If Not Now, When? On Politicizing Tragedy

I’m sure you’ve heard by now about the tragedy that happened in Connecticut this morning. If not, go read this and be ready to shed some tears. I definitely did.

Every time a preventable tragedy happens, we are implored not to “politicize” it. It’s disrespectful, we’re told, to talk politics when people are grieving.

I can see why people would feel that way, and I don’t want to delegitimize the way they feel. Everyone has their own way of grieving, especially when it’s this sort of collective grief. If you’d rather stay away from the discussions about gun control and access to mental health, by all means, stay away. Go do what you need to.

Some people grieve by praying or meditating. Some just want to get off the internet and do something relaxing or joyful. Some ignore it and go on as though nothing has happened; while I disagree with that approach, I think that one’s own wellbeing is the most important thing.

Some grieve by analyzing, discussing, and doing. To us, the only consolation is that maybe, this time, change will come. Prayer is meaningless to me, personally. Sitting quietly and reflecting is something I can only do for so long before I start to feel like I’m bursting out of my skin. After hearing the news today, I cried. Then I sought comfort from my friends online. Then I patiently waited for my little brother and sister–they are elementary school-age—to come home and I hugged them.

But I can’t feel at ease unless I talk about what could’ve caused this–all of the things that could’ve caused this. They’re not all political. It’s true that we have a culture of violence. It’s true that sometimes people snap. It’s true that sometimes shit just happens.

But it’s also true that gun control is sorely lacking. It’s true that people kill people, but they kill people with guns (among other things). It’s true that lobbies that don’t speak for most of us are the ones who get to determine gun policy in this country. It’s true that even if every citizen has the right to own a gun, they do not have the right to own a gun without any caveats, and they do not get to own an assault rifle.

It’s also true that mental healthcare is sorely lacking, too. It’s true that we don’t know whether or not this gunman had a mental illness and shouldn’t assume that he did, but that right now, the only thing I can think of that could stop a violent person from committing violence is professional, evidence-based help (if anything at all). It’s true that the stigma against seeking help can prevent people from seeking it, and it can prevent those close to people who need help from recommending it.

“Politicization” is a dirty word. But should it be?

Jon Stewart had an eerily prescient moment on the Daily show this past Monday when he talked about the controversy that sportscaster Bob Costas when he briefly discussed guns during an NFL halftime show. Stewart discusses the hypocrisy of insisting that we have to wait some arbitrary length of time before we discuss gun control in the wake of a tragedy, but talking about how said tragedy could’ve happened even without guns apparently has no waiting period.

He then delivers this line: “You can talk about guns, just not in the immediate wake of any event involving guns. But with approximately 30 gun-related murders daily in the United States, when will it ever be the right time to talk about the issue?”

Indeed. When will it ever be the right time?

Stewart is being hyperbolic, of course. It’s generally only large-scale tragedies like today’s that prompt the “don’t politicize the tragedy” response, but he’s right that we never really seem to find the right moment to have a serious discussion about guns. When a shooting hasn’t just occurred, people don’t think about the issue much. And when it has, we’re implored not to be disrespectful by talking about the issue in any way other than “wow this is so horrible.”

Like it or not, this is a political issue. It certainly has non-political components, but refusing to acknowledge that there are also political factors involved doesn’t do anyone any good.

The calls to avoid “politicizing” the issue sometimes come from ordinary people who want to grieve without talking about politics–and that’s their right. But it doesn’t mean that those of us who do want to talk about politics are being crass or disrespectful. It just means we have different ways of grieving, and that’s okay.

Sometimes, though, this sentiment comes from politicians themselves, and that is exactly when it becomes very dangerous. Addressing President Obama, Allison Benedikt writes:

The benefit of not “capitalizing” on the tragedy is that, in a few days, most of us will put this whole thing behind us. We have Christmas presents to buy and trees to decorate—this is a very busy time of year! So if you wait this one out, just kind of do the bare minimum of your job, our outrage will probably pass, and you can avoid any of those “usual Washington policy debates.”

Who exactly does it benefit when politicians choose not to talk about the political ramifications of mass shootings? It certainly doesn’t benefit the citizens.
Furthermore, when politicians call on us not to “politicize” an issue, they are, in fact, politicizing it. Ezra Klein writes:
Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.

For what it’s worth, I definitely prefer the type of politicization that gets a conversation going rather than the type that shuts it down.

Hillel, one of the most well-known Jewish leaders of all time, has a saying: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

If not now, when? When are we going to talk about guns?

For me, grieving goes hand-in-hand with dreaming and working for a better tomorrow.

Why Do We Keep Talking About Akin and Not About Other Stuff?

I’ve noticed that every time a high-profile conservative says or does something stupid and it blows up in the media, some rank-and-file conservatives–in my Facebook newsfeed, elsewhere on the internet–have a very interesting response. They say something to the effect of this:

“Why are people talking about [insert stupid conservative here] so much more than about [insert Terrible Thing that also happened recently, such as a mass shooting]?”

