We know the story of the Greek king Mithridates, king of Pontus (a kingdom in part of present-day Turkey), who supposedly tried to make himself immune to all poisons by taking small doses at regular intervals; legend has it that when he was defeated in 63BC, he poisoned himself, but did not die and had to ask his guards to stab him. We now know that this stratagem is effective for venoms but does not work with poisons.
Today, this idea comes back to me on a thousand occasions: the assassination of a teacher, the murder of children, human rights violations, even genocide, cause a scandal the first time, a little less so the second time, and then you get used to it. A hurricane makes the headlines the first time, a little less so the second, even less so the third: we get used to living in extreme situations without thinking that they are extreme. And we are no longer indignant, nor worried, when they get even worse. Then, finally, the description of a disaster to come is so realistic, so repetitive, so present, that it is enough to allow one to get used to it, to stop worrying about it, to make it tolerable.
I will cite three examples, among a thousand, in the current situation:
A French political example: the possibility of Marine Le Pen’s election to the Elysée Palace in a little over four years’ time, considered for a long time by a very large majority of voters as intolerable, no matter what, (to the point of having voted for any candidate who was opposed to her in the second round) has ended up so permeating people’s minds that today everyone considers her arrival in power as a possible, if not probable, hypothesis that is perfectly realistic and ultimately not so terrible: because we have accepted the occurrence of it in the virtual, we end up accepting the possibility in the real.
An ecological example: by dint of hearing that we are threatened by a rise in temperature of two degrees or more, this ends up becoming one hypothesis among others, with which we get used to living, without being alarmed by the catastrophe it would bring. As a result, there is no longer any real concern about the increasing emission of greenhouse gases, and almost no one is really outraged by the endless increase in subsidies granted to fossil fuel consumers while the prices they pay for it are lower than ever.
A geopolitical example: the prospect of war in Ukraine terrified everyone in the West because it had the potential to spread the conflict to other countries and could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. When the Russian armies went into action, this was even the main concern. Then, as the conflict grew, and the nature of the fighting and the weapons used became more enormous, fewer and fewer people were really worried about the risk of a shift from a classic local conflict to a global nuclear conflict: it seemed to become a possible, if not probable, scenario that was discussed with interest and curiosity and less and less with terror.
There are a thousand reasons for this: the multiplication of private and collective concerns, the incessant repetition of the same news and the same gloomy prognoses by more or less self-proclaimed experts, the closure of each person to his or her private sphere, the multiplication of forms of virtuality, all of this pushes everyone to consider reality as a spectacle outside of oneself, which is not so tragic after all and which, whatever happens, one will survive, just as one survives one’s media simulation.
This is very dangerous. And it would be a great failure of forecasting if it were no more than a way of preparing minds to accept the intolerable. To avoid this, we must not give up our indignation and rebellion. We have to keep repeating that the election of Marine Le Pen to the Elysée Palace would cause irreversible damage to France, that a 3-degree rise in temperature would make life impossible for billions of people on the planet, and that a nuclear war could wipe out the human race. And so many other things for which there will be no antidote, unless we seriously protect ourselves from their ability to do evil.
Painting: Monime et Xipharès, illustration of “Mithridate” by Jean Racine (1639-99), engraved by Beisson.