‘We have normalised horror’: how do we continue to engage with the brutality of war, while trying to do something about it?

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A number of destroyed buildings in Gaza
Bombed out buildings in Gaza City, in November 2023. Photo: Emad El Byed via UnSplash
Author(s)
Andrew Metheven

I started writing this blog post after reading an article about another bombing in Gaza, this time on a UN school housing thousands of people. The bombing killed 33 people, including five children.

But I’m also writing this after sitting in front of my computer for years, reading what feels like the same story again and again: brutal, militarised violence; nameless victims; a shocking video; denial and obfuscation from those responsible; repeat.

(Before we get any further, it’s probably worth making it clear at this point that I’m writing this from the UK, that I’ve never experienced war, and I’m writing primarily with other, similarly lucky/privileged people in mind – anti-war activists working in countries which fuels wars overseas but rarely experience it directly.)

For the first time in history, we can sit and watch war take place in real-time, from thousands of miles away. But the picture isn’t clear. The “precision” of modern military weapons is masked and obfuscated by the precision of the meme-wars, the smoke and mirrors of pseudo-truths and half-lies, and the incessant pounding of story after story. It’s a twisted irony that as some people run for their lives, some of us are frozen in horror, watching genocide occur as our coffee goes cold.

And maybe, underlying all this is a sense that sometimes the incessant, brutal stories can leave us feeling burned out, apathetic, hopeless; almost like “we don’t care” – we skim the stories, or scroll straight past them. Its easier to disengage.

It can feel like we’re left with a binary choice: to continue to stare at our screens unflinchingly, but risk being overwhelmed by the brutality and madness of the moment; or look away, escape into something else. Both choices have risks and impacts. The incessant coverage, impacting so many people, can make these events – which would normally distinguish themselves for their barbarity – can end up feeling, as described by Sam Rose, the director of planning for the Palestinian relief agency Unrwa, “commonplace and mundane”. But by looking away, we feel we are washing our hands of the situation, letting down the people under those bombs.

How – as individuals, and whole movements – can we get a grasp on this paralysing and overwhelming war on our senses and our emotions, without simply avoiding it entirely?

Normalisation

Getting our heads around “normalisation” might help. Normalisation is the process by which we adapt to something new, accepting it as something normal and everyday. Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to a new context, and something that we once found scary, shocking, or simply a long way out of our comfort zone can, with enough exposure and enough time, become normal. This process occurs in every area of life: compare about how you felt on the first day of a new job, compared to how you felt a few years later. It also occurs in more extreme situations, like people engaging in outright barbarity: their actions simply become the norm. With enough exposure, just about anything can become “normal”.

Understanding how individuals, groups and whole communities experience normalisation can help us to continue to engage with the brutal violence of war and other crises. As activists and organisers, perhaps it can also help us to change our strategies to social change, making our movements more impactful and resilient. Below are a couple of ideas of how we can incorporate an understanding of normalisation into our work for change.

1. Know that our emotions are being attacked

Firstly, we have to remember it’s OK to feel despair, or anger, or helplessness, or revulsion, or whatever other emotions we experience when engaging with stories from war zones. Learning how your body and brain responds to these stories and images is itself an act of resistance.

Nothing compares to the impact those bombs and bullets have on the bodies of the people targeted with them, but that doesn’t make your own emotions – the way your own body and mind have been impacted - any less real or valid. Make time to scream, shout, cry. At the same time, remember that hardening ourselves to these experiences is common – it doesn’t make you less human to stop reacting emotionally to things that are difficult. Normalisation and desensitisation is as much an impact of war as the broken bodies and destroyed buildings are.

However, we don’t have to be a slave to that normalisation – we can see and feel it occurring, which means we can intervene. Naming it and knowing it is key to to relinquishing it of some of its power. Maybe you’ve experienced this normalisation before – can you name how your body and heart react differently? Rather than the fury, anger and sadness we first feel, maybe we start to feel burnt out, bored, indifferent, or even annoyed when consuming news (then maybe we feel guilty at even feeling those things!).

