Are We Desensitizing People to Evil? / Steven James

Humanity has contended with evil since the beginning of time. Violence serves as its proof. Look at the Bible, it is filled with heinous acts from Cain’s killing of Abel to the crucifixion of Jesus, and still we are fascinated and even drawn to these manifestations. In this week’s guest blog, author Steven James explores whether we as writers desensitize readers to evil, or are we in fact sensitizing them? It’s an incredible perspective and one I haven’t thought about before. You decide.

Until next time, read like someone is burning the books!

Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford,
Founder Killer Nashville,
Publisher Killer Nashville Magazine

STEVEN JAMESAre We Desensitizing People to Evil?

By Steven James

Some people have asked if my novels, which most certainly contain violence, aren’t exacerbating the problem of evil in the world. In other words, am I desensitizing people even more to violence and perhaps even inciting it as people imitate what I write about?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years as I’ve written my last ten suspense, crime and mystery novels.

First of all, I should say that I agree that our world is desensitized to violence. I believe this happens when evil is muted and sanitized (TV shows where people get shot, fall over, there’s no blood, no grief, no mourning), glamorized, or ignored.

So first, muting evil. Some books and television shows do this by diminishing the value of human life. A person will be killed and no one grieves. Cut to commercial. Come back and solve the crime. This isn’t real life. Death hurts because we are people of dignity and worth. Death matters because life matters.

But it isn’t just fiction that mutes or sanitizes evil. It also frequently happens in the media. Think of a news program: “A suicide bomber killed 62 in Iraq,” the television announcer rattles off as objectively as possible, and then moves on to the sports scores for the day.

When we hear that, do we weep? Do we mourn? No, because the horror of what’s happened is sanitized. Only when we see the screaming three-year-old children with shrapnel in their faces, the desperate widows, and the bodies in the street do we feel, do we recognize the impact of the violent, evil act.

Besides muting evil, some films, books and video games glamorize it. Think of a slasher movie: the most interesting person is the guy wielding the axe, slaughtering the teenagers on the campout. This desensitizes people to violence. And since we tend to emulate those we admire, I believe movies or books that glamorize or celebrate violence draw people toward it.

When I was writing my first thriller, The Pawn, I had a subplot that dealt with the Jonestown massacre in 1978 when Jim Jones and more than nine hundred of his followers killed themselves and each other.

While doing research I was able to talk with one of the three people still alive who had walked out of the compound that day and survived. He told me what it was like to have Jim Jones turn to him and say, “Would you do your son first?”

The man I was interviewing had a two-year-old boy there that day. That boy and his mother were both killed in the massacre.

And here’s what struck me: those men and women were no different from you or me—mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who wanted to create a better life for themselves who came to the point of believing that the most loving thing they could do was to squirt cyanide down the throats of their babies.

CheckmateEven today as I think about that conversation, a chill runs down my spine.

So the driving question for me as I wrote the book became, “What makes me different from those who do the unthinkable?” It’s not an easy question, and there isn’t a wide margin that separates our hearts from theirs.

In my books I want people to look with both eyes open at what our world is like, both the good and the evil. The violence in my books isn’t senseless; people’s lives are treated as precious. I want my readers to hurt when an innocent life is taken. The only way to do that is to let them see it on the page and then reflect on its meaning.

I think that an effective way of dissuading someone from doing something is to make them see it as deeply disturbing. And the only way to make people disturbed by evil is to show it to them for what it really is.

That’s what well-written fiction can do.

We become more sensitized to violence when it’s portrayed with honesty.

And one of the best places to do that is in crime fiction.

Steven James is the bestselling author of nine novels that have received wide critical acclaim from Publishers Weekly, New York Journal of Books, RT Book Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal and many others. He has won three Christy Awards for best suspense and was a finalist for an International Thriller Award for best original paperback. His psychological thriller The Bishop was named Suspense Magazine’s book of the year. He is also a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest and has taught writing and storytelling principles around the world. Publishers Weekly calls James “[A] master storyteller at the peak of his game.” Visit his website at

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