Just a few weeks after 9/11, stand-up comic Gilbert Gottfried joked, “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” An audience member shouted “Too soon!”, which has become the routine response to humor based on recent terrorist attacks, although it is mostly used disingenuously.
Back then, comedians dared to push boundaries with humor, with much criticism faced from the general population. In 2017, dark humor has taken a 180 and more often than not gets a favorable reception. It is not only recognized, but also promoted to seemingly unhealthy levels, with the popularity of memes. Due to the simplicity involved in designing memes, and the Internet’s ability to share information at exceptional speeds, dark humor isn’t contained to comedy clubs anymore. But why have people had a reversal pertaining to their toleration of such humor?
A 2014 study on video games and moral sensitivity conducted by Matthew Grizzard at the University of Buffalo SUNY concluded that the more one is exposed to the same thing, the less emotional response is elicited. The focus of the study was to ascertain the impact of violent video games on moral codes. In the process, it was deduced that desensitization is specific to context.
Today, the general public exhibits diminished emotional response specifically to terrorism. With the rise in terrorist attacks that the mainstream media chooses to report, i.e. in the west, people’s emotional response has devolved from the feeling of solidarity and hope at the time of 9/11 to sending memes to friends on Instagram about the Las Vegas shooting. However, this is not the case with everyone, albeit the percentage of people who do this is rising, which is evident just by Instagram’s explore page.
One cannot simply determine whether desensitization is good or bad due it its context specificity. However, one can determine the same within the context of something. A psychiatrist must be able to empathize with their patient to understand their internal struggle. In that profession, desensitization is not favorable. In contrast, a dead body must not evoke a highly emotional response from a detective.
With regard to terrorism and the general public, the following two arguments are most often brought forward-
1. It normalizes acts of terrorism and establishes a casual attitude towards it in the minds of the current generation.
2. Terrorists’ psychological attempt to instill fear into people fails.
Of the above two arguments, the latter has more immediate consequences, i.e. the terrorists fail in some regard. The former argument, however true it may be, doesn’t change anything. When one is caught in the midst of a terrorist attack, that person will not act in a nonchalant manner, no matter their mindset with respect to terrorism. In tough situations like that, all ideologies and beliefs go out the window.
Therefore, while it may not be productive in ending terrorism, it makes more sense to joke about it rather than treating it as something that cannot be touched by humor.
Written by Praagya Bahuguna