by Barbara Mola
“Why do we ignore mass atrocities?” asks Brian Resnick, a writer at Vox.com. It’s a hard question to ask, but an honest one.
Political psychologist Paul Slovic makes sense of this inquiry with an astute metaphor: the difference between $0 and $100 feels much greater than the difference between $100 and $200, or even $300 and $400. Likewise, $5,800 and $5,900 feel pretty much the same, even though there is still a $100 difference. The initial $100 difference feels much more significant, and as the dollar value increases, this difference seems only to minimize. Of course, this metaphor seems harmless until it is applied to human lives–then, the result is chilling.
Time for a new question: Does the value of a single human life decrease as the size of a tragedy increases?
The answer to that question, unfortunately, is yes. Psychic numbing is the stark truth that as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy and willingness to aid them sharply decreases. It is much simpler to empathize with an individual, but nearly impossible to extend that sympathy towards the plural.
Genocide seems to be synonymous with psychic numbing. Nazi Germany, Armenia, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Cambodia are just a few of the many genocides that occurred during the 20th century. Genocides typically mark the systematic murders of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. And yet, all genocides are marked by the public’s apathy and inaction in response to the tragedy. When these atrocities finally do end, it is usually too late. Moreover, psychic numbing is a present problem just as much as it was in the past. Today, there are about 65.3 million refugees around the world, the most in all of human history. In America alone, 33,000 people have been killed as a result of the opioid epidemic in 2015. Millions have died in war and genocide in Darfur. Billions look on as these atrocities occur, and billions do nothing.
Even on a somewhat smaller scale, hundreds of thousands are still reeling from the effects of recent hurricanes, and yet their struggle has faded to background noise. Families are still devastated by the Las Vegas mass shooting, and yet that story made its way out of the newsfeed in about two weeks.
In many ways, we cannot help the way we are built. In all of these tragedies, people become numbers, and numbers mean nothing. It is the unfortunate truth that when we see numbers we do not see a human life, pulsing and vivid and vibrant as ours.
Is there a solution to psychic numbing? No, but there is a comparatively mild remedy. We need to start to care. Not in a passive, “aw, that sucks” kind of way, but in a tangible, deliberate sort of way, marked by real actions rather than simple words. This is easier said than done, of course, but it is possible. We must focus on the individuals of a tragedy if we wish to help the whole. Progress will be slow, often moving at a seemingly glacial pace, but it will still be progress all the same. Instead of fearing our inability to make change, we must fear our own indifference.