Consciously Comatose: Desensitisation in the Information Age

by Lyn Abdul Hameed, 11A

The other day I got a BBC notification on my phone: “at least 68 children among 126 killed in bus bombing.” I didn’t have to read any further to know that this article was about the Syrian Civil War. Unapologetically, I swiped the notification and diverted my attention to ‘more important’ things — my Instagram likes, my email, and who had tagged me in memes on Facebook. You know. The things that actually affect me, and thus the things that actually matter.

Yes, there was an underlying feeling that would have, I suppose, felt guilt if I’d bothered delving into the hollowing pit in my stomach (that seemed to fill itself up in seconds). But I’m also pretty sure that my subconscious decided this matter wasn’t worth mulling over. After all, the war going on in another part of the world has no direct effect on me, right? Life goes on. What bothers me, looking back now, is how nonchalant I was about this despite being the person who used to constantly read content about the crisis in Syria and share those articles on my social media. Yeah, I’m that person.

Or so I thought.

This phenomenon, as I coincidentally learned in Sociology class a couple of days later, is desensitization. Google defines it as ‘the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.’ It applies to just about everything: war and violence, global warming, the Kardashians, even clickbait like ‘you’ll never believe what happens next!’ or ‘dermatologists hate him!’

And I have to admit that it does make sense. Constantly having the same thing cutting into your newsfeed like a persistent, sharp knife will make you indifferent to it. Humans, it seems, detest uniformity (even when it comes to modern day genocide). That is the only theory I can possibly muster to explain why so many important issues go unrecognized in this day and age. It’s an ironic coincidence that the height of purposeful ignorance dares to exist in the so-called ‘Information Age’ — where one can dig up the most elusive of information at lightning speed.

So why do we continue to do this? Yes, there is the whole psychological aspect of desensitization but what about people who are aware of their own negligence and make no attempt to change this? Is it simply because we lack sympathy? Because we don’t relate to or understand the gravity of these situations? I highly doubt it. After all, we are humans and we usually choose to believe that what sets us apart from other animals is that we are empathetic creatures (an ironically primitive concept which, by the way, is slowly being denounced with more scientific discovery of animals having empathy. So much for mankind being the special little snowflakes!).

No, I believe that the reason why we choose to ignore the plight of the Yemeni or the systematic injustice faced by people in other parts of the world, for example, is because we are fatalistic creatures. We think that there is no point in getting involved in things that don’t affect us. Most people away from the conflict think that surely, there must be someone else more powerful, wealthy and accessible who can help these people. Pin your guilt onto an unknown entity to make yourself think there’s nothing you can do. This is also, by the way, completely normal. The more privileged part of the human race has come to develop a  dependency culture, where the bystander effect (when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening during emergencies) runs notoriously. This cycle has been bred over generations and generations of purposeful ignorance, so it is understandable that a person is conditioned to ignore everything that happens around them.
However, the cycle needs to be broken. As descendants of said Information Age, we need to take it upon ourselves to gain back our empathy and try to make a difference in any way we can. The pen is mightier than the sword, and in this case, our pen is our presence and voices. Our paper? Our social environment. Online platforms like blogs, social media, online petitions. Even the tiniest effort could make a difference, if one is persistent.

It was William Shakespeare who said, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This was sociologically explained by a man called Erving Goffman, who deduced that people are simply acting in accordance with the roles assigned to them: daughter, wife, mother, Instagram meme account owner. What both of these two men have failed to highlight in a more important manner is the roles an actor takes on by themselves. Most of the time, these are not assigned or enforced. A free spirited hippie. A social activist. A cycle-of-desensitization breaker. So watch that video of war footage. ‘Angry’ react when you see something that enrages you. Share that article that moved you and tell people about it over your coffee dates and family dinners, too.

The world is not going to wait for you, so don’t wait for the world. It starts with you.

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