is their characteristic way of coping.  The question being raised here is whether recent political, economic and social developments can be considered a trauma.  Are there psychological affects and, if so, how severe are they?

Obviously, the trauma of a far more subjective nature than the traditional Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  We're not talking about the disabling effects of being on the front lines in the battlefield.  Given the socio-political ramifications of the goings-on in the world, it may be argued that a clinical diagnosis would not be appropriate at all, when "trauma" might come down to which side of the fence one is on, whether pro-EPRDF or pro-CUD/ UEDF; pro-Meles or against.  How do we measure the impact of what has been happening on an individual?

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?  This is a psychiatric illness afflicting individuals [trauma victims] who have "endured human-engineered, natural, and technological catastrophes." [Erwin Randolph Parson, " Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:  Its Biopsychobehavioural Aspects and Management", in Anxiety and Related Disorders edited by Benjamin B. Wolman and George Stricker, NY, John Wiley and Sons, 1994, p. 226].

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-IV] defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as follows:  " The essential feature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stress or involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of injury experienced by a family member or other close associate---Traumatic events that are experienced directly include, but are not limited to, military combat, violent personal assault (sexual assault, physical attack, robbery, mugging), being kidnapped, being taken hostage, terrorist attack, torture, incarceration as a prisoner of war or in a concentration camp, natural or manmade disasters, severe automobile accidents, or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.  For children, sexually traumatic events may include developmentally inappropriate sexual experiences without threatened or actual violence or injury.  Witnessed events include, but are not limited to, observing the serious injury or unnatural death of another person due to violent injury or unnatural death of another person due to violent assault, accident, war, or disaster or unexpectedly witnessing a dead body or body parts.  Events experienced by others that are learned about include, but are not limited to, violent personal assault, serious accident, or serious injury experienced by a family member or close friend; learning about the sudden, unexpected death of a family member or a close friend; or learning that one's child has a life-threatening disease.  The disorder may be especially severe or long lasting when the stressor is of human design [e.g. torture, rape).  [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), American Psychiatric Association, Washington D.C., 1994, p. 424].

The DSMIV, the standard diagnostic tool, states that PTSD occurs when " a person was exposed to a traumatic event, the person's response involves fear, helplessness or horror; characterized by persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma); as indicated by efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations associated with the trauma; efforts to avoid activities, places or people that arouse recollections of the trauma; depression--marked or diminished interest or participation in significant activities, apathy; feeling of detachment or estrangement from others, restricted affect (i.e. unable to have loving feelings), and a sense of a foreshortened future (no expectation or plan of a career, marriage, children)."  The DSM-TV also states as follows: " Stimuli associated with the trauma are persistently avoided.  The person commonly makes deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event ---and avoid activities, situations, or people who arouse recollections of it--This avoidance of reminders may include amnesia for an important aspect of the traumatic event---Diminished responsiveness to the external world, referred to as 'psychic numbing' or 'emotional anesthesia', usually begins soon after the traumatic event.  The individual may complain of having markedly diminished interest or participation in previously enjoyed activities,---of feeling detached or estranged from other people---or of having markedly reduced ability to feel emotions (especially those associated with intimacy, tenderness, and sexuality)---"[Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), pp.424-425].  Victims of the Red Terror/ White Terror and the Hawzien bombings and those who have witnessed the past and recent killings of their loved ones by the security forces and who have somehow survived these traumatic events can be mentioned as suffering from the PTSD, for sure.

Post Election Stress Disorder (PESD) however has to do with enduring an irreconcilable reality and the internationalization of abject powerlessness associated with seeing and knowing that hatred, violence and fear are rising in intensity and proximity, the desperation to alter their course and the realization that it is impossible to do so.  There is an ever present threat of terrorist attacks and use of weapons of mass destruction in all countries of the world.  Many people are dealing with a pervading sense pf responsibility for this war, for lives lost, for what they consider to be an absurd and unachievable cause; for being a party to everything antithetical to what they stand for and unable to extricate themselves from the mess.  Many people feel betrayed, mistrusting, of no longer belonging or wanting to belong.  It certainly seems that loss of control, loss of representation, inescapable degradation from seeing one's life and the world being overrun by the forces of capitalism and imperialism, greed, corruption and war mongering may well constitute trauma.

Does the DSM-IV's description of symptoms associated with PTSD apply to PESD?  Is it a valid comparison?  Let's begin with the symptom of (exogenous) depression; that is, depression caused by external events.  Depression manifests by lack of motivation, interest and energy, apathy, difficulty concentrating and/or making decisions, being in an emotional void, numb and disconnected a general lack of feeling and _expression limiting one's ability to maintain relationships and leads to social isolation.  Depression can encompass a wide range of other related feelings and states.  These include discontentment, disillusionment, demoralization, alienation, displacement and loss of identity and purpose.  Depression can define one's state of existence --when one has shut down emotionally it's like being numb all of the time and not knowing you're numb.

Whenever something happens that causes a person to become depressed, or more depressed than they were before the event, there is usually an accompanying awareness that they are feeling worse.  While there hasn't been any specific research study showing the number of people feeling worse than they were, all one would have to do is simply ask those around, whether they noticed any change in how they generally feel.  Most people I know say that they were profoundly affected.  I've heard people say that it is too painful to talk or think about what has happened or the future, that they stopped reading the newspapers or listen to the news.

Whenever there is an increase in depression, one is immediately more susceptible to addiction.  When the heightened depression is the result of an external event or situation, pain or distress is heightened, which would in turn heighten the need for relief with more people depressed than ever before, it shouldn't be surprising to discover that addiction to substances and activities that provide pleasure and excitement (i.e. gambling, pornography, sex) are on the rise as well.  Escape any way possible is not a fad!

The good news is that PESD can be treated more easily and effectively than PTSD or depression or addiction because of the resiliency of our spirit, spirit that cannot be squelched by intolerable conditions.  In contrast, the emotional impact associated with PTSD rarely, if ever, completely heals, and is, in most cases, far more disabling.  Brief therapy may be all that is necessary to reverse the affects and restore oneself back to their baseline.  It begins with recognizing the effects of the disequilibrium and reclaiming what one stands for, one's integrity and purpose in life, speaking up, and connecting with others who are also on the rebound.

Maybe PESD is nothing more than one big, mass bad mood that will eventually fade away as things continue to change and improve as they inevitably will.  People eventually will adjust and forget.  Life goes on and things return to the way they were before, more or less.   

Maybe it isn't PESD at all but rather a harbinger of more fundamental changes to come, and more tough times to face, or the early signs of a revolution.  Déjà vu?  History repeating itself?  With nothing left to lose and tapping last gasp reserves come an outraged generation harmonistically mended people, intellectuals, revolutionary youth, artists and writers armed with passion and vision, while the familiar chant, " The people united will never be defeated" echoes in the distance.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions of the authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect ethioobserver position. ethioobserver  does not exercise any editorial control over the information therein. ethioobserver cannot accept any responsibility or liability for any actions taken (or not taken) as a result of reading the material displayed.