The Cavalier Daily
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Deaths of hundreds harden hearts

HUNDREDS of people in the United States die from gun wounds every year. An indisputable fact such as this should by itself be enough to create strong emotions against the availability of handguns. After all, with deaths from murder and accident piling up all the time, it would be natural to expect a backlash. Yet we do not see this response. Only when a smaller tragedy occurs, such as the recent killing of a first-grade girl by her classmate, does the outcry swell. This pattern, however, is not limited to the gun debate. In all aspects of discourse, a large number of deaths do not have as much impact on public opinion as a small number.

This could be chalked up to the fact that the people involved are strangers. Emotional intensity is always decreased by removal from a situation. Whether the victims are known or not, however, they are still people. The death of any person should inspire at least some sorrow. When hundreds or thousands die, the mind should be numbed by grief, however remote the people involved are. That response, however, does not come forward -- the public barely flinches at a hundred deaths. More than mere distance must account for the failure of empathy.

In the information-glutted modern world, people face a constant barrage of numbers and statistics. Fifty percent of housewives prefer this hand soap. Four out of five dentists recommend this toothpaste. Only 811 people voted for Orrin Hatch ... and so on.

After a while, a person naturally might begin to skip over the numbers, fatigued by their overuse in reporting. An article reporting deaths in a plane crash might read to the human mind, "All [number] of the passengers aboard died ... " without any recognition of the number itself. It's not that the reader doesn't care, it's just that he's faced too many numbers for one more to have any meaning.

Could this kind of cognitive fatigue account for the failure to empathize in situations where so many have died? This seems unlikely. Even when people skip over the numbers, they have some recognition of them. Any reader at least picks up on the general size of the number. He should have some empathy based on that. Certainly he should show more sympathy than the average member of society does. So this reaction, unless we have become completely insensitive to human suffering, is not the most likely.

Another kind of cognitive problem, however, might be responsible, and might also offer an explanation of why the smaller tragedies seem more real. Nobody has an unlimited imagination, and one of the most difficult things to imagine is a human being. This is why good authors are in such short supply.

In trying to conceive of another person, an average guy can get as far as imagining two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, but that's not enough. A person is not only the physical components of the body, but also the way in which those components interact with each other and the world around them. A personality, physical quirks, love for a parent or spouse -- these attributes, essential to understanding another person, are all but impossible to envision.

This inability to imagine the positions of the people affected makes us unable to connect with them on the level required for empathy. Imagining one person is a difficult task. Ten people, or a hundred people, are practically inconceivable. As a result, those large numbers do not seem like people to a reader. Instead, they just seem to be things, and losing them does not seem so tragic.

This also explains the curious, backward effect of the smaller tragedy. When the media swarms over an event of that kind, the victims are characterized exhaustively, as is the grief of those left behind. The news media takes away the work of imagining, so that the average person can see the impact of the tragedy.

This is troubling because, while similar to the effect of distance, it has a different implication. Distance makes other people difficult to understand. This total failure to think of others, means we do not think of the victims as people at all. Furthermore, since we could possibly conceive of them as such if we tried, it means that we do not even wish to think of the victims of these tragedies as people.

The banality of any great tragedy arises from our sheer mental laziness. We do not wish to trouble ourselves by trying to connect with the victims, and so we allow the numbers to slip through our minds without making any impact. Perhaps, then, the greatest tragedy is that we have forgotten our common humanity ... or that we have decided it is not worth our time.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in the Cavalier Daily.)