How many people die? That’s one statistic that, shall we say, doesn’t change. Everyone dies.
But how many people that we know well die? In the U.S., the size of the family has declined. The average American in 1850 lived in a household of 6.7 members, the average American today lives in a household of only 3.5 members, a 48% drop. This means that, in the United States at least, the deaths of people we know well have become fewer. Death is growing more distant.
Can that partially explain why, when a news headline tells you how many people died in _______ because of _______, we in the U.S. don’t feel it as viscerally as we would have 200 years ago? Here are some headlines accessible online at 9 am this morning on CNN: “Death toll rises in Egypt church bombings.” “News anchor learns her husband died in story she’s reporting.” On NPR: “US-led coalition troops, rebels push back ISIS attack.” “Sweden attack suspect had been ordered to leave.”
To me these headlines feel like news rather than death, and I’m embarrassed.
Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angles of Our Nature, argues that violence in the world has in fact declined, but that “because of the vanishing communication gap, today, the number of reportings of violence has risen, giving people an impression of rising rapes, abuses and other violent activities.”
Curse “the vanishing communications gap!” I know too much about violence, about distant death, and don’t feel the punch in the gut the way I should.