This post may be a little controversial and it may also be a little upsetting depending on the reader’s expectations. Reader discretion is advised.
Suffering is one of the most difficult aspects of life to accept. It is as abhorrent as it is pervasive, and in fact as the complexity of life on Earth increased, so too did life’s capacity to suffer. Human beings are prepossessed of the capacity to suffer uniquely among Earth’s species. We have developed enough sapience to imagine concepts like mortality, agency, biology, and suffering, to reflect on these ideas, and to torture ourselves with aspects of our own brain chemistry because we don’t like what we find.
Our grasp of the aforementioned concepts, concepts we created to describe our existence, is tenuous, at best. We struggle both individually and in groups to accept the basic facts of our environment and ourselves. Most of us are failing in this regard – the majority of people alive today do not accept the factual truths of our nature, preferring to try to substitute religious beliefs while taking on the burdens of the emotional addictions required to support such beliefs.
Endogenous addiction to the molecules of our emotionalism is the cause. This is the biological mechanism by which we delude ourselves into thinking that acceptance of reality is optional. This is another way of expressing that emotionalism facilitates self dishonesty, and excessive emotionalism encourages false and often delusional beliefs. The cycle then reciprocates and false and delusional beliefs afford license to induce even stronger emotionalism, in the pursuit of more denial.
The suffering pervading our world is the most difficult thing I have ever tried to accept. I’m still working on it, but I’ve made progress. Desensitization is the first word to come to my mind, yet it’s an imprecise word for the context. I deliberately desensitized myself to many forms of suffering by critically watching, listening to, and reading about a wide variety of human and animal suffering. In the past I’ve used both normal internet and Tor for this purpose, and it’s an exercise I repeated a few times over the course of several years. It used to be easy to find this kind of content on “clearnet” websites but coverage of the worst atrocities generally persisted longer on the darknet. Sites like Liveleak were great resources of human suffering; compendiums of atrocity, free to witness at our convenience. A particularly interesting aspect of Liveleak was that they hosted many videos of successful and unsuccessful suicides, and these could be freely viewed within a few clicks of landing on the website. I don’t have advice to offer on locating content that depicts suffering. There is just so much to choose from and in order to accept it we need to chip away at learning about how our world really is, rather than how we wish it to be.
If doing such a survey of suffering it is important to look beyond the gore and personal violence to see the larger scale phenomena like famines and the impacts of war. We can never solve problems we refuse to accept, and we can never accept that which we refuse to see. With the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine there is no shortage of video and written content depicting real and ongoing atrocities. It is common for this kind of content to reach social media prior to mass media, now. We should not turn away from it. For many of us in many parts of the world, it’s a harbinger of things to come.
The first time I consumed graphic content depicting human suffering I was struck by powerful emotional and physical (psychosomatic) reactions I experienced in response to what I was seeing. I suffered from a position of empathy for the victims of the crimes, atrocities and accidents depicted. I gradually learned to quell the emotional release of it enough to think more clearly and more critically about what I was witnessing. This took repeated exposures over time. In retrospect, this should have been a glaring clue toward finding the rest of the philosophy I describe on these pages, but I think I was too preoccupied with the content to see it back then.
I soon found my thoughts wandering to the motivations and experiences and traumas of not only the victims, but the perpetrators, too. It’s difficult to fathom how people can behave in such ways when it’s far removed from one’s day to day life and sense of self. It’s easy to dehumanize people while their motives and acts can feel impossible to understand. To understand a thing helps to protect us from it, and to accept a thing renders its power to elicit emotionalism within us optional.
This is because things don’t elicit emotions – not really – we choose to induce emotions while simultaneously pretending it’s not a choice. We base this choice on some combination of our values and expectations and in the case of rejecting our own agency we choose to value the false belief that we have no agency, and this necessitates more emotion on an ongoing basis to keep the idea compelling than would accepting the truth. The addiction grows and constrains us more under these circumstances so we bolster our internal position with more false beliefs designed to prop up the first. We employ even more emotionalism to make these ideas remain compelling to us, because if we associate the belief with the emotion we can license ourselves to dispense the emotion and momentarily sate our addiction. We take a hit whenever we invoke an emotional response in ourselves.
This is how we build the walls by which we shut out the suffering around us. Long before I could understand it in the terms I express here I knew it wasn’t right. I knew our system of transactional emotionalism was deeply flawed. I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just play along with everybody else and pretend the horrors aren’t real. I had no idea that emotional self torment was the deeply immoral act that it is; I could not see it but for my emotional addictions and the beliefs and values that supported them. I didn’t have to change who I was to edit and update my expectations and values; I had to accept who I am.
The same principle applies externally. To accept the horrors of the world around us and the deeply problematic beliefs and behaviours of the people in our world I had to accept without prejudice that these things and these people and behaviours and beliefs are all real, extant, happening and ongoing, as may be appropriate to describe them. This included the abominable actions depicted in the kinds of graphic content I’m discussing here.
I found the perpetrators of suffering to be more difficult to understand and to accept than the victims, but I compelled myself by conscience to accept the basic humanity of people acting out in the worst ways imaginable. We are all just people caught in the same torturous existence. This is not sympathy or justification for those who abuse; it’s just how things are. Some people choose to handle life and circumstance better or more poorly than others; some people are born into permanently hellish circumstances.
