Tuesday, December 9, 2008


In the horse training world, we have a technique called "sacking out" or "flagging." Basically, it's a form of desensitizing. When a horse if first presented with an unfamiliar object--say, a plastic grocery bag--he's likely to react with fear. This is a typical response from a prey species. The unknown is always potentially dangerous, so he'll roll back his eyes, tense up, snort, and shy away from the frightening stimulus, preparing to bolt to save his life. The trainer must then convince him that he is in no danger and get him to accept the object. This is can be accomplished in two ways. A poor trainer will manhandle the horse into submission by pinning him down and forcing the object upon him until he gives up fighting--the proverbial "breaking of the spirit." A kinder, more understanding trainer will unhurriedly allow the animal sniff the object, and then, little by little, will introduce it in other ways. The horse's body will be rubbed gently with the offending bag, and this will gradually progress until he is quite comfortable with its presence, even allowing it to be placed on his head like a hat. Although the motives are different, in both cases the result is the same. The horse will no longer react negatively to the appearance of said object. He has become desensitized to it.

This technique, however, is not specific to equines. It works equally well on human beings, and I think we have, as a culture, become extremely desensitized to the world around us. Things that should frighten (or, more aptly, appall us) have ceased to affect us at all. We turn a blind eye to violence and suffering. Why is this?
We are surrounded by images of this unappealing nature. Violent video games and TV shows have become our favorite entertainment. The news media constantly bombards us with stories of war, rape, murder, famine, and disease. In school, we are taught all about the horrors of inhumanity (how many tragically depressing books about the Holocaust alone did you have to read in high school?). As a result, we start to turn a blind eye to these tales and images of brutality. We pay attention only to the most shocking of stories. We accept that suffering is a natural and unavoidable part of life, so we don't concern ourselves worrying about it. It's out of our control, so we might as well ignore it, right? As a whole, I think we have lost our compassion.

On the one hand, this mindset certainly makes life easier to live. If you're only concerned about yourself and your own needs, you can get by a lot more efficiently. Plus, imagine how depressing and hopeless life would be if you were constantly sympathizing with, worrying about, and crying over all the tragedies of the world. That sort of existence would be nearly impossible, at least for me.

On the other hand, this selfishness is unhealthy, both for us and for our fellow humans (and, by extension, all creatures). We need to feel a little more, I think. We need to sympathize with our neighbors' plight. Although it may not always be possible, we should try to reach out and lend a helping hand. Volunteer. Donate. Spread the word about injustice. If nothing else, provide a shoulder to cry on. We can't allow ourselves to block out the suffering in the world. We need to open our eyes, get our fingers out of our ears, and stop screaming, "La la la!" Complacency and apathy are terrible crimes.

Heck, I'm as guilty as anyone else in this department. But admitting you have a problem is the first step to finding a cure, right? So, now what?


Mark said...

A tough question, to be sure. I think you're right: A desensitized culture is much more difficult to mobilize in support of some humanitarian idea. We're just too used it all.
My RA my freshman year kinda shocked me with his sensitivity. He wouldn't watch gory movies with us, and it kinda shocked me. I thought there was something to it, though, so I stopped watching those movies and started doing some meditation on pain and suffering (it's really amazing stuff. You should give it a whirl sometime). After a few months, I noticed myself not being able to watch the same movies and such in the same ways. I just get bothered by it now.
So I figured out how to transform myself, but society is a whole other question. I asked myself the other day what it would take to really, REALLY piss us off, you know? What would have to happen in before our generation would rise up and do something about it? How bad would it have to get? I don't know. We're an odd breed.

Mozart said...

Abortion is always a good conversation-starter. And an odd trend I've noticed is that people (or at least the younger generation) tend to get much more riled up about animal suffering than human suffering. I don't know why that is. Maybe because we see humans as brutal, powerful, and domineering (a side effect of the violence we're exposed to), while animals are helpless and innocent victims.