One of the first things we do every day is check our social media, where we are faced with the latest ‘breaking news’, often a barrage of negativity – conflict, the rising coronavirus death toll, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, school shootings and violence against peaceful protests – a sensory overload. This news which should shock us every day has turned into the new norm.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and other reputable organisations have consistently found that emotional desensitisation occurs when individuals are exposed to violence at high levels and across multiple contexts. This habituation is a natural response; the more we see of something, the more used to it we become. It is human to be shocked by violence, so habituation and potential apathy signals a worrying decline towards an increasingly selfish society.
A large part of this apathy is due to compassion fatigue, where an individual becomes emotionally exhausted to the extent where they experience a diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others.
To comprehend the immense amount of tragedy our world is facing would mean we spend our entire lives mourning the losses of others
This is likely to happen if we give the same emotional energy to every news issue we come across. We should be grateful that our privilege allows us to have the choice to remain neutral, but to comprehend the immense amount of tragedy our world is facing would mean we spend our entire lives mourning the losses of others.
A certain level of despondency occurs when we realise what little power we have over these events and how much of it comes down to the behaviour of others. As the Black Lives Matter content disappeared from everyone’s social media timelines in a matter of weeks, the belief in the collective effort of society to actively change for the better was lost.
Similarly, with coronavirus, Boris Johnson’s rallying cry was the unity of the people, yet poor government guidance meant a divide was formed between those staying in, those going out, those wearing masks, those travelling abroad and those still not able to see their grandparents after 23 weeks in isolation.
These disparities lead to the fragmentation of our collective voice to incite meaningful change in government policies. The Conservative party has repeatedly shown their lack of care towards other countries as well as the increasingly prominent vein of corruption which runs through most superpower countries.
The UK continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, directly conflicting with the countless petitions we sign to stop the war in Syria and Yemen.
Cancel culture, calling out, and the general pressure of social media can often lead to hesitation rather than action
How we react to news is turning into an inevitable side effect of our online presences – cancel culture, calling out, and the general pressure of social media can often lead to hesitation rather than action.
Desmond Tutu is quoted in reference to the Civil Rights movement as saying that ‘silence is to take the side of the oppressor’ and has been used throughout social media to pressure everyone and anyone with an account to post activist content. This, if anything, pushes those people on the edge further away as they are often too scared to post or worry about saying the wrong thing, meaning they don’t engage with the issue at all.
On the other hand, individuals who repost content seen again and again are more likely to be ignored as people often flick through Instagram stories, sign the relevant petition (or not) and continue with their day without giving further thought to the issue.
The constant and permanent nature of online information means our brains are no longer required to remember past news events which do not directly affect us with any kind of urgency. After a news event has happened, we are therefore more likely to forget about it sooner and return to old habits.
For example, the recent slavery allegations against Boohoo for paying their workers as little as £3.50 an hour incited a media storm. Yet, alongside other negative news about fast fashion and its terrible working conditions and impact on the environment, with time we forget about the severity of its impact, and a significant number of us may return to shop there.
Selfishness could be attributed to this, but this desensitisation could also be the sign of a deeper, more ingrained problem. Consistently, the media have desensitised us to the suffering of BAME bodies.
The tragedy of countries other than our own is so trivialised, we become detached to the notion that foreign people exist as entities just as important as ourselves
The BBC and Sky News recently documented the Syrian refugees making the treacherous journey across the channel in a dinghy while journalists looked on from a spacious yacht leaning over to ask patronisingly ‘are you ok down there?’ yet doing nothing to help.
It is as if the tragedy of countries other than our own is so trivialised, we become detached to the notion that foreign people exist as entities just as important as ourselves. We have been conditioned to forget each of those individuals on that boat were fleeing a war-torn home, sacrificing the lives of themselves and their children in the hope of asylum.
The media portrayal as flash news to be forgotten tomorrow epitomises Britain’s attitude of ‘this tragedy is happing to other people, but we can’t do anything about it’. The futility of the reporters’ presence (who is it helping?) makes it seem like merely a distraction from the government’s current failure to economically survive COVID-19, further exemplifying the trauma of minorities as a fad and cultivating indifference towards their suffering.
So, yes we have become desensitised to conflict and this is partly because of the psychological impact it leaves on us, as well as an element of human selfishness.
However, a significantly overlooked amount must be attributed to the way we are shown conflict in the media. Society cannot be blamed for thinking about certain nationalities or countries in a disposable way, if that is all they are shown on their TV screens and in newspapers.
Neither can society be blamed for its despondency towards these issues as our government and media has countlessly failed us and the voice of the many is quickly becoming the voice of the chosen few.
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