Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Country Guitarist Changes His Mind on Gun Control after Vegas: Why That's Not Surprising.

Oct 3, 2017

Country Guitarist Changes His Mind on Gun Control after Vegas: Why That's Not Surprising.

tags: guns,gun control,Gun Violence,Mass Shooting,Las Vegas shooting

Caleb Keeter is a member of the country group that was performing on stage the night a shooter began spraying the area with bullets fired from guns equipped to work like a machine gun.  In the hours after the shooting Keeter took to Twitter to explain that he had changed his mind about gun control. Now he supports it.  This blog post, by Rick Shenkman, the editor of HNN, explains why we shouldn't be surprised by Keeter's change of heart.  The article is drawn from Shenkman's book,  Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

We believe human beings are naturally empathic. We take pride in our capacity for empathy. It’s what keeps us human. But our capacity for empathy is limited. Most of the time empathy only works under four restricted circumstances:

1. When a story tugs at our heart.
2. When we are face-to-face with someone in pain or jeopardy.
3. When somebody is going through something we ourselves have experienced.
4. When we identify with a person in pain, either because we know them or their group, or we are members of the same group.

We have the bomber pilot’s problem. We don’t feel anything for the victims. We need to see people face-to-face for our emotional system to become fully engaged. In experiments in the lab social scientists have found that people are far more generous when playing the Dictator Game, in which an individual splits a pot of money with another player, when they can see the other player than when they cannot.

We think we can count on our own empathy to provide us with the necessary warmth and humanity to address issues we face as citizens in a democracy. But we can’t. Our inability to do so skews public debates. It gives the advantage to the side wanting to take action to achieve a goal that inconveniences, harms, or kills people we don’t know. Once we settle on a goal, believe it’s just, and become convinced that we can get results, there’s nothing that inclines us to pause and consider the effect our efforts are having on the victims, who remain largely invisible to us.

This pattern can be seen in lots of public policy debates. When Republicans in 2013 moved to drastically cut food stamps, they focused on the cost of the program. For them, it was a dollars and cents issue. The federal government is going broke, they said. Therefore, we need to make cuts somewhere, and this seems like a good place to start. Cut food stamps and help America! Some murmured that cutting the program would even be good for the recipients. It would strengthen their backbone. But the recipients were never more than an abstraction. They weren’t real human beings. They were a foil, used to build support for the cuts by appealing to voters’ resentment at people who are supposedly lazy cheats.

On conservative talk radio shows the hosts lambasted the recipients for using food stamps to buy everything from organically raised meat to wild salmon. One Texas state senator featured in a clip on The Daily Show said flatly that food stamps should only be permitted for the purchase of essentials like ordinary meat and  our.

In a debate like this where the humanity of the people who will be most affected by our actions is not acknowledged, can a fair debate be said to have taken place? That doesn’t seem likely. How can you debate a public policy and not take the measure of its impact on the human beings who are most affected? You can’t. But that is how our debates go for the most part.

Not even factual evidence that our efforts are failing stops us. We fought the drug war for decades. Failure was obvious. But did we stop? No. Prisons filled up during the drug war. The United States’ incarcerated population doubled over a few short years to two million—the highest of any country in the entire world. And still people continued taking drugs. Pleas to change the law and show empathy for drug offenders went nowhere. Almost certainly, voters would have felt differently about the drug war if they them- selves or someone they knew had ever been sent to prison for drug use. That would have made the policy personal. But how often do we have personal contact with the people policies directly affect? Not very often at all.

And when we do? We see things differently.

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