America watched as the Parkland students marched proudly on March 24. TIME called Emma Gonzalez's moment of silence “stunning” and The New York Times labeled the student leaders of March For Our Lives as “sharp-tongued and defiant.” The months subsequent to Parkland, Americans riled up on the streets, flooding metropolises with flashy banners and rallying cries.
Now, it seems those voices have echoed away and Americans familiarize themselves with a bizarre cycle of checking the news, reading statistics, and still failing to refuel themselves with the protesting passion they had before. This self-perpetuating sequence is not new. And it’s not getting any better. The actual term for this cycle differs depending on the scenario, but common associations include desensitization, compassion fatigue, or psychic numbing.
As Vox explains, “As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.” Essentially, the media overwhelms Americans with so many statistics that we feel helpless and insignificant. Numbers don’t convince people to contribute because people themselves don’t sympathize with charts or graphs.
On the contrary, if everyday citizens were exposed to personal stories and actual human faces, the results would differ. Let’s use the example of the conflict in Syria. NPR provides us with appalling statistics, stating that “so far, at least 14,000 children have been killed in Syria by snipers, machine guns, missiles, grenades, roadside bombs and aerial bombs. About a thousand children have been executed. And more than a hundred were tortured and then executed.” Yet, you most likely shook your head in disgust and moved along with the article. Instead, if readers were presented with more distinctive, gut-wrenching stories of the Syrian immigration crisis, the reaction would be different.
For example, in 2015, a posted image went viral of a drowned Syrian baby washing up on the speak-spotted beach of Bodrum, Turkey. Its head was lying face down in the sand with its parents nowhere in sight.
The result? Well, a Google search statistic displays that interest in helping, researching, and involvement in the immigration situation of Syrian refugees skyrocketed in accordance with the image.
If we did the same for other tragedies, we can have the same result. With the media perpetuating school shooting after school shooting, it becomes the norm, not something to act upon. However, the alarming truth is that media organization accentuate the data and numbers drawn from these incidents, not the actual people. According to a study done by Sylvie Mrug of the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, “In a nationally representative sample, 43% of adolescents witnessed violence [through media] in the last year and 40% were directly victimized.” Additionally, they were prominently exposing audiences to statistics as opposed to real people.
So, if school shootings continue to cycle and we continue to sit at home and watch, then what will happen? The sad truth is that people won’t take action until it affects them directly. That’s what desensitization, compassion fatigue, and desensitization all do. They psychologically convince us that we can’t do anything because it doesn’t seem real. Americans aren’t doing anything to protect the next generation because they can’t protect a number.
The desensitization is everywhere. It’s in headlines in daily newspapers, notifications on Snapchat, posts on Instagram. But the key is not to see it, it’s to know how to overcome it and avoid it. You can subscribe to newspapers like the New York Times or think tanks like the Christian Science Monitor do an outstanding job of highlighting the actual people, not dehumanizing tragedies. It might seem insignificant right now because every corner we turn is another shooting and another chart. But, as the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas claimed, “it’s not real until it happens to you.” We can’t keep sitting and waiting until it really does happen to us. So instead, let’s push away the numbing and start with something.
Waving our banners high in the sky.