On the final day of May, I went online to check the score of the UNCW baseball game at the Chapel Hill Regional, and I began to realize that I may be an unwilling victim of “unsystematic desensitization.” While I was waiting for an update, a breaking news alert popped up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen: “12 dead in a mass shooting at Virginia Beach.”
“My God!” I thought. “I hate pop-ups!” I clicked through to ESPN’s site and became even more frustrated when I found that after a long rain delay the Seahawks charitably gave back the lead and lost to UNC Chapel Hill.
Not exactly a compassion-filled response to a notification of another partially preventable tragedy. (The murderer could have killed 12 people with a rock or sharp stick, but he chose a high-caliber handgun equipped with a silencer and extended high-capacity ammunition magazine that he bought under current gun laws. Laws can change. Tragedies can be mitigated here as they are in civilized countries.)
I’m not a fan of the “If you’re not out-raged you’re not paying attention” club, but I am a fan of paying attention. What has happened to me that another mass shooting in a supposedly civilized country didn’t generate so much as a slight increase in my heart rate or blood pressure?
I chalk it up to “unsystematic desensitization.” Psychologists use “systematic desensitization” or “graduated exposure” to help people overcome some of their fears. They teach willing people to slowly get used to the discomfort of some situations and feelings. Gradual exposure to small amounts of discomfort allows us to tolerate larger amounts of discomfort. However, the same process that can rid us of an irrational fear of chocolate lab puppies can also condition us to normalize situations that are potentially life-threatening.
“Unsystematic desensitization” is like a frog falling in a pot of cold water. It’s unsystematic because no one is directing the process. (Apologies to conspiracy theorists.) When the heat is slowly turned up, the frog gradually gets used to the increased temperature and doesn’t even try to jump out of the pot. The frog normalizes the incremental increases in heat until he’s cooked through. It’s just another degree or two, right?
On my drive to work a few days after the shooting and UNCW’s loss, I noticed the flag flying at half-mast in front of a government building. By that time the Virginia Beach shooting didn’t even register. I stopped for coffee headed to work wondering why the flag always seemed to be at half-mast. “It’s always something, I guess.”
A few days later, Ol ’45 said Princess Markle was “nasty.” Our straight-shooter-in-chief made the comment in a taped interview. The next day he denied he said it, attributing it to fake news.
My reaction to a president issuing a steady stream of presidential insults and bald-faced, totally unnecessary presidential lies?
The following day, I listened to a news piece on substantive changes in the way the government writes about climate science. Under the current administration, official government reports about man-made global warming are to leave out “worst-case scenarios” and predictions past 2040. I hope the administration doesn’t stop including dire long-range consequences and worst-case scenarios when reporting the dangers of smoking cigarettes. “Government cautiously predicts teens that smoke for 20 years sometimes have yellow teeth and may catch a few more colds.”
Unsystematic desensitization seems to be cooking me clear through. Another day, another mass shooting. 20 years after Columbine and no substantive change in our approach to accessing to weapons. Another day, another Presidential whopper. (No, not the burgers Ol’ 45 feeds champion athletes but the daily falsehoods and lies he feeds us.) Another day, another former coal mining or oil executive serving in this administration destroying what’s left of the U.S. government’s scientific credibility and another degree of global warming. What’s another degree, right?
This graduation season, I’m feeling a lot like an old frog in a pot, but I hope the kids leaving our high schools and universities aren’t cooked. They can’t afford to normalize mass shootings, normalize the narcissism of compulsive liar leaders and normalize the wanton destruction of our environment.