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Are You Desensitized to Violence?

Desensitization, a term defined by Dictionary.com as being the behavior modification technique, used especially in treating phobias, in which panic or other undesirable emotional response to a given stimulus is reduced or extinguished, especially by repeated exposure to that stimulus. It is a term you’ll frequently see in psychiatry or in any field of psychology for that matter, but you may also be more familiar with it than you might think. With the circulation of violent content in media, how does it contribute to desensitization?

There are many violent and traumatic events that take place in our world, from school shootings in the United States to similar events in New Zealand. But like anything else, every nation treats and deals with these events differently. The only thing they all have in common, however, is media representation. The Triangle’s Jill Patel discusses more about this subject. “The perception of crime, in general, has drastically changed due to its representation within the media, which is accompanied by the impression of normalcy and that crime is acceptable. The empathy we may have felt has now diminished because of how often is it portrayed on television or the constant news updates. Viewing crime so often within the media has us confused between facts and fiction. We seem to have forgotten that our reality is not a movie and that the rampant amount of crime needs attention, not ignorance,” Jill wrote.

She continues to elaborate on the subject with ideas that may directly relate to the perpetuation, “Within the media, there is a phenomenon known as the cultivation theory which depicts how long term immersion within a media environment leads to the cultivation of shared beliefs about the world around us,” Jill explains, “Desensitization towards violence and crime is directly correlated to this theory as we merge what is reality and what we view on television into one idea as a coping mechanism because we don’t want to accept the world as being a bad place. We desensitize ourselves to alleviate the fear we begin to feel once we think of the world as being much worse and scarier than we perceived before.”

There have been many similar claims regarding the same subject. The CUT’s Kate Morgan contributes to the subject in her more recent article, published on February 16, 2018. In this article, Traci M. Kennedy, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, sheds some light on desensitization, “We’ve looked at emotional desensitization. We might assume that the more an adolescent is exposed to violent acts, the more depressed or the worse off they’ll be. That’s true to a point, but once they’ve been exposed for a long time, that levels out and actually starts to decrease as they become more desensitized to it.”

Having looked at how the circulation of violence in media, why is it something to avoid? Scott Elliot, a former probation officer that worked with domestic violence offenders, explains this on Quora, “So desensitization to violence is indeed a good thing, and for exactly the reason you cite: so that one doesn’t ‘break down’ whenever one encounters another’s trauma,” Scott writes, “But if the majority of people are insensitive to others’ pain, including yours, including mine, then the essential human connection we have with each other, and which we need with each other, would be broken. This would result in a general impoverishment of humankind.” Malindi Sultuska, also participating in the same thread on Quora, adds to the discussion, “If a person is able to ‘shut off’ their emotions to provide aid to a victim, clean up after a lethal accident/incident, or something else that is horrific, that is one thing. But to be desensitized? I believe that is a conditioned response to repeated exposure to violence, which can cause that person to not acknowledge violence for what it is: Harmful.”

Many people have admitted to searching for violent media content, or any videos that have been publicized, to satisfy their curiosity. But now, understanding the effects of violence in media, would you still seek it out?

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