I didn’t watch Deadpool. Not just because I’m generally disinterested in Marvel and Ryan Reynolds (sue me), but the widespread rave about sick violence didn’t seem to pique any interest. A ‘5 reasons why you need to watch Deadpool’ article on Facebook probably would not change my mind either. Yet, everyone else seems to have watched it, in praise of its offensive humour and highly explicit violence. It’s as though films like these have become a form of voyeurism to the people. An on-screen gratification of their craving for violence, sex and profanity.
It isn’t just films though, it’s video games too. We love the allure of vice so much that a video game like Grand Theft Auto V still makes for one of the best-selling hits out there despite being first released in 2013. With a disturbing gameplay that involves assaulting and killing people on a whim, and graphic sexual encounters with prostitutes, I’ve seen friends play it like they’re on steroids.
It’s been an age-old debate on whether on-screen violence provokes real-life violence. Perhaps consuming all this violent and abusive material through television shows, films and video games won’t necessarily turn every one of us into sociopaths on the loose. Perhaps it’s palatable as long as misdeeds committed in a virtual fantasy world don’t translate to real life criminal activity.
Has it really been just harmless flirting though? Even when we’ve subconsciously turned into desensitised zombies? Like the ones in The Walking Dead, it’s no pretty sight when our ability to empathise becomes diluted. If we no longer recognise the true severity of circumstances, the likelihood of us intervening in real situations of violence and abuse dwindles. Adding the Bystander Effect to the equation, society at large may eventually contract China’s bystander problem.
Desensitisation isn’t some voodoo magic that happens to us overnight. It’s acquired through years of mass media exposure, and more recently propelled by our best friend, social media. Social media which now plagues a generation in particular. My generation. Often deemed a self-entitled, lazy and narcissistic bunch with an addiction to technology. So spoiled we bruise like strawberries, so demanding we border on delusional. Millennials.
Having grown up with technology all our lives, we are now prisoners of it. We’re commonly found staring at our phones and ignoring the human folk seated opposite us at lunch, with the propensity to suffer a panic attack whenever we’re unable to check WhatsApp or Instagram every five minutes or less.
I am a part of this generation. Flooded by news of atrocities occurring around the world each day, the ubiquity of violence has made us expect tragedies to happen. The new videos of ISIS beheadings that pop up on social media don’t surprise or shock us anymore. They’ve become the normative. Today’s exposure to violence has become as routine as the 372 mass shootings in the US, even US President Barack Obama senses the numbness.
Perhaps we can’t wipe violence off the face of the earth. Perhaps strict censorship will only create greater problems. If shutting off from the media and technology, retreating into our shells, isn’t a viable option, do we then stand by and watch the continual degeneration of our youth?
Perhaps it’s high time we took a stand. If we hope to curb the next generation from becoming apathetic creatures like, well, me, then we need to breed empathy. After all, with the pervasive nature of the Internet and social media, we won’t be able to shelter them forever from all the violence they will read, watch and play.
What can we do then? We could contextualise the violence in a manner that would transfix the next generation. As they grow up to the soundbites of beheadings and mass shootings, their attention spans also diminish with each viral video they consume.
In our schools’ Character and Citizenship Education, the Ministry of Education identified socio-cultural sensitivity and awareness as an important skill of citizenship competency. My own CCE was a lifetime ago, so I don’t actually know how that translates to the syllabus today. Professor Google does tell me that it’s supposed to teach empathy through understanding, acceptance and respect though.
That’s probably the right thing to do, but perhaps included in those lessons could be putting violent news and entertainment into context as well. What were the Charlie Hebdo shootings all about? Why did Dylann Roof shoot and kill nine people in Charleston? What’s the difference between cartoon violence and real violence? Is it all right to blow people’s heads off in that video game? Could we explain it in a one-minute video?
We can’t deny the amount of violence that our youths get exposed to. Yet, today’s generation layers a French flag over their Facebook profile picture as a show of empathy for Parisians before moving back to their cat videos.
Bringing real world sensibility to our classrooms, in real time, might possibly be the formula for stemming the tide of desensitisation that’s crept into our society.