From Outrage to Indifference

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By Joan Ogeto

Addressing Desensitization to Violence

Are we, as a society, gradually becoming desensitized to the pervasive presence of hatred, intolerance, violence and tragedy portrayed in the media? While this observation may not be novel, it remains profoundly disheartening, warranting an open dialogue.

 The recent surge in mass death tragedies dominating media coverage underscores a troubling trend—one that is far from new but has persisted throughout human history. From ancient scriptures to modern headlines, graphic depictions of violence and gruesomeness have been a recurring theme, numbing the senses. It is a phenomenon rooted in the human psyche, as history illustrates our propensity to adapt and normalize disaster gradually. The ubiquity of smartphones has only intensified this issue, granting unrestricted access to explicit content to even the youngest members of society. Thus, the constant exposure to on-screen violence may contribute to our desensitization, blurring the line between fiction and reality and diminishing our visceral response to real-life acts of violence.

The phenomenon of desensitization or numbing to death and ongoing threats has been extensively studied and documented. Whether the threat originates from enemy combatants in times of war or the far-reaching consequences of climate change, individuals tend to acclimate to the impact over time. This process is exacerbated by the widespread and, at times, excessive use of social media platforms globally, facilitating the rapid dissemination of graphic news, videos, or images to millions of people. Consequently, it’s unsurprising that individuals may reach a point where they no longer feel deeply affected by the seemingly horrific events occurring around them. This gradual numbing of emotions, often called desensitization, extends to the Degradation Desensitization (DD) concept. The concept encapsulates individuals experiencing a reduced sensitivity to a previously aversive stimulus, such as graphic or explicit content, due to consistent exposure.

Desensitization, as a psychological process, is often employed in the treatment of phobias, wherein individuals are gradually and repeatedly exposed to the feared stimulus under controlled and non-threatening conditions. Over time, successful desensitization results in a diminishing intensity of the phobic response. Similarly, exposure to media violence, particularly depictions of intense hostilities or graphic injuries, initially triggers strong emotional reactions in viewers. However, through repeated exposure, individuals frequently exhibit reduced emotional responses to such violent content.This desensitization can lead to various outcomes, one of which is the rise of the bystander effect. Coined after the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, where numerous witnesses refrained from aiding her despite her desperate pleas, the bystander effect highlights a social phenomenon where individuals are less inclined to intervene in emergencies due to a diffusion of responsibility.

Systematic desensitization, pioneered by Joseph Wolpe, operates on the principle of reducing anxiety by eliciting a response antagonistic to the anxiety-producing stimulus. For instance, pairing the presence of a feared object or situation with relaxation techniques aims to weaken the association between the fear-inducing stimulus and the anxiety response. Wolpe emphasized the importance of constructing a hierarchy of fear-inducing stimuli to prevent overwhelming anxiety during the desensitization process. While desensitization can be beneficial in treating phobias, prolonged exposure to violence and disturbing content may desensitize individuals to trauma, potentially undermining their ability to empathize or respond appropriately to real-life events.

Adaptation is a fundamental mechanism by which we navigate and endure the shock and horror initially associated with tragedies. It empowers us to cultivate psychological and emotional resilience, enabling us to confront and seek solutions to our challenges.

Since the year’s onset, a series of relentless tragedies has besieged us globally, appearing almost as punitive retribution. Media and social platforms have chronicled unthinkable atrocities, from the wars happening globally to the heart-breaking killings of young girls in Airbnb accommodations, the horrendous murders and suicides, and the pervasive scourge of road accidents, with the most recent of tragedies being flooding. Moreover, we confront psychological traumas from socio-economic disparities exacerbated by fluctuating economic landscapes. Each day unfolds with an overwhelming onslaught of violence and negativity, bombarding us through incessant news alerts on our smartphones, scrolling captions on television screens, and viral social media posts. The rapid integration of new technologies amplifies the dissemination of distressing headlines, documenting the descent of nations into war zones and the persistent oppression and violence faced by marginalized communities. 

