Stephanie Eisler
Jun 18, 2015 · 6 min read

The Language of Tragedy

After reading the headlines, and the news, and the commentary, and the tweets on the Charleston church shooting, I tried to tweet about some of the discussion I was seeing around this horrific act of violence and hatred. The beauty (and the ugliness) of the time we live in is our ability to speak out publicly, for anyone to read, at any moment: when we are saddened, or frustrated, or just have an opinion to voice. But I was having a hard time distilling my thoughts on the subject into 140 characters, as I’m sure others were. No simple words to do any of the feelings justice. Certainly there are many issues wrapped up in the shooting: race, religion, gun control, mental illness, to name a few. To give you an indication of where I am coming from, I will define myself as follows: white, non-religious, anti-gun, diagnosed mentally ill. I feel slightly foolish any time I try to talk about race or religion, and I don’t have much to say about gun control other than little Pollyanna me wishes they were never invented. But I have a lot to say about mental illness, the societal conversations and attitudes about it, and the ways in which people relate to each other in general.

In times of crisis and tragedy, the language we use becomes equal parts highly important and highly sloppy. News outlets rush to get up-to-the-minute updates on the investigation. Social media erupts with emotion, sympathy, questions, and finger-pointing. I’m not so naive to think that simple changes in language, or more ludicrously tweets, can overhaul our thinking as a society on things like hate-based or mental illness-driven violence. But we’d do a bit better by sitting for a minute, and thinking about what we want to say, why we want to say it, and the language we want to use when we do decide to speak, instead of spouting off the first things that come to mind. And then thinking about what we want to do. Because what we’re doing, and how we’re talking, is clearly not working.


How many times are we going to have the same circular conversations, screaming and finger-pointing over innocent dead bodies? How do we fix the culture that helped lead this man to express such violent hatred so that we can finally put an end to all the senseless tragedy that is so particular to this country?


Most of the critique I’ve seen on social media is well-intentioned. It is important that people are pointing out the difference in some headlines for shooting victim Michael Brown versus those for Charleston suspect Dylann Roof, noting the dichotomy in their presentations, and questioning the racist undertones. I am glad that, amid the impassioned outcry, people are reminding us to learn about and grieve the victims of this senseless crime. But I take issue with things like this:

What purpose does this conversation serve? Let’s say, for the sake of a hypothetical argument, Roof has a little Latino heritage, or maybe is even part black. I don’t know. But as far as I understand it, a racially motivated hate crime (if that’s what this was, and I’m pretty sure that’s what this was), does not require the perpetrator to be any particular skin color. To say “he is (or isn’t) white” is not good enough, and in fact only creates more racial tension.

Or what about the people who say he was mentally ill, that’s why he did it, and he should not have been allowed to own a gun. Like this person:

Hold the motherfucking phone. A mentally ill person does not a murderous, hate-filled psychopath make. It is my belief that all murderous, hate-filled psychopaths are, by definition, mentally ill. But the same logic does not apply the other way around. Logic 101, people. Venn diagrams and shit. We need to be more specific when we talk about mental illness, in this instance and all others. To use “mental illness” as a catchall cause for a mass murder further stigmatizes all mentally ill people, and besides, does not get anywhere near explaining motive. It is lazy language and logic. The specific word I believe you’re looking for is “psychopathy.” To say “he is mentally ill” and/or “keep the ill away from the guns” is not good enough.

Here’s another thing from the Twitter:

This is sloppy on several levels. First, I’d be hard pressed to find a news clip of a correspondent looking to a “terror expert” in the case of a lone African-American shooting someone. Does that happen? If so, holy shit, sadness. But I’m skeptical, and my fear is that these were snap statements made out of anger. This dude is a terrorist. Totally. But let’s take a closer look at “terror expert” vs “psychologist” as they are traditionally used. Counter-terrorism is deeply rooted in psychology, and a terror expert had better understand the psychology of the terrorists, the subjects of their expertise. Terror experts specialize in systemic, organized terrorism and national security. Further, many psychologists who aren’t necessarily “terror experts” are doing work precisely to understand and de-radicalize terrorists. A psychologist by any other name…As seemingly satisfying as it is, to “expose” the media with your own version of “Gotcha journalism” is not good enough.

The mass shooting in Charleston had to do with all of these things: racism, religion, psychopathy, gun control or lack thereof. And maybe that’s what’s so scary and confusing about this. The problems are so vast and varied, they seem unfixable. I don’t know the first thing about eliminating racism, or how to effectively control the sale and use of guns, but how many times are we going to have the same conversations, screaming and finger-pointing over innocent dead bodies? How do we fix the culture that helped lead this man to express such violent hatred so that we can finally put an end to all the senseless tragedy that is so particular to this country?

I know asking Twitter to be better is asking a lot. But it shouldn’t be. And the question has to be asked. Because people who are speaking up on Twitter are also people who are speaking up in classrooms, or at work, or at parties. We call each other racist, in anger or dismissively, and without opportunity for reconciliation. We marginalize the mentally ill, many of whom are thoughtful, intelligent, productive members of society. We grandstand that our take is the right take (hi.) Meanwhile, the media dives into yet another story of a fucked up kid, as if his past, the warning signs, will enlighten us. And yet we learn nothing. We change nothing. We grieve, but it passes. And then we forget. And it happens again.

All of these issues are relevant, and all are important. And as long as we’re bickering over which one is the “real” issue, using sloppy language to engage with nuanced issues, history will repeat itself. I challenge these people who are shouting into the void to do something constructive about that issue they find most important. The media has its role, and it has a lot of work to do. But we can’t blame the media alone. The media, in many ways, is taking their lead from us. Those are people behind all those clicks on that headline you hate. We can’t continue to distance ourselves from this: “he’s (not) white,” “he’s mentally ill,” etc. We have to own these issues in all their ugliness. Or nothing will ever change.

Somewhat ridiculously, here’s my twitter handle: @StephMakesFaces

I talk about nothing of importance on Twitter.

Stephanie Eisler

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Writing on love and madness, within and without. stephanieeisler.com

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