Compassion fatigue describes an emotional state in which members of a community or population become indifferent towards tragic or otherwise emotionally charged events and occurrences. Because of the frequency of tragedies in our society, we become desensitized towards news of these tragedies — for example, news of school shootings.
With the recent Florida school shooting and several others at the start of this year, much of the media has given a large portion of its attention to these events. This dramatic increase in media coverage has aided in the greater tolerance we have for mediated suffering. As Keith Tester explained, the more often school shootings occur and the more often we see numbers, statistics, and images in relation to these and other tragic stories, the more likely we are to become “morally exhausted and weary as opposed to morally excited and active.”
Take this video, for example. Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama Administration, spoke openly about her feelings in regards to school shootings. Her emotionally charged diction included phrases such as “I’m pissed” and “I’m so sick of this” to truly illustrate her frustration. I truly believe that this frustration is due to the compassion fatigue of our nation.
She mentions in her video gun legislation, mental health, and other possible factors that have been tossed around in countless discussions about possible causes to the plethora of school shootings happening in America. She even admits thinking that a handgun would have been better than an assault rifle, in an attempt to express that something needs to be done even to reduce the possible negative effects and consequences of future events; but absolutely nothing has been done.
The article she wrote attached to this CNN video shares perhaps the most telling tragedy of it all. She describes her children coming home from school one day, and her “oldest says ‘another school shooting. This one in Florida.’ And that’s it; another one — a commentary not on our lack of sympathy but just on the overwhelming familiarity of it all.”
This “overwhelming familiarity” that the security analyst describes is tragic, and though most people do not have a true lack of sympathy, it become more difficult to express sympathy and to feel sympathetic as these events and their media coverage increase.
Because of Juliette Kayyem’s position publicly and in the home, she truly does care. But her frustration comes at the inability to do anything about it, and the incredible number of school shootings that have occurred during her (and our) lifetime.
Another interesting thing to mention about this video was the comments of the male news anchor in the middle of the video, saying “Juliette, I know you’re upset,” and attempting to calm her down — almost as if her inflammatory comments did not have a place on their broadcast. This sends a subliminal message to CNN’s audience that in an event such as this, and in discussions regarding school shootings, one should not be upset. He shrinks for viewers the moral compass enlarged by Juliette Kayyem as she tries to explain the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong. Compassion fatigue is very much a result of viewers not creating the moral message of the news and media they view — she attempted to invite the audience to do so, but was, in essence, cut off.
Though she knows that her kids were safe and out of harm’s way, she also recognized the danger that her children could be in any day and at any time. Many people do not share her recognition of this issue, often (in some perverse way) thinking to themselves, “glad it wasn’t me.”
This is the true dilemma posed in the underlying message of this newscast: that compassion fatigue is plaguing Americans. All of the suffering we are exposed to via a variety of media outlets desensitizes us and causes us to become exhausted, and not to take action, as many desire. Compassion fatigue will only become worse as action is not taken to prevent or to change the frequency of and way in which tragic events are presented to the public.s
The only way for this plague to be dispelled is to do exactly that which compassion fatigue discourages: to act. Action will cause change. That is what is called for in this video, and that is what is called for by mothers, fathers, and children across the nation. Action.