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Numbing Down America in a State of Hate

As of Feb. 16, 4,994 people have died and another 3,351 have been injured by gun violence in this country.   Of those killed, 147 were teens and 31 were children.

 

There have been 49 mass shootings in 2024 so far.

 

49 mass shootings in 46 days. An average of 108 deaths each day this year.

 

Think about that.

 

If you think I’m writing to espouse my views on gun control/gun rights, you’d be wrong. If you believe we’re on opposing sides, confirmation bias would probably lead you to dismiss me by now. Likewise, if you think we agree on the issue, that same pesky bias might lead you to keep reading and perhaps share.  Intellectual humility notwithstanding, if we are divided, as passionate as we both may be, it’s quite likely that we’re both equally as apathetic about finding a solution.


At all.


It's not just guns. Over the past decade or so, we’ve been forced to sit at the ideological buffet of crusades, convictions, and causes.  Consumed in totality, our current challenges seem overwhelming – even impossible. LGBTQ rights. Abortion. Immigration. Religious liberty. Book bans. It seems as if every day there is another blow to the values we hold dear, another unthinkable tragedy.  The only thing that seems constant is the state of hate we live in.


Despite the ever-widening chasm of social, moral, and political righteousness and the boom of passionate voices – from social movements and civic responsibility to peaceful protests and violent riots – we’ve become numb to it all. We’ve become apathetic. Indifferent.


Psychic Numbing


There is a scientific term for this phenomenon; social psychologists call it psychic numbing.

The psychological definition is the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus characterized by decreased responsiveness to, a feeling of detachment, and a reduction in the ability to acknowledge and express emotion. It is an unconscious cognitive defense mechanism by which we become desensitized to remote and/or continual tragedies or injustices.

 

Take gun violence, do you remember the shock, horror, and outrage you felt when you learned that 13 kids died just because they showed up at Columbine High School one day in 1999? Or the 20 kids and 6 adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012? Or what about the 17 people murdered at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, or the 22 at Robb Elementary School?

 

Of the 49 mass shootings (as of this writing), how many can you name?  Do you feel the same level of emotional intensity? It seems like every shooting and every death would make us more horrified and more outraged.  But each one passes in and out of the news cycle with an unnerving breeziness.

 

It’s not because we don’t care; it’s how the human brain works. And it’s not just an individual phenomenon. Psychic numbing has evolved as a manifestation in societies.  As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to do something, reliably decreases. The value of a single life or the impact of a single death diminishes against the backdrop of the overwhelming magnitude of the issue – individually and collectively.


It’s why a single life has more emotional impact than 20 lives. In fact, one study found that human compassion begins to fade when the number of people in danger increases from one person to just two. Another study found that people were less likely to help save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it only had 11,000 people.  It’s completely illogical; but a larger tragedy makes us feel more powerless and less empathetic.


Perhaps the best example of this is the 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach. Even though over 5,000 refugees were killed in 2016, the image of the tiny body of Alyan Kurdi prompted governmental policy changes and raised more money and social awareness than all of the other lost lives combined.


When it comes to unthinkable tragedy, big numbers are abstract, while one face is a real person. We are moved by “the one” but apathetic to the plight of “one of many.” Even if we are passionate about the cause, over time we unconsciously attenuate the abstractions until they become unnoticeable. As research suggests, the next tragedy will make us more numb and less empathetic.


Indifferent.


Holocaust survivor, writer, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel spent much of his life reminding the world of the dangers of indifference and hate and the importance of speaking up against injustice and intolerance. Wiesel died in 2016 at age 87, but his words have never been more relevant.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.”

 

Man-made tragedy grows out of the seeds of hate. Tragically, we’re embarking upon a season of hate.

 

The State of Hate


According to research and historical data from the FBI, each of the last four presidential campaign cycles has shown an unmistakable pattern: hate crimes increase during elections. This has largely been the case since the FBI began publishing hate crime data in 1991.

 

Hate amplified by widely unchecked circulation of conspiracy theories have consequences. For example, in 2017, when white nationalists shouted racist and antisemitic chants — including “Jews will not replace us” — as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, they inspired future hate. Perpetrators of mass hate violence have cited these racist, antisemitic conspiracies as motivating factors for their attacks — from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

 

Here we are in what has already proven to be perhaps the most tumultuous election year ever. Our current political climate is rife with hate and fertile ground for man-made tragedies. From white supremacist and anti-government organizations galvanizing and finding a place in the political mainstream, to conspiracy theories circulating online and public officials amplifying hate, movements grounded in denying civil rights and further dividing “us” and “them” have become campaign platforms.

 

Democrat. Republican. Liberal. Conservative. Christian. Jew. Atheist. White. Black. Brown. Immigrant. Addict. Transgender. Convict. Homeless. You can judge them, vilify them, protest them, or feel sorry for them. You can be numb to the daunting issues that face our country. Or you can put your beliefs and values and convictions to work and personify what is means for each of us to be “person of worth and child of God.”   


My challenge to you: do one thing that matters today. Demonstrate with intention what it means to speak up against injustice and intolerance and truly value human life.

 

And then do it again tomorrow.


Rinse and repeat.


It’s going to be a long year.


Exhibit displayed at the Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center in Naples, Florida
Exhibit displayed at the Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center in Naples, Florida

 

 

 *This article is an updated revision from Numbing Down America published on BizCatalyst360 originally published in August, 2019.


 


 

 



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