After a gunman shot and killed 58 people and injured hundreds more at a music festival in Las Vegas the night of October 1, America awoke reeling with a fresh pain painted over a familiar heartbreak. In the United States, mass shootings have become an epidemic, an endless cycle that we can’t seem to straighten out into anything resembling an endpoint. A headline–“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”–republished continuously on The Onion on the occasion of every new mass shooting, encapsulates the epidemic of the past several years, which we denote by where they happened: Newtown, San Bernardino, Charleston, Orlando, and, now, Las Vegas.
By nature, humans are an adaptive species. Whether or not we do so consciously, when the horrific becomes the expected, we adjust. The morning following a shooting, we tend to take in the tragedy and feel horrified, yet we also manage to go about our days.
Fred Dust, partner and global managing director at the design company Ideo, also suspects that Americans’ common baseline on issues of gun control is more extensive than surface tensions would indicate. A distilled version of the conversation around gun control tends to pull in two directions: On the one end, there are the 18% of Americans who believe gun laws should be less strict; on the other are the 52% who are pushing for more restrictions like background checks for purchasers and a licensing process for sellers. You can find the exact gun laws for each state at gunlawsuits.org. But the two camps, Dust believes, share more common ground than they realize. What’s preventing them from collaborating across their beliefs is the polarized structure of the conversation. The gun control “debate,” he says, forces people to chose a side, rather than emphasizing the need for consensus. Would we be able to make progress on the issue if we started talking about it not as something one side could win, but as an issue where we’re looking for consensus?
At Ideo, Dust’s work positions design as a tool for positive impact. But it’s not only physical spaces and structures that can be engineered for good; conversations can be designed; language can be productively repurposed (Dust’s talk at the Fast Company Innovation Festival next week will walk through the concept of designing dialogue to further social good).
What’s for certain, he says, is that we can’t continue to retreat into our polarities and into acceptance mode, which is impeding our ability break the cycle of mass shootings. He often poses an experiment to his friends, in which he asks them to tell him exactly where they were when they heard the news break about Sandy Hook, or about Charleston or Orlando. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find an American born before 1995 who couldn’t tell you where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, “people have no ability to place themselves in the context of mass shootings,” Dust says. “We’ve paved over the ability for these things to really take hold.” By taking a design approach to the conversation around gun violence and encouraging people to reach toward common ground, Dust wants to give people a way to connect more empathetically to the fundamental issues.