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America’s ‘Psychic Numbing’ to Gun Violence

In 2020, there were more than 45,000 gun deaths in the United States — the highest number on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there was no major push for gun safety legislation. Why?

Last year, there were nearly 700 mass shootings in America — the highest number ever recorded by the Gun Violence Archive — and again, there was no major push for gun legislation. Why?

Dr. Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who has explored popular indifference to genocide and other mass atrocities, may well have the answers.

His work has led him to the disturbing truths of “psychic numbing” and the “false feeling of hopelessness.”

Basically, some people get overwhelmed by the scale of so much death and become convinced that there is little they can do to change it.

As Dr. Slovic has written, “Through my research, I’ve learned something disturbing — and that is, ‘The more who die, the less we care.’ ” In fact, as more people die, humans can experience a “compassion collapse” in which “as the number of lives in danger increases, we sometimes lose feeling and we value those additional lives even less.”

This week, I reached out to Dr. Slovic to help me better understand why we haven’t yet acted to curb gun violence and why, even when our society has grown numb to the death toll, tragedies like those in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, can still break through.

One of the first things he underscored about the gun control debate is that a political dynamic is operating alongside the basic human psychology. “There are some people who are so aggrieved in our society that they don’t care” about the violence, he said. “They want their guns to protect themselves.”

But, he explained, when there are mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, it “wakes us up, and we’re charged up and we want to do something.”

He continued:

“If we see something that we can do, then we’ll do it. But, if we feel ineffective, then after a while we turn it off because it’s painful to keep watching these stories if we think nothing is going to change. Attention is a scarce resource.”

Uvalde, he said, has created a window of opportunity, but it will close. In fact, the opponents of action, I contend, will use the inevitability of that window closing as an important battle strategy, in the same way that Republicans in the Senate drew out police reform negotiations until the passions around the topic cooled and they could walk away with little to no political damage.

Washington must act quickly to pass gun safety legislation — senators are reportedly in talks about a few narrow measures — or else our society will once again grow numb to the carnage.

This is happening with Covid. We recently marked 1,000,000 American deaths from the pandemic and America, collectively, sighed.

“How did you feel when there were 900,000 deaths?” Dr. Slovic asked me. “How did you feel when there were a million? Did you feel any different? Probably not. Our feelings are sensitive to the numbers, and so in that sense the statistics of the deaths round off.” In his research, this is part of the “arithmetic of compassion”: We care deeply about helping a person, but can feel overwhelmed and helpless when faced with masses of suffering people.

Psychic numbing even creeps into our politics. With the Jan. 6 committee’s public hearing beginning Thursday, I asked Dr. Slovic if the public has become numb to the revelations about the insurrection and former President Donald Trump’s part in it. He said they have.

Dr. Slovic conceded that he doesn’t know what new information or testimony will be presented during the hearing, but he added: “We’ve seen and heard these stories, and after a while they become familiar, and when they become familiar they lose their impact.” Familiarity leads to a form of normalization, and this is all only further complicated by the politicization of information.

In a way, the abundance of evidence may actually work against the power of that evidence. Trump has broken so many traditions, rules and laws that the incessancy of it eventually becomes unremarkable and acceptable.

From Covid to the insurrection to mass shootings, psychic numbing and helplessness are working against accountability and change.

I asked Dr. Slovic if anything — such as publishing pictures of the slaughtered children, as some have proposed — could overcome the numbing and break us out of this cycle of inaction.

He said that while he is personally a proponent of making those images public (it would ultimately have to be the choice of the families), he understands that the opponents of change would attack the disclosures as emotional propaganda and the height of political cynicism. As an instrument of change, the pictures might move a few votes, but as a political tool, they could backfire disastrously.

Some proponents of showing images of the slaughtered, like former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, think they could spark an “Emmett Till moment.” In 1955, Till’s mother insisted on an open coffin, so that the world could see what had been done to her son, but it’s important to remember what that viewing did and didn’t do. It didn’t cause a massive wave of shame among the oppressors. Till’s killers went on trial after the funeral, and both were found not guilty after only an hour of deliberations.

What seeing Till’s disfigured face did, however, was stiffen the spines and resolve of the oppressed and motivate them to fight even harder for relief. Sometimes that’s all you need.

No one has the moral authority to force the families of those slain in Uvalde to make those images public, but if that was their choice, it could be helpful. Anything, at this point, to break through the numbness.

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