As of this writing, we’ve lived through more mass shootings than days this year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 255 mass shootings in 217 days. Statistics and definitions of mass shootings vary, but 2019 is on pace to see, on average, more than one mass shooting every single day. We are the greatest nation on the planet, and yet, so fervently divided about both the cause and any viable solution.
However, 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. Either way, my objective is not to persuade you to agree with or understand my position on guns. 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 making any kind of meaningful difference. At all.
Over the past few years, 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. Gun rights. Abortion. Immigration. Religious liberty. Climate change. Terrorism. It seems as if every day there is another calamity, another blow to the values we hold dear, another unthinkable tragedy. Over time, that buffet begins to look more like a day-old sh!t sandwich served with a side of futility. The energy and passion that fuels the “be the change you want to see in the world” mantra gradually dissipates into the dim hope that “one day things won’t be like this.”
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 menacing riots – we’ve become numb to it all. We’ve become passionately apathetic.
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.
All that means is that the emotional magnitude of something bad – mass shootings, natural disasters, war casualties, race riots, bigotry, lies, whatever the aversive stimuli is – decreases over time with constant exposure to the point where it becomes unnoticeable. It is an unconscious cognitive defense mechanism by which we become desensitized to remote and/or continual tragedies or injustices.
Using the timely example of 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? What about the 58 people who died because they went to a concert in Las Vegas in 2017?
Fast forward to 2019. There have been seven major mass shootings so far this year resulting in 57 lost lives and 78 wounded. Can you name them all? 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.