No, I can’t help! Psychic numbing and how to confront it

Peace Advocate December 2022

Baker nuclear test, Bikini atoll, 1946
Baker nuclear test, Bikini atoll, 1946

by Kathie Malley-Morrison

Recognition of the growing threat of nuclear disaster is being voiced increasingly as nuclear armed countries hurtle into a renewal of the Cold War. On October 22, 2022, on the major network  (BBC News) ofhe US’s strongest ally (the UK), Dr. Cooney Blades, concurring with President Biden that Russia could launch the beginning of a nuclear Armageddon in Ukraine, warned the world that “We’re headed for nuclear war.”

On December 5, 2022, Jordan Boyd (who also writes for Fox News) claimed in The Federalist, an American conservative online magazine, that “even corrupt corporate media” are willing to acknowledge that the risk of nuclear war is “now a daily issue for the Biden administration.” In Foreign Policy, Ariel Levite and George Perkovich caution that far too many people in the United States, Europe, and especially Ukraine—eager to deny Putin any gains in the Ukraine—seem far too willing to risk nuclear holocaust.

On its webpage, the International Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, emphasizes: “The risk of nuclear weapons use is the highest it has been in decades. Nuclear threats and other reckless behaviour from nuclear-armed states are elevating the risk that conflict escalates into a global catastrophe.”

So, warnings about the dangers inherent in the availability of nuclear weapons in Russia, the United States, its allies, and other nations can be heard right, left, and center across the political spectrum.  Why, then, do we not hear of massive actions against the continued development and sales of nuclear weapons, and the threats by nuclear power countries to use them? One of the answers is psychic numbing—a psychological phenomenon that can affect both individuals and entire cultures in ways that allow atrocities—and existential threats—to grow and spread.

At the individual level, psychic numbing, also called “compassion fade”, is a psychological process of desensitization to the pain and suffering of others, particularly as the number of people experiencing pain and suffering increases. For many people, hearing a story of one innocent child being subjected to brutal violence may awaken feelings of sorrow, compassion, and a desire to help; however, as the stories of helpless innocent victims multiply, listeners may find it increasingly difficult to sustain those feelings of compassion and inclinations to help. Exposure to information about genocides or nuclear holocausts or other catastrophes involving more than a very few people may lead to an emotional shutdown; the very idea of such horrors can seem too painful to tolerate.

From the perspective of Robert Jay Lifton, whole societies or cultures can also be subject to psychic numbing. Within militarized societies, numbing, desensitization, and a general sense of pseudoinefficacy— the feeling that some problems are so beyond one’s control that one is helpless to solve them–may even be encouraged. After all, rampant fears of a violent end to all life might put a damper on economies rich in arms sales and in myths about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence; consequently, power mongers work to redirect such fears into distrust and abhorrence of people of color and indigenous peoples and members of vilified religions and other cultures. Racial fears can be managed in more profitable ways than nuclear fears—including convincing people that some groups can be handled only with violence and some leaders in some parts of the world can be handled only by removal from office. Within the nuclear nations and their allies, military weapons profiteers undoubtedly subscribe appreciatively to the remark attributed to Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Even Mother Theresa acknowledged, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

As Lifton and others have pointed out, there are things people can do—and have done before—to overcome nuclear complacency, to resist psychic numbing, and to confront the threat inherent in nuclear weapons. Here are some suggestions.

First, organizations seeking to reduce psychic numbing at the individual level—for example, while seeking to add victims of the Ukraine or other wars—might improve the success of their efforts by personalizing the numerous victims of slaughter, providing names, stories and images that humanize people in need of assistance. Members of support systems for people who are suffering from psychic numbness might help by acknowledging  that sometimes taking a break from worrying about everything may prove beneficial, leading to renewed energy and commitment for making “good trouble” against the forces of evil. The organization, Charity Watch, well aware of the inverse relationship between numbers of victims and charitable giving, recommends that people of compassion not rush to support every emergent self-styled charity and crowdfunding group seeking funds, but take the time to identify one charity with an established record of providing financial and other assistance to victims of whatever catastrophic events are the cause for concern.

Regarding psychic numbing on the cultural level, it is useful to recognize that while war profiteers and other destroyers of a healthy environment may spend  millions of dollars buying the favors of governmental officials and candidates, they cannot summon millions to march, as millions did against nuclear weapons in 1982 in New York City. Nor can they organize picket lines at the offices of US senators and representatives in more than 40 cities across 20 states, as was done in October 2022 to protest the nuclear weapons threat sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Taking action can be an effective way of overcoming psychic numbing on the cultural as well as individual level. Francis Chiappa ,in a talk on “Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” August 7, 2022, for Cleveland Peace Action, argued that “We the people” broke through psychic numbing in the 1980s and can do so again today by bringing pressure on our national leadership to

  • Declare that the US will not be the first to use nuclear weapons,
  • Halt nuclear arsenal modernization,
  • Negotiate peace in the Russia-Ukraine war, and
  • Sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, joining 122 other nations, none which have nuclear weapons.

Chiappa is correct. Taking action against violence and injustice can make a difference and when a large enough mass can be recruited, cultures of war can be moved towards cultures of peace.