Media and Desensitisation

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD 

In our rapidly globalising world, the constant proliferation of communications through the media is inescapable for anyone who has access to the internet.

When anything and everything you could possibly conceive of is available for visual consumption at the touch of a finger, value and meaning are progressively lost. In this society, our humanity becomes subject to a process of gradual destruction. We begin to lose our sensitivity and capacity for emotional response.

Our late capitalist society drives corporations to produce an incessant influx of visual and auditory media, each one fighting tooth and nail to hold our attention for more than a brief instant.

News corporations have become businesses first and foremost. In order to keep us engaged, they produce a constant barrage of journalistic media that manifests in twenty-four hour news cycles and exponentially traumatising stories.

With constant access to an overwhelming magnitude of social media posts, visual news, articles, stories, interviews, and podcasts, our attention must be fought for in an unrelenting manner. New media is published every second globally, each piece working harder to grasp us than the last.

Art follows in a similar vein, with movies, shows and books churned out by production companies and publishers at an increasingly rapid pace, constantly gasping for our interest and consumption – and in a world where we have already seen almost everything before.

In response to this constant proliferation of increasingly graphic and traumatising media in its many forms, we develop a gradual desensitisation to it.

This desensitisation is a process in which one experiences a lessened emotional response after repeated exposure to stimuli. It is a normal defence mechanism of the brain, in which it tries to cultivate cognitive and emotional distance from traumatic stories in order to protect our mental processing.

However, this is profoundly damaging when experienced on such a large scale. We as a society reach our empathy limit, experiencing a complete compassion fatigue that depletes our capacity for emotional response.

We have now become largely unshockable. Each exposure to a piece of media – to which we have constant and unfettered access – gradually dulls and numbs our sensitivity.

Adding to this cycle of dehumanisation, any avant-garde media or subversive work that does initially generate shock is swiftly reabsorbed back into the cultural industries. This is particularly true of written and visual creative media.

This media is taken up and processed by the dominant culture, stripping it of its intensity, politics, and radical change. Experimentation is always eventually integrated into commodity production – this recouperation is inertial.

Take, for example, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho and its accompanying film adaptation. What was intended to be a shocking and confronting societal critique has gradually become co-opted by popular culture, with countless jokes made online about the text and many even being driven to idolise the horrifically violent protagonist, Patrick Bateman. This phenomenon is not unique to this particular text – any media that initially shocks is eventually normalised in this way.

As such, media must become progressively more shocking and confronting in order to hold consumer attention. This creates a downward spiral in which we must be constantly shocked out of complacency by reading the image anew, in order to combat pacification at the hands of the empire of media that surrounds us.

As a result of this spiral, our desensitisation worsens with each new piece of media we are exposed to. This leads to the normalisation of crises and violence, prompting less and less desire to take action against it. It is in this way that we become passive and apathetic, encouraging a globalised cycle of violence for which we don’t possess the capacity to truly care.

In order to foster a society that can truly absorb and emotionally react to disturbing stories of global issues, we must attempt to slow down our consumption of media and force it to become intentional. We must think deeply and meditatively about each piece of media we consume, allow ourselves to feel and allow this feeling to prompt action. It is in this way that we will retain our sensitivity and our humanity, and by extension the ability to respond to unconscionable injustices.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio
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