In an article about violence desensitization and the death of Tyre Nichols, dark figures gather around to watch videos on social media.
Illustration by Deon Agyeman, Montserrat College of Art

Are We Raising Awareness Correctly?

In the advent of social media activism, we must remember to preserve personhood over shock value.
March 10, 2023
7 mins read

As the public awaited the release of the bodycam footage of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols’ death, a sense of suspense began building in the media. Live coverage and updates regarding the officers involved and a countdown to the release of the footage warped viewers’ perception of the horrors of the situation. In an interview with CNN, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis warned that the video footage showed “acts that defy humanity.” He put forth a trigger warning that urged viewers and cities to brace themselves for the subsequent fallout. The ensuing discourse runs the risk of turning the tragedy into a public spectacle, as Nichols’ personhood is discounted in favor of still important, but albeit untimely, conversations about fundamental flaws in the police system. The over-policing of Black bodies perpetuates this cycle of violence, and the frequency of these incidents has transformed these tragedies into statistics. After years of unfettered access to graphic depictions of violence, the public has become largely desensitized to police brutality.

At present, there is no shortage of violence in media. From news coverage to true crime podcasts, photorealistic video games to crime dramas on television, violent images are deeply entrenched in one’s everyday media consumption. These depictions, particularly those in television and in video games, aim to shock viewers in an attempt to captivate them. Present-day media outlets thrive on shock and intrigue, but the oversaturation of violence in media leaves viewers emotionally and intellectually numb. As a result, creators aim to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Their search for shock factor often manifests in scenes of gratuitous violence: Mortal Kombat’s ever-increasing list of fatalities and Game of Thrones’ infamous “Red Wedding” episode come to mind. Desensitization refers to the steady, long-term drop in sympathy and concern after repeated exposure to graphic images, whether fictional or real. As video games and CGI aim to make graphics look as photorealistic as possible, they blur the lines between reality and fiction. The delineation between a death on television and that of a real person heavily depends on an individual’s connection to the person in question. Consequently, pain and suffering are uniquely primordial states of being, making them resistant to language, a key component to the generation of empathy.

Saidiya Hartman, in her book “Scenes of Subjection,” explores the complicated relationship humans can have with the pain of others. She cites Presbyterian minister John Rankin’s letters to his brother on American slavery. Rankin lists many horrors down to the minutiae, and in an attempt to rouse emotion urges his reader to imagine the horrors he had listed as done unto themselves. As Rankin delves further into his analysis it becomes evident that he intends to empathize by taking on the pain of another person. Pain makes an individual vulnerable, often reducing the sufferer to nothing but flesh in the eyes of others; onlookers must take caution to preserve the victim’s individuality in such a delicate space.

As Rankin demonstrates in his letters, witnessing another person’s suffering is uncomfortable; this discomfort is only magnified by the omnipresence of suffering on social media. As people search for a “correct” way to respond to violence, their efforts only add fuel to a raging fire of emotions. And while there may not be a “right” way to raise awareness of a tragedy, there are certainly wrong ones. The #BlackoutTuesday posts from 2020, for example, were dubbed performative after Instagram and Twitter feeds were flooded with black squares. The squares ultimately outnumbered posts from actual activist organizations, effectively silencing them until the algorithm phased the posts out. Furthermore, silence is often perceived as an action on its own, urging anyone present on social media to post or repost something of substance to avoid it. Often, feeds become saturated with reposts of clips of murders in the hopes they will urge followers not to ignore the problem at hand. The targets of these reposts are those who would not otherwise engage, and the reposts act as an overcompensation for their lack of awareness. A video of graphic violence is effective in engaging someone’s attention, but at what cost? Until a person is further robbed of their dignity, exploited and discarded for a cause? No one’s suffering should become a public spectacle, and it is imperative to push past one’s own feelings of discontentment to ensure that the victim’s individuality remains at the forefront of the calls for reform. A cognitive reframe is necessary — rather than fighting against, fight for.

Amid the outrage, there is still a clear push to honor Tyre Nichols’ memory. The 29-year-old was a father, skater and creative. His website showcases his avid passion for photography and invites viewers to “see the world through [his] eyes.” A video of Nichols skateboarding, first shot in 2010, was viewed more than 1.9 million times after a Twitter user urged people not to spread footage of his death but instead shine a light on his life. Though not much is known about his personal life, Nichols’ family and friends have been vocal about his character, emphasizing his kindness and spirituality.

Katherine Hollis, New York University

Writer Profile

Katherine Hollis

New York University
Psychology and Creative Writing

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