‘Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency’ and ‘Compassion Fatigue’

It’s easy to blame guns for violence. They are the end-point of the death and destruction. But there have always been guns and gun crime, but nothing like we are seeing today. Why the difference? There are a number of factors. First, moral certainty is uncertain. Moral relativism rules the day.

Second, most Americans have been desensitized to death and violence. The horror of human carnage was foreign to most Americans until the early 1960s and 1970s when the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War were brought into our living rooms through the miracle of television. Prior to the Vietnam War, the majority of soldiers who fought in World War I and II kept the horrors to themselves.

Is there a third factor? Some people think there is. The following is from John Naisbitt’s 1999 book High Tech High Touch that was written soon after the tragedy that took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April of the same year.

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For decades, American’s have turned a deaf ear to studies correlating media violence to violence in our culture. . . . “If Natural Born Killers or Pulp Fiction had been released in1939, the year that Casablanca was released, you can imagine how our society would have reacted,” says [Retired Lieutenant Colonel David] Grossman. “But what has happened is generation by generation, we have been horrendously desensitized to human death and suffering and have learned to associate human death and suffering with our pleasure.  And we have been taught to do that. The television industry learned very early on that the addictive ingredient was violence. The problem is, like the tobacco industry, the additive ingredient is also the deadly ingredient.”

“Children’s exposure to violence in mass media, particularly at young ages, can have harmful, lifelong consequences,” said Leonard Eron, chairman of the American Psychological Association’s Commission on Violence and Youth. “There can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime, and violence among young people in our society.”

Lieutenant Colonel Grossman suggests we are creating a generation of children with a new, lethal disease: acquired violence immune deficiency. “We’re letting our children watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death. And they learn to associate it with what?” he asks. “Their favorite soft drink and candy bar, or their girl-friend’s perfume [from the advertisements]. We have raised a generation which has learned to associate violence with pleasure.”

The average American child sits in front of a screen five-and-a-half hours a day, including an hour and a half playing electronic games. Professor Kline points out that all it takes is an hour to begin to feel the effects of desensitization. “I played some of those violent games just to get the feel,” he says. “And after an hour, I honestly felt completely numbed and pushed to the limit emotionally. I was playing alongside a twelve-year-old lad who had recommended that we get this game because it was fun. It becomes an emotionally grueling experience to shoot one more person, even if it is an imaginary person. But he could do it. And he could experience that as excitement and fun. And that really disturbs me.”Desensitization to violence and a cultural acceptance of violent imagery is making it difficult for people to recognize real danger. One student, who was outside when the Littleton boys crept toward the school before the massacre began, didn’t respond when he saw the trench coats and guns because he thought it was a “senior prank.”He was shot at. Kids in line at the cafeteria, waiting to buy their school lunches, were told by other kids that some boys had guns. They laughed and didn’t respond because they thought it was a joke. Then bombs exploded. During the massacre, one neighbor heard the bombs blast, the guns pop, and the police car and fire engine sirens. She blankly described it as “a scene from a police movie.”

In a culture of electronic violence, images that once caused us to empathize with the pain and trauma of another human being excite a momentary adrenaline rush. To be numb to another’s pain — to be acculturated to violence — s arguably one of the worst consequences our technological advances have wrought. That indifference transfers from the screen, TV, film, Internet, and electronic games to our everyday lives through seemingly innocuous consumer technologies. Sissela Bok, in her important 1998 book Mayhem, calls it “compassion fatigue.” “Empathy and fellow feeling,” Bok points out, “form the very basis of morality. The capacities for empathy, for feeling responsibility toward others, and for reaching out to help them can be stunted or undermined early on, depending on a child’s experiences in the home and neighborhood.” It becomes too easy to turn our backs on fellow human beings. Technology, we are learning, is not neutral.

According to Bok, “mean world syndrome” is another consequence of media violence.

Today everybody wants to be a star, especially our children, whose lives have been steeped in advertising and media images conveyed through information technologies: magazines, billboards, films,television, and now the Internet. In a poll of high school students,two-thirds of respondents answered “celebrity” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Children who spend so much time ingesting images from screens want to be on those screens. The Littleton boys believed that movie directors would fight over the rights to film their story, and if they had their choice they’d pick Quentin Tarantino. In America, the way to be noticed above the rising din of a modern world is to be increasingly outrageous: Madonna, Dennis Rodman, Marilyn Manson, Howard Stern, and Jesse “The Mind” Ventura have propelled their careers by shocking contemporary standards in the same way the networks have attempted to raise their ratings with “shockumentaries.” To gain one’s 15 minutes of fame only requires one to be extreme. If a child shoots another child in a city alley, it will go unmentioned on the evening’s news and in the newspapers. But if a kid flushes out his classmates with a false fire alarm and lets fly rounds from a semiautomatic weapon, killing four kids, a teacher, and wounding dozens of others, that merits the cover of Time, international TV news, newspapers around the world, and possibly a book and movie deal.

In the end, we are all responsible for our actions. Millions of people do not murder. Millions of people with guns and high capacity magazines don’t kill other people. Bit if we’re going to play the blame game, then let’s include more than just the end-point product. This will mean Hollywood, liberal actors who eschew violence but star in films riddled with violent content. It will also mean a change in the curricula of government schools that by default teach moral relativism.