A bridge in Freiburg, Germany

Bridging the empathy gap

In the aftermath of yet another horrific mass shooting, I’ve seen calls on social media to post the gory photos of the crime scene. There is one from the shooting at the Allen, Texas outlet mall that has been floating around Twitter, along with the graphic descriptions of how one child was found. Proponents of sharing the photos hope it will have the same effect as showing Emmett Till’s body in a coffin or Walter Cronkite broadcasting combat films from the Vietnam War.

But I don’t think showing the gore will stir the conscience of a nation that has become numb to violence. In fact, a sizeable group of people would laugh, mock, and even applaud it. I remember Mom’s stories about people in movie theater audiences cheering the first newsreels to show the death and suffering in the liberated concentration camps. And let’s not forget the crowds that went to lynchings for entertainment.

We have a serious empathy gap. We don’t care what happens to other people as long as it doesn’t bother us. We already know about the “Karens” who berate underpaid service employees and the right-wingers who insult anyone who looks or lives a little differently. But it also comes from the other side of the aisle. How many looked at what happened in Texas and thought, “Well, that’s what you get for living in a gun-worshipping red state.” Or gleefully watch Florida’s economy crumble and berate people for not packing up their homes and leaving. While people have always suffered from selfishness and self-importance, the isolation brought about by COVID and the ego-stroking and echo chambers provided by social media have made it worse.

How do we bridge the empathy gap, especially with these mass shootings? Instead of sharing photos, we need to share stories.

What affected me about Parkland were the stories told about those who died. The sports they played. The snacks they ate. They stopped being statistics and became human beings whose lives were cruelly stolen. Those stories still haunt me five years later.

We need to know who the victims are. Not just names and ages, but hobbies, favorite foods, and sports teams they root for. What they wanted to be had they grown up. Show us their childhood pictures and what they looked like in happier times. Recount their biggest achievements. Bring them to life for us. Then, we can see exactly what gun violence has robbed from us.

Argue with someone about the Second Amendment, and you’ll fall back to the same overused talking points. But show them that a victim was a parent just like them or a child like theirs, and you will open a whole different discussion. Will it change everyone’s opinion? No. But it will affect enough people to bring about change.

As writers, we can show the importance of telling those stories, like I’m attempting to do with Christina’s Portrait. We need art at times like these. Art makes us feel. When we feel, we care. And when we care, we want to do something.

Instead of gore, we need stories. This is how we can bridge the empathy gap.

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