In light of the pervasive exposure to violence in both real life and media, concerns about the potential desensitization of members of society to violence have become increasingly prominent. Research indicates that individuals exposed to high levels of violence, negativity, or tragedy may indeed exhibit signs of emotional desensitization, characterized by diminished empathy and decreased distress in response to violent scenes. As we confront the enduring effects of emotional desensitization, it becomes imperative to implement intervention efforts that prioritize emotion regulation strategies. By equipping individuals with the tools to navigate and mitigate the impact of traumatic experiences and disasters, we can foster 

Beyond the immediate concerns of media exposure and individual response, we could address the systemic factors perpetuating desensitization within our society. This includes re-evaluating the role of media outlets and policymakers in shaping public discourse and prioritizing profit over empathy. Furthermore, with adequate investment in comprehensive education and intervention programs, individuals could be equipped with the tools to navigate and mitigate the impact of trauma. This would entail fostering emotional intelligence and resilience from an early age, empowering individuals to engage critically with media content and advocate for positive societal change. Additionally, prioritization of the needs of marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by trauma and violence would ensure that interventions are indeed inclusive and equitable. By fostering a culture of empathy, resilience, and collective action, we can dismantle the barriers that perpetuate desensitization and pave the way for a more compassionate and just society. Research has identified three primary adverse effects of exposure to media and real-life violence mainly:

  • The acquisition of aggressive attitudes and behaviours
  • The desensitization to real-world violence
  • The development of a fear of victimization

However, among these effects, the insidious nature of desensitization poses the more significant threat. Unlike overt behaviours or fears, desensitization operates subtly, often unnoticed by the individual experiencing it. It is a silent killer, eroding our capacity for empathy and distorting our perception of violence in the world around us.

Furthermore, efforts to combat desensitization must extend beyond individual behaviour to encompass broader societal change. This may involve advocating for policies regulating the production and distribution of violent media and promoting alternative forms of entertainment and storytelling that prioritize empathy and positive social values. Additionally, supporting mental health initiatives and providing resources for trauma-informed care can help address the underlying psychological effects of desensitization and support individuals in coping with exposure to violence. At the same time, it is essential to recognize the interconnected nature of desensitization with other societal issues, such as systemic violence and inequality. Addressing the root causes of violence, including poverty, discrimination, and social marginalization, is crucial in creating a more peaceful and just society. This requires a holistic approach that acknowledges the complex interplay between individual behaviour, media influence, and broader social structures.

As we struggle against desensitization, we must recognize the importance of ongoing research and dialogue in deepening our understanding of this complex phenomenon. Continued investigation into the psychological mechanisms underlying desensitization and its societal implications is essential for informing effective prevention and intervention strategies. Moreover, fostering collaboration between researchers, policymakers, and community stakeholders can facilitate developing and implementing evidence-based approaches to address desensitization at both individual and systemic levels.

Additionally, efforts to understand desensitization should prioritize the promotion of positive alternatives to violent media and the cultivation of a culture that values empathy and respect for human dignity. This may involve supporting initiatives that promote media literacy and critical thinking skills and encouraging the production and dissemination of media content that fosters empathy and social connection. By empowering individuals to make informed choices about the media they consume and promoting positive social norms, we can create a more compassionate and just society where desensitization to violence is no longer tolerated.

To sum up, addressing desensitization to violence requires a multifaceted and collaborative approach that spans across disciplines and sectors. By acknowledging the harm caused by desensitization and taking proactive steps to mitigate its effects, we can create a future where empathy and compassion thrive and where every individual’s inherent dignity and worth are cherished and protected. There is an urgent need to build a world where violence is not glorified or normalized but where empathy and understanding prevail, fostering a more harmonious and equitable society for generations to come. Continued research and dialogue are essential to deepen understanding of this complex phenomenon and identify effective strategies for prevention and intervention.

The writer is a lawyer Email; [email protected]

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