Desensitize This

We’re more indifferent to the good in life than the bad

In modern society, desensitization is rife. Few would disagree on this point; people of all ages are bombarded with an unprecedented level of content—much of which is sexual or violent in nature. Studies have even proven the existence of “a physiological desensitization to violence.” In that sense, the main point of contention on this issue is not whether desensitization occurs, but how large of a problem it presents and the degree to which regulatory bodies or ratings agencies such as the Motion Picture Association of America should actually take action to shelter consumers (and especially young consumers) from such content.

The implication here is that desensitization refers to the process of becoming numbed to material that would shock an unprepared individual and that this process of numbing somehow erodes our natural inhibitions toward the subject matter in question. Incidents such as the Columbine massacre have been held up as evidence that violent video games increase the chances of violence, while many media outlets jump at any opportunity to decry the objectification and degradation of social mores that they attribute to the influence of overtly sexual music videos. The news, too, consists too often of a mix of calamity and pablum that all too quickly becomes the norm.

This use of the word “desensitization,” however, does not capture its full meaning. “Desensitization” is used almost exclusively today to refer to a transition from a state of unfamiliarity with, and therefore sensitivity toward, negative material to a state of jadedness to such content. Rarely, though, is it used in the opposite sense: the transition from a state of wonder at the amazing things in our world to a state of indifference towards them.

The reason for this would seem to be a lack of appropriate exposure. After all, with so much suffering and mediocrity on the daily media menu, what’s left to acclimate us to those few things that are truly special? Yes, there may perhaps be the occasional brilliant sunset or moving film that impresses upon the observer the inherent beauty of the world, but these are few and far between—certainly not common enough for us to become used to them.

Here it’s important to recognize the distinction between the desensitization that is occurring now and the desensitization that has already occurred in the past. Essentially, we have already been utterly desensitized to most of the central rules that exert the greatest influence over our lives.


The best example of such a rule—because it provides the basis for so many consequential interactions for humans—is evolution. While the actual process of evolution is not observable on a personal scale, it nonetheless has made possible every incredibly complex and improbable action that allows us to exist, from our ability to transform food into parts of our bodies to our ability to absorb light, sound, chemicals, and pressure from our surroundings and integrate them into a cohesive interpretation of reality. Such abilities and the excruciatingly long and slow path taken by life toward achieving them are but one example of the myriad factors that have combined by coincidence to make possible literally every facet of the human existence.

The key point to take away here is that, despite what one may assume based on common usage of the word “desensitized,” we’ve been desensitized to the good in life far more than to the bad. Although there are many ills in the world that deserve our attention, we should take time to reflect on how lucky we are to exist in such an advanced state at all.

Christopher M. Lehman ’13, a Crimson business associate, lives in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.