The Media: Numbing Ourselves to Pain And Others’ Suffering

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The purpose of the information media, says Bill Maher, is to make what’s important interesting, So what’s the purpose of the entertainment media? Watch the gruesome stunts on reality TV, the gross-outs and humiliation that passes today for ‘comedy’, and the gut-wrenching fare of cinematic dramas, war, action and horror films, and you could easily conclude that its purpose is to make us numb, to desensitize us, so that it takes more and more outrageous depictions to rouse any response from us at all.

Yet there seems to be an appetite for this. Why would people want to pay money to be shocked, appalled, and grossed out? I used to believe that most people were just insensitive, and required more and more stimulation to get their adrenaline going (which, for some reason, a lot of people seem to like). But when I talk to the fans of this ‘entertainment’, it seems more as if they are too sensitive, and that they are trying to inure themselves to the shocks that they are finding too much to bear. Subjecting themselves to horrific violence is like a self-imposed hazing, or a rite of passage, or basic training, except that it is to equip them to be able to handle the brutality of life rather than the brutality of university or military duty. In some ways it seems to be the mental equivalent of self-administered body piercings and tattoos.

What’s going on here? Why, when we could be going to movies or plunking down in front of the TV to laugh with people, to be charmed and delighted by funny characters delivering clever lines, are we instead going to laugh at people who behave offensively, who act ridiculously, and who insult and demean others? Why, when we could be uplifted by stories of courage and indomitable human spirit, do we instead choose to see stories of unimaginable brutality, anguish, relentless horror and suffering, often without resolution or redemption? Why, rather than piquing our imaginations with what they don’t show, do today’s popular films use grisly hyper-realistic graphics and special effects that leave nothing to the imagination? We’re still coy about the depiction of sex in films, so why are we so blatant and vulgar in the depiction of extreme violence?

When I go to the movies I go to laugh, or to learn, or to be transported by a good story. Perhaps that is a form of escapism, but it is, I think, a healthy one, akin to the pre-cinematic experience of going to see Shakespeare in the park, or a bedroom farce or mystery at the local theatre. Modern ‘entertainment’ media productions, on the other hand, seem to be driven by schadenfreude, the desire to see someone else suffering more than we are, and more akin to watching an execution, or a car accident, or a sensational murder case in court, live. They say that, to the families of the victim, watching the murderer’s execution brings a kind of closure, of relief. But what closure is there in watching the depictions of strangers’ suffering?

So I’m left to conclude that it’s numbness we seek, to be so inured to pain and the suffering of others that we feel nothing. When I imagine the suffering of animals in factory farms and laboratories, of the victims of spousal and child abuse, of child and slave labourers, of wrongly-accused and political prisoners, of rape and abduction and murder victims and their families, of those who struggle every day with abject poverty or disease or looking after someone who can’t look after themselves, with no respite or hope that tomorrow will be better, I can appreciate the desire to be numb, to be unable to feel. But that feeling of anger and helplessness and frustration is not so pervasive and all-consuming that I really want to give up feeling. For all the misery and suffering in the world, life is still wonderful.

But perhaps that’s because I’m 55 years old, and I have some hard-won perspective. My future is pretty-well set. I’m not going to be around to see the collapse of civilization, and may not even see the second Great Depression. I have a pension waiting for me, and a nice home in a great neighbourhood. I’m debt-free. Our kids are independent, happy and well-adjusted. And I know how the world works, and how to cope with it.

If I were in my 20s or 30s, with the uncertainty of a 21st century future still stretched out before me, and lots of debt and no security and no experience, scratching at the bottom of the ladder to make a living, perhaps I would want, at the end of a day of drudgery, at the start of a life of dread, just to be numb, to feel less overwhelmed, to feel less.

Perhaps, at the age of 55, the reason that I do not seek to be numb, and to feel less, is that, in the process of getting to age 55, I already have become numb, desensitized, unfeeling.

No more anaesthetic for me, thanks, Hollywood. I already gave.

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7 Responses to The Media: Numbing Ourselves to Pain And Others’ Suffering

  1. jdsmith says:

    I read your essay Dave. Very interesting. I’m 38 and have been watching violence invade my students’ lives in movies, TV and video games (and this is in Taiwan where I work and where the kids are more “conservative” so they say).I however am curious why you think that people see horribly violent movies to feel LESS. I believe that we are so desnesitized by normal life (tv news and the regular programming available) that we attend horror movies in particular because we need to feel MORE. We need that jolt of adrenaline from a good scream or a particularly violent scene that goes past our personal “violence cutoff point.”Maybe we need to feel that that “violence cutoff point” is still there and know that there are things that go too far, and that we won’t be back willingly for another view of someone getting their limbs blown off.I just hit this point by watching the movie HOSTEL. It was absolutely the most violent movie I’ve ever seen (and I’m a horror fan!) and left me disgusted. I didn’t even watch the end as I’d had enough. Anyway, for the most part, I agreed with and enjoyed your essay.jds

  2. Mariella says:

    We can always choose European cinema….. Hollywood industry, most of the time (not always) uses the art of cinema for its industrial interests, it moves in the tide of consumption, buy and sell, creating needs, satisfying them, creating dreams, satisfying revenges, guiding values about who is good and who is not….. eliciting the sensorial structures required “to feel fear about”…. and find “saviors in”…. it´s aim is about money and power, not about the art of storytelling, building creative metaphores, about our natural love to learn through stories…. in what you describe there is no learning, only reacting.

  3. dataguy says:

    I think there is another angle you may have missed. I

  4. Evan says:

    I don’t know why people choose to view these films or why, in the past, I subjected myself to them. Continuous surges of adrenaline are not good for the body and physiologically, the body can’t tell the difference between a real event or an “enacted” one. The result is the same-a negative impact on the body- what could that be doing to the general health?

  5. Brutus says:

    I have my doubts that what people report they want and what they truly want are the same things. The media you refer to are entertainments, which are generally sought out for stimulation. Sleep, alcohol, and drugs are the typically things sought to make us feel numb. The idea that we might grow numb to experience after exposure to high wattage stimulation speaks less to our motivation than to the nature of the information environment in which we reside, which in the modern world is a veritable deluge of overexitement. I’ve blogged (briefly) on this topic at my blog in a post called The Paradox of the Sybarite and the Catatonic.

  6. Theresa says:

    Your post made me think of the book The Catcher In The Rye, and how painfully aware the young hero was. I haven’t read it for a long time but maybe there are some answers in there.

  7. This negates your essay, and therefore may only be useful as a data point, but here goes. I’m 42, male, and live in Italy. I watch TV with my kids. I routinely switch channels when the news start their crude descriptions of the latest murder.It’s not just for the kids: I don’t like violence depictions anywhere, and don’t want to get desensitized. I find no thrill in horror, fear and dismememberments, it just pains me. I try to keep some sensitivity for the problems of the world, and don’t want to become accustomed to it all.We also turn off the audio during advertisements, or switch channels altogether. The kids have to always do that too, or the TV gets turned off. :-)

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