IDEMA: A theory of why so much gun violence

Almost every week we are reminded of the rampant gun violence which afflicts our society.
Jan 29, 2014

Just recently, a 12-year-old boy brought into school a sawed-off shotgun in Roswell, N.M., and shot two classmates. And a 71-year-old retired policeman in Florida killed a young father in a movie theater because he was tweeting his child before the movie started.

We have listened to myriad reasons for this: lack of mental health treatment programs, video games, violent movies and TV shows, the breakdown of the family, the decline of religion, a lousy economy, and the availability of guns.

My angle is something different: "depersonalization."  What I mean by this is an inability to experience other human beings with empathy, compassion, understanding — and yes, love. "Hardness of heart" is the biblical term, which is as descriptive of the modern phenomenon as any term in a psychiatric textbook.

Many studies have shown that urbanization has contributed to people feeling "alienated" in impersonal cities. The loss of a sense of community in churches is a factor for some people. Our obsession with television, video games, movies, etc., can create a sense of isolation from the world. 

I would add here another recent obsession: tweeting, using Facebook, and sitting in front of a computer screen — as I am doing as I write this. How often do we use social media to communicate rather than taking the time to sit down face to face with someone?

In the gym, many who work out have ear plugs inserted for music, which does not invite conversation. In fact it is a signal to "bug off."

School bullying no doubt causes many students to feel alienated from their classmates, and large schools do create a depersonalized environment. I know from my own experience that leaving a small town for a large university is a daunting introduction to adult life.

Psychologists (Milgram, 1965; Zimbardo, 1969) have shown that when people fail to experience others as individuals, they may become more boldly aggressive, impulsive and punitive. For example, bombardiers in wartime often have reported feeling immune about dropping their explosives; but when the victim is closer, and his or her pain is more evident, the aggressor may become more sensitized and hence more reluctant to administer violence. 

Such studies show that depersonalization is an important factor in violence, whether in declared wars or wars on our city streets, or now in our schools. One theory of why members of Congress are at each other's throats is that most members spend little time in Washington and have few close friends among their colleagues.

How do we create empathy, compassion and tender feelings for others when the heart has already grown cold, for whatever sociological or psychological reason?

No easy answers here. Working on creating warm, caring communities in our schools and churches is part of the solution. Working to alleviate poverty so families have a fighting chance of staying together without fear and suffering is part of the solution. Limiting TV and computer time, and spending much more time with real human beings is part of the solution. Beefing up our mental health facilities is part of the solution.

Each one of us taking the time to reach out to those we know who are isolated, lonely and hurting would be of great help.

Why is it that, in so many of our school shootings, it is the teacher who gives his or her life to save students? Because, as teachers, they were emotionally connected to their students. No depersonalization here! Those teachers who sacrificed their own lives to save their students had empathy, compassion and love for those entrusted to their care.

May such teachers be our model for what is desperately needed in our present impersonal culture.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist


Former Grandhavenite

I agree that depersonalization is a major factor in gun violence. I'd expand on that to say that a lack of empathy is probably the single most destructive force in human history. When you look at any type of abuse of individuals or groups, it's essentially driven by not being able or willing to relate to the victims. Whether it means shooting someone in the face, paying them a wage so low that they can't survive, throwing them in prison for using certain drugs, or robbing them at gunpoint- the lack of empathy is a common factor.

It would be interesting to know whether people act terribly toward others because they already have a lack of empathy, or is the lack of empathy essentially a defense mechanism that develops to prevent one from feeling too guilty. To some degree, soldiers for example HAVE to lose the sense of empathy (or never have it to begin with) toward their enemies or they'd never be able to function.


I agree with the Grandhavenite. The decline of our kids and society in their view of life has decreased in a very scary way. Everyone wants to point to video games and the guns themselves. Kids have been playing with toy guns pretty much since guns were around. The idea of playing a video game, using an airsoft gun, paintball gun, etc... this is not a new concept. Many people don't like guns and the video games associated with them so they go after the obvious choice. We need to get back to teaching our kids real values and morals, rather than not giving them life lessons because we don't have time - or it's inconvenient.


It is always easier to point at anything, but ourselves.

While movies, tv, music, games, books, etc. are not directly to blame, they do contribute to the depersonalization of people, lack of consequences, apathy, and builds a quicker violent response/reaction to situations.

As we continue to condition our society to "he who dies with the most toys wins" and "I'm entitled to everything because I'm me and I deserve the best" mentality coupled with a quick trigger finger, desensitized view of violence we will only see more and greater acts of violence.

The ball is already rolling and has gained too much momentum to stop. People make too much money off violence.

The sooner we admit that our society has crumbled and the real reasons why, the sooner we can rebuild.


Hear, Hear!


Depersonalization. That sound like a good answer. Just look at someone who gets sick and ends up in the hospital for whatever reason. Well that darned property tax bill just keeps coming in - and they don't care if you have a job or not. Thats is one of many reasons for gun violence. How about working overtime on the job non-stop for weeks and weeks and months. All those little thing in life just make a person hate everything - so they go nuts and do the things they do. Because its all depersonalized. People just crack and get so sick of everything!!

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