They will ask if the former is “more important” than the latter, and wonder why people seem more willing to condemn a stupid politician than the perpetrator of a terrible act of violence. They will lament that the media seems to care more about bashing Republicans than about reporting “real news.” I saw this apples-and-oranges comparison being made between the Chick-Fil-A controversy and the Sikh temple shooting, and between Todd Akin and the FRC shooting.

This smacks to me of defensiveness and a certain type of persecution complex. What these people seem to be saying is this: “Yes, [high-profile conservative] said something stupid. But do you really have to talk about it so much? Why can’t you talk about this other important thing instead? Why can’t you just forget how stupid [high-profile conservative] is?”

There are a number of problems with this response:

1. Unless you’ve really done your research, you can’t really claim that the media is covering one subject more than another. Because how do you know? Many conservatives, I’ve noticed, seem to have a paranoid conviction that they are constantly being persecuted, denied their rights, and “attacked” by The Liberal Media (if you don’t believe me, go to the current affairs section of a bookstore and look at the titles of books written by prominent conservatives about the media). This means that their belief that certain subjects are being covered “more” in the media could simply be confirmation bias: you take note of all the news stories that deal with that subject and forget all the ones that deal with other subjects.

Now, I don’t mean to accuse conservatives of stupidity or of purposefully misrepresenting things. Confirmation bias is something we are all sometimes guilty of. But in this case, it might explain what’s going on.

2. “The Media” is not a monolith. What you see covered in it depends entirely on what media sources you’re consuming. For example, my Google Reader has a section called “News” and a section called “Social Justice.” (It also has many others, such as “Tech/Business,” “Science,” “Literature,” etc.) The “News” section is going to have more stories about mass shootings than about stupid things conservatives say about the female reproductive system. The “Social Justice” section will be the other way around–although it, too, will have many stories about mass shootings as they relate to societal inequality, the justice system, mental health, and so on.

Also, I have trouble believing that Fox News inadequately covered the FRC shooting and lent too much airtime to Todd Akin’s comments. I really, really have trouble believing that.

But in any case, I get a bit annoyed whenever I see anyone complaining about the mainstream media not covering adequately the issues that are important to them. If that’s the case, stop consuming mainstream media. Find the websites, blogs, magazines, and radio shows that provide the news you’re looking for and support them with your money. The “mainstream media” (whatever that even is these days) will gradually lose its clout.

That said, it could very well be that the media covers stuff like Todd Akin and Chick-Fil-A more than it covers mass shootings, and that’s not necessarily because of The Liberal Media.

Here are some reasons why that might be the case:

1. When there’s more disagreement on an issue, it gets talked about more. I think we can all agree that shootings are Bad, that shooters are violent criminals who should be brought to justice, that shootings should be prevented if possible, and so on. When people agree, there’s less to discuss.

(One caveat: people disagree very strongly on how to prevent shootings. If you somehow managed to miss all the recent discourse on mental health and violence, and on gun control, you’re living under a rock.)

But with something like the Chick-Fil-A controversy or Todd Akin’s comments, there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Half of this country believes that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry, and nearly half believe that women should be denied the right to an abortion. Although not everyone in the latter group agrees with Akin’s ridiculous misunderstanding of human anatomy, many do. We have a lot to discuss, so the media jumps on board.

2. It is, after all, an election season. The Sikh temple shooter and the FRC shooter are not running for political office; Akin is. (Trust me, if Akin had a history of shooting up people he disagrees with, we’d be discussing him even more.) People want to know who to vote for, so media outlets cover candidates in detail.

3. Stories like Akin and Chick-Fil-A often contain much more nuance and relevant backstory than stories about mass shootings. When a mass shooting occurs, there are usually only three types of stories that you’ll see. There will be stories about what happened, what might have led the shooter to do what he did (usually membership in certain groups, mental health problems, etc.), and how to prevent future shootings (usually better mental healthcare and/or gun control). There may also be some stories about the victims of the shooting and how they’re coping.

With stories like Todd Akin, however, there’s just so much interesting and important material to dredge up. There were stories about the medieval origins of Akin’s beliefs, ways in which other politicians fail at science, reactions from other Republicans, about Akin’s “apology,” what happens if Akin drops outidiots who defended him (pretty sure nobody defended the FRC shooter, by the way), other relevant crap that Akin has done, reactions from doctors, and, of course, what “legitimate rape” actually is (watch that video, it’s funny).

See? Lots to talk about.

In general, I consider the “but why aren’t we talking about this instead” response to be a bit dishonest. People are talking about the other thing, first of all. And second, no, we will not brush these “gaffes” under the rug. Political gaffes are generally those rare moments when a politician says what he/she really thinks, and as such, they’re extremely important.