I think all decent people remaining should fight much harder against the perpetrators of abuse and suffering. I think our recalcitrance and apathy are the reason the world is shifting toward fascism. I think we failed to remain vigilant of the safety of our democracies. We worried about other things; some by design of the corporations and governments that be, and we even worried about some issues spawned by international bad actors. For the most part though, most people just worry about having enough food for their family, gas for their car, their rent paid on time, and some way to waste whatever time is left over, enjoyably. And these are the lucky people who must know and feel on some gut level that even their good fortune is coming to an end.
To be able to honestly reject a thing we must be able to honestly consider a thing and we can’t do that when we cloud our thinking with performative emotionalism every time we witness something awful. In fact this is precisely how we refuse to accept atrocity in our world – by getting overly upset about it rather than channeling our responses into motivating forces to correct the problems we can change and to accept those we cannot.
There was nothing enjoyable to me about my surveys of suffering. I find the content distasteful to this day, but I also recognize it has tremendous value in piercing the veil of our emotionalism long enough we can consider more appropriate values and responses, if not solutions.
I think in this context “desensitization” is a misnomer similar to how the word “atheism” should be redundant. (Over) sensitization to suffering occurs because we drown out the suffering with emotionalism and denial. Desensitization is correcting an imbalance that never should have occurred.
Just as the word “atheism” biases any narrative in which it is used because it presupposes religion has any validity at all, “desensitization” gets a bad name when people ignorant of actual empathy poorly substitute performative emotional outbursts, usually accusing the desensitized of an absence of the very empathy they fail to understand. That, and people simply fear fear. Graphic content shouldn’t be easy to watch, but I think it’s important to know how our world really works and how people really behave and the effects all of this incurs on the meek and imperiled. Because sooner or later they’re coming for us, too. Because we said nothing.
I also think it’s tremendously important to understand and accept our emotionalism, and what better way than to learn about ourselves than to confront the most difficult of emotions directly, safely and conveniently, remotely and privately. It’s no wonder so many people are against such content existing and being accessible to view. Asking myself if these exercises of exploring human depravity helped me to resolve depression I find myself responding “in the short term, absolutely not; in the long term, absolutely.”
I’ll digress here for a moment to say that the potential of internet as a resource is truly astounding. We take it for granted and we under utilize it as a result. There is very little factual information within the sum of human knowledge that is not available online, somewhere. This means that we are limited by our creativity in searching it out and consuming it.
Another way we can exploit the great resource that is internet is to use it to observe nature in ways we cannot observe personally. There exists a plethora of high quality documentaries and beyond that, there is always new footage being posted by ordinary people with phones and cameras. It is possible to use this phenomenon to survey the suffering of the animal world beyond humanity and I believe it’s a worthwhile exercise in addition to getting out in the bush and personally witnessing some suffering, ourselves, as conditions in our lives permit.
Even as a young child I found myself staring at instances of suffering I encountered more often than I recoiled or turned away. I can remember feeling horror but also feeling some as yet unrecognizable, nagging feeling that I shouldn’t look away. This is conscience asserting itself to help us accept our predicament as sapient animals in a dangerous world. It’s perfectly natural.
Yet I couldn’t accept it. I tore myself up emotionally over instances of suffering I cannot even remember, now. I ask myself in retrospect what that accomplished, and what it accomplished for the people who taught me to react in the ways I did at those ages. The answers to these questions belong on a different page, and in a sense they’re provided on other pages here.
Of all of the sources of my depression, the unfathomable suffering in the world caused me to suffer myself the most distress. Everywhere I looked I learned of new forms of suffering, new scales of suffering, too. Entire species exist locked in an endless cycle of suffering, unable to fathom their own reproduction, death, or birth. This reality is one of cruelty and pain. And this is why we try so hard to hide from it we broke our brains with addictive emotionalism.
Now, imagine what it was like for early people who had no knowledge of even what to call many of the things they encountered. They more or less had to define them on the spot while simultaneously communicating this new information within their groups. It’s amazing that it happened, and the trauma of it is almost unfathomable to us now. We have become separated and isolated from our natural environment, alienated and dehumanized by our own expectations of ourselves. We have become lost in the emotional fog that we’ve decided is a normal way to live. It stems from the terror we experienced perhaps a million years ago, on the Savannah. And our biology thinks we’re still there.
Now that I better understand and more willingly accept my emotionalism I can recognize that the emotional self abuse I inflicted on myself when witnessing suffering in the past was an immoral act in itself. By dishonestly dosing myself on strong emotions I was adding to the unnecessary suffering in the world, both in myself and in those people with whom I interacted and affected.
It is enough to consciously recoil and reject suffering and atrocity without inducing emotional auto-intoxication over it; I’d argue it’s more moral to keep our mental clarity when considering such serious subjects and events. The belief that we must feel, feel, feel, else we’re cold or inhuman or whatever other derogatory term people can think of is both dangerous and malicious in that it is designed to protect the emotional addictions of the person asserting the ideas at the expense of the well being of the person suffering their expectations.