Our Children

A memorial to a student killed in Chicago. Image from This American Life from their radio show on gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago.

“I’d rather have ten kids be killed in Chicago than have my house broken into…. Do you know how scary it is to have your house broken into when you are in it?”

I think my jaw literally dropped when a Harvard graduate student (at a non-HKS school) said that to me this weekend. He might have been saying that to get a reaction from me (it worked) but he said it, which was unfathomable to me whatever  his reason was.

The underlying argument doesn’t work from either side. It’s not clear that stricter gun laws alone will save Chicago’s kids, since most of the shooters don’t have legal guns anyway. The correlation between gun laws and number of guns also isn’t entirely clear; it (unsurprisingly) depends on the substance of the gun laws.The solution needs to be more comprehensive, for sure. And, it’s also not clear to me that guns prevent home invasions. I’ve had a really hard time finding data that showed that gun ownership leads to fewer gun invasions.

But the inflammatory statement isn’t really about gun control. It’s about empathy. It’s about the speaker not knowing anyone who was killed with a gun, but he does know someone whose home was broken into. That’s not surprising since the burglary rate is far higher than murder rate, but he also probably doesn’t know any public school teenagers living in Chicago, let alone living in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

I was privileged to be able to take a class with Robert Putnam last semester. He spoke throughout the semester about the loss of a sense of “our children,” the sense that we are all responsible for each other, outside of our own families. It’s tricky to build the bridging social capital needed to make sure that people with immense privilege debating laws in Cambridge Massachusetts (who, regardless of background have immense privilege by virtue of being Harvard students, and who, obviously, includes me as well) know teenagers whose lives are so full of gun violence that they walk straight down the middle of the street so that they have a few more seconds to run if shooting starts. 

My friend, Tanveer Ali, just wrote an excellent article arguing for more coverage of the victims of shootings.  There are arguments to be made for not covering every murder in the newspaper. The arguments are sad, and generally stem from the idea that the murders are   common (506 in Chicago in 2012) but also have a more positive angle, that writing about every murder in the newspaper makes the city seem like one defined by murder.

But Tanveer’s argument is compelling: “by striving to treat all victims as human, journalists and their audiences may well seek out further information on social, economic, and other factors that play directly into the numbers of violence. And those results would be a good first step in changing the homicide numbers.”

I think the empathy argument, the one I’ve been mulling over all weekend, is a trickier one to pin down: I’d like the media to tell stories that make people inside the beltways and the ivory tower to feel a little bit more that all victims  of violence are valuable and more similar to us than dissimilar.  I don’t know how to get the people who are most likely to talk about only the statistics that support their point of view and only about their own experiences to read things that challenge them, to listen to radio that tells stories about lives completely unlike their own.  But that doesn’t mean that media outlets should stop trying. This American Life did an incredible job going deep into the effects of gun violence on the families, staff, and students of Harper High School in Chicago. At the very end of the two-part radio show, Ira Glass went back to the statistics, to make sure that listeners knew that the problems and struggles and tragedies of Harper High were not unique to Harper High or to Chicago. But it was the stories of the individuals that made the radio show.

How we in the news media expand empathy is something that has no easy answer, and I am sure there are a lot of people who say it’s not our job. But a lot of journalists are working on it. We’re a minuscule part of the solution (and I haven’t even broached the topic of race). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our absolute hardest to expand the definition of “our children.”

P.S. On the issue of the gun control debate there is surely a problem of neither side knowing the other, a problem that The New  Republic appears to have tried to tackle recently by running an essay about a gun owner, but the question of empathy for the victims of violence (which can be expanded to non-gun violence as well) seems to me to be a bigger one, because people can stand up and demand action out of a sense that something must be done, even if they disagree on how it should be done.

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