Posted on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 at 2:00 am
Author: Kristin Rawls
The past week has seen examples of some of the meanest and most pathological aspects of American culture in spades. Between vocal Penn Staters who prize their beloved football program above their humanity; violent attacks on LGBT people that took place in Nebraska and in Washington, D.C.; and the rush to excoriate parents who take children to movies in the wake of the Aurora killings, I hardly know where to begin. So I will just start here: None of these things happened in a political vacuum.
In the United States, we too often assume that politics is not the stuff of everyday life. In the name of sensitivity and humanity, pundits and bloggers called on the public not to politicize tragedy after the Aurora shootings. Underlying these pleas, there was a lot of subtext: Specifically, the rhetoric seemed rooted in the belief that politics is fundamentally opportunistic and, as such, has no place in any humane response to human suffering. The old feminist truism – that the personal is political – seems dated and out of touch in the current political landscape.
As a culture, we treat wrongdoing as a thoroughly individualistic, rather than systemic, issue, and we have been doing so for some time now. Consider one of the common responses to American military abuses at Abu Ghraib in 2005: “Those abuses were the result of a few bad apples, not the excesses of an abusive military apparatus.” The Abu Ghraib explanation is also trotted out every time there is a mass public shooting: “Guns don’t kill people. People – that is, ‘bad apples’ – kill people.”
It’s a helpful mind trick in many ways. It lets us opt out of the worst crimes that people in our society commit. We can assume a posture of humanity and concern for the well-being of others without asking any difficult questions about the context in which those crimes take place or what we might do to prevent them. To a point, we are encouraged to sympathize with individuals, and it’s accepted on faith that this means extricating politics from the discussion.
This compassion is finite, of course, and it is sometimes turned on its head. Some of our meanest responses reveal that we really do fear – or at least suspect – that there are systemic societal problems in play. How else to explain the casual cruelty of those who condemned parents for taking children to late-night movies after the killings? Doesn’t this suggest a deep level of despair about the state of things? And what is being communicated exactly? Keep your children at home. Don’t go out at night. The world is scary and bad. We can’t fix it, and you should have known to stay safely in your homes. The “bad apples” will always be with us, and the safest thing you can do is live in fear.
Ultimately, I think the impulse against “politicizing” tragedy is rooted not in compassion but in fear and political despair. We assure ourselves – at least long enough to sleep at night – that there are “bad apples” who do bad things. We express our sympathies when these “bad apples” act out, but then wash our hands of the matter. And we congratulate ourselves for remaining above the fray of politics because this is ostensibly what good and charitable people do.
But is it not cruel to greet human tragedy by throwing up our hands and writing off any considerations about how to prevent similar tragedies in the future? Is it really humane to dispense with discussions about the common good when it appears we have stopped tending to the good in the first place? And is it wrong that we go on callously, as if the tragedies have never happened, as soon as the news cycle changes?
We have become a culture of sympathy cards and performed compassion. We regret that bad things happen, and we want everyone else to know it. But we have long learned to cast ourselves as individuals who are exempt from political responsibility for these things. We’re all good people, but we know better than to think we can ever effect any kind of institutional change. Better just to hide at home and send condolences.
And we do what must be done to keep up the charade, no matter the counterintuitive assumptions we must make:
“A few corrupt officials allowed Jerry Sandusky to abuse children with impunity for three decades. It’s unfair for the NCAA to punish the good people of Penn State for the actions of a few bad ones.”
“My church condemns homosexual behavior. It does not promote violent attacks against gay couples. Bad people bear full responsibility for what happened, but homophobic society has nothing to do with it.”
“The casual availability of guns has nothing to do with the bad people who shoot up innocents in a crowded movie theater.”
This is the thing: Expressions of kindness are a bare minimum, and refusal to engage the issues the tragedies raise is no kindness at all. We do not assume any moral high ground when we express our sadness but exempt ourselves from responsibility. Of course we should have nice words for the victims and survivors of horrible crimes. But we should also start thinking about what it would take to prevent similar future tragedies in the future.
With regard to Aurora, this means seriously entertaining the ways in which various forms of gun control could help prevent public shootings. The humane thing to do is not to ignore it, but embrace it head-on, deeply politicized issue that it is. We achieve nothing when we lie to ourselves about the politics of human suffering. We just put off a long-overdue discussion one more time, just until the next shooting happens and it’s time to carry on with the farce all over again.
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