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Willing suspension of sensitization

February 23, 2013

Something is wrong with the state of media criticism when it comes to violence. It’s obvious and yet most discussions about it will be drawn back to either a thought-terminating cliche or a reactionary defense against the cliche. We don’t need to keep arguing about whether parents need to control their children more, or if gun control will benefit the public more than it would leave them vulnerable. If you want to look it up, you’d be likely to find a study agreeing with your argument. Therefore, I’d rather look at violence in media in another way. For this post, the term “violence in media” will refer to the use of firearms.

Last year, I was slightly disturbed that I could watch violent movies and play violent games without even flinching at most deaths inflicted by bullets. There were even times where I’d chuckle at someone getting shot to death. I thought that I had unwittingly bought into and embodied the idea that repeated exposure to murder made me desensitized to murder as an act. Then after watching The Expendables 2, The Dark Knight Rises, and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, I decided to think for myself about my reactions. What did I find? First, the more obvious any use of CGI was, the more humorous the violence became. Second, shooting deaths carried less impact than severe beatings and stabbings. Finally, torture and nasty-looking medical procedures were both less prevalent and more unnerving.

Suddenly, it made sense why those ever-common shooting deaths inspired less gasping and more laughing. I’d even go so far as to call them modernist slapstick. I bet if a mainstream journalist had the balls to actually ask a sufficient enough sample of men, they’d find that all those matches of Halo and Call of Duty and whatever other FPSes have similar player numbers feel more like playground mayhem than means by which they seek to oppress others. It not like those games are about slowly killing one’s victims through extreme torture and psychological abuse, just the relatively merciful beheading via headshot in most cases.

Until the point where one’s willing suspension of sensitization breaks, simulated acts of violence fail to trigger meaningful emotional stimuli.

That is a good thing, by the way, unless you’d rather break down into a sobbing mess after every on-screen death. One problem with the way we approach violence in media, if not the problem is that it’s automatically assumed that there is no place for willing suspension of sensitization. Anything that can be linked back to fictional gun violence is treated as though the fiction is greatly responsible, as if the person committing acts of violence has only a sliver of free will that is easily overrun by images on a screen. It’s an ugly way to view people, but it’s what they’ll keep saying.

Why shouldn’t we all be aware of our willing suspension of sensitization while being told to think that violence in media automatically makes us more aggression-prone? Who gains from it besides fear-mongers in positions of power?

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