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Wednesday, February 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Ernest Fokes: We are increasingly desensitized to violence

Adaptation is a well-known neurophysiological phenomenon. Basically it means that a neuron (nerve cell) when subjected to a continuous stimulus will cease to respond. This is true of a single nerve cell or of a group.

The classic example of this phenomenon is the worker in a boiler factory. After a period of time and exposure to a certain level of loud noise, he ceases to hear it. It is only when there is a change in the volume, either up or down, that the worker becomes aware of the sound, or its absence once again.

The entertainment industry is well aware of this experience. Some of us may remember the famous scene in “Gone with the Wind” when Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” At the time, this was shocking and controversial. Now, in order to keep the audiences’ attention, we hear progressively more and more vile language. We see progressively more violence.

Think of the “Die Hard” movies. First we saw a portion of a skyscraper destroyed, and Bruce Willis walking across a floor littered with broken glass; next an airliner crashed; finally in the last sequel a city block of Manhattan was exploded. Think of the physical violence and blood and gore we are exposed to on our televisions and movie screens. We adapt, and by doing so crave more in order to keep those neurons firing.

Donald Trump is a master utilizer of adaptation whether he knows it or not; and I suspect he does know it. He stays in the media front and center by spouting one more progressively absurd or embarrassing or hyperbolic piece of nonsense after another. He knows that by doing so he can remain in the headlines both on television and the printed media. To paraphrase, “Damn the truth, full speed ahead!” He is allowed this latitude for, among other reasons, it sells advertising and satisfies our lust for more.

We have just experienced another national tragedy. At least 49 people were murdered by a man using an assault-style rifle designed for the U.S. Army for the specific purpose of killing people. What possible role could this weapon have in the hands of untrained civilians? This produced a blip in our awareness of the mayhem so prevalent in our country. Fewer persons are killed and it doesn’t make the national headlines, but 49! Our nerve cells are awakened and a new level of stimulation is obtained.

We will lower our flags to half-staff. We will have some vigils. We will have prayer services. Candles will be burned. Flowers and other tokens will be placed at the site of the tragedy. We will grieve and those closest to the victims will grieve longer.

The NRA will make certain our congressmen and women are still properly aligned; Anderson Cooper will furrow his brow; Fox News will blame President Obama, and so forth and so on. We have seen this scenario so many times now that we are too aware of the drill. Too soon we will move on to either another tragedy or a piece of distracting Donald Trump nonsense, and nothing has changed.

Post-disaster the usual bills were introduced into our Congress and to no one’s surprise, to no avail. A sit-in led by the inimitable John Lewis embarrassed the U.S. House of Representatives into shutting down the C-SPAN cameras. The sit-in was a poignantly historic gesture aimed both at encouraging responsible action and expressing frustration at the ongoing absence of it.

The real question is, “How long will Americans allow our nation and themselves to be subjected to such escalating tragedy and politically embarrassing acceptance of it?”

We are caught in a classic downward spiraling vicious cycle of “more.” To break this cycle requires change – change in ourselves and in our nation; change in our willing acceptance of the unacceptable.

Ernest Fokes is a retired neurosurgeon living in Hayden Lake.

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