As movements, we need to know that this may be occurring in our own minds, but also – crucially – in the minds of those we are trying to impact. The fury and indignation at the start of a conflict is being replaced by the process of normalisation. It can be easy to interpret this as simple indifference, “people don’t care”, or similar.

2. The answer isn’t “more of the same”

If normalisation has taken hold and we have found others – or even ourselves – have started to detach from an issue we know is important (but perhaps no longer “feel” it is) the challenge we face is to create opportunities and spaces to re-engage.

To do this, we can’t simply do “more of the same”: the same messaging that worked at the start of a campaign or crisis might not have the same impact later. One way of challenging normalisation is to look at an issue differently, to find fresh perspectives and to learn something new.

This might look like:

  • telling more complex stories (i.e. not just reducing people to “victims” of specific acts of violence, but seeking to rehumanise individuals and communities that we may have become desensitised to the suffering of).

  • communicating in different ways – perhaps using creative means to illustrate what is occurring (like this video from a group in the UK).

3. Consciously consume media

We can only take so much. You can only take so much. But the way we are served up stories doesn’t reflect our capacity to consume it – there will always be more we haven’t read, always another video, another meme… One way of challenging normalisation is to change how you go about consuming the media that leads to it. Ask yourself:

  • Why am I consuming this media?

  • What will I do as a consequence of consuming it?

  • How did I come to consume this piece of media? Whose decision/algorithm/influence was it that led me to consume it?

Everyone will have their own media consumption habits: changing or breaking these can help to avoid normalisation as we find different perspectives This might look like:

  • Consuming a different media source – even one you feel doesn’t reflect your own politics.

  • Seeking out longer form or more analytical pieces (as opposed to “news” pieces about specific events).

  • Consuming poetry, song, music, or other art forms created by people in the conflict or crisis zone.

4. Involve ourselves in resistance

Writing for the BBC’s “Future” series, Amanda Ruggeri highlighted research that shows that doing something about the things we care about is important to not becoming desensitised to its impact on the world, and that ideally our actions become habitual or a regular occurrence. This might mean active involvement in resistance movements, but it could also be setting up a regular donation to a cause you feel strongly about, or scheduling time to write regularly to your political representatives about an issue. Ideally, the “doing something” becomes normalised, not the brutality you see on your screen.

As organisers, we can support our movements to create cultures where ongoing, regular action is valued and supported. As well as taking action at specific “flash points”, when we try to galvanise large numbers of people for a specific protest or event, we can think of ways to support steady, slow, methodical involvement in our movements, including for people with little time or energy to spare. As well as having strategic purpose towards meeting our political objectives, this can also help to counter the sense of normalisation we have been discussing, and all of the impacts that this can have on individuals.

5. Remember that lots of things that seemed normal once, now don’t

The moment we live in is fleeting, and so much of what we take for granted now would appear strange – abnormal – for people two hundred years ago, and likely will for someone two hundred years in the future. Huge political and social change has occurred just in our life times, and will continue to do so. This isn’t to say we can sit back and let events play out without our involvement. It means that no matter how unchangeable, immutable something currently feels, in even a small amount of time we may find things have changed beyond what we would have dared dream.

Nelson Mandela said “It always seems impossible until its done”. Try making a list of things that you can’t imagine would have happened  (or didn’t want to believe were possible) until they did. This might be things in your personal life, or global political changes. Think about the circumstances that led to them happening – what were the drivers for change? Who was involved? What did they need?

If we know we’re going to be involved in movement organising for the “long haul”, we also need to  know we will continually encounter information, stories, and media content that will provoke and upset us. Considering this impact of this and making sure that we are using it to strengthen our resolve and take further action – rather than pushing us into a sense of burnout and apathy – is crucial to building movements that can have long lasting change.

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