What the hell do we expect from Charleston?

First written 06/21/2015.

A. Five Finger Death Punch.
Four days after a shooter killed nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, this terrorist act has been retold in a few ways:

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates will argue along the white supremacy line, where the shooter’s motive falls along lines that have been rehashed throughout American history, since the dawn of slavery.
  • Bill Maher will argue along the right-wing media line, where the shooter was incensed by a bout of sensationalism on Fox News et al. that drives people to such madness.
  • Foreign correspondents in the US, with some liberal pundits, will argue along the culture of gun violence line, which finds second amendment rights just as inexplicable as when they learned about them two decades ago.
  • Facebook is popping with the solidarity against lone wolves line, where the shooter only needs to be thought of as batshit crazy and the real heroes are the congregation members who still forgave.
  • On a site like Infowars, there’s talk about a drug epidemic line, where the shooter’s madness was the inevitable consequence of the pills he was popping, supplied in the shadow of big pharma.

These processes of narrative reinvention and reimagination, spewed out mere days after the event is over in the age of hot takes, wouldn’t be so repulsive if it wasn’t centred around a mass murder.

That’s a bold claim to make. I’m not arguing that any one of those five groups above should stop talking about it; it’s their job, it’s what they do. What interests me is what happens after we latch Charleston to the narrative we linked together about how our society is today.

B: Fulfillment.
By a good stroke of fortune, we have President Obama and Jon Stewart considering a question that should always be asked in a tragedy’s wake. Though we say we understand what happened, don’t we still choose to do jack shit about it? Then what the hell is this understanding of ours supposed to do?

As consolation? Consolation that, had more people understood what is happening in society the way you do, this shooting could have been prevented? These thoughts entertain the imagination, since we can conjure up universes where a marauding Black friend of the shooter took him seriously or a church member was an expert marksman. But this doesn’t make conversation go anywhere.

Really, any argument that says our understanding should serve to console ourselves is questionable. Consolation is just a wordier way of exactly choosing to do nothing about the situation, which is what seems wrong in the first place.

As an invitation? Invitation to others to feel the same moral outrage that you have toward white supremacy, or the right-wing media, or drugs and all that? Then we must ask ourselves why we should all be responding with moral outrage to what’s wrong with the world. There may be a case to make for someone to think coldly about this issue, to keep calm and think of policy solutions.

As affirmation of your own biases? That would be an awfully pessimistic picture of what we should do in times like these. It would affirm the idea of an American beyond saving, and the best we can do is feel self-righteous coasting through it.

Obviously I’m not exhausting all the possibilities there, or making very tight arguments for or against them. This question — “what is this understanding of ours supposed to do” is exhausting. It’s a question that has relevance in the absence of anything being done.

C: Faultlines.

In a more hopeful world, we would think that we would balance the probabilities among potential causes of this shooting and other events like it. We would be Bayesians, taking in the evidence after the event and figuring out which policies would have the most preventive effect. Then we would divide our activity lobbying to end certain ills in our society, in proportion to the amount of harm they do.

But, instead of reason impacting our politics, politics now impact our reason. It’s almost as if our thinking has become colonized by the American political cycle: there is only enough time to pass through one law that addresses one cause, so we have to choose the one cause we feel would make the most difference. Other reasons do not aid our thinking, but are our enemies.

What the hell do we expect from Charleston? I no longer think it’s so crazy, following the above discussion, to answer “everything that we expected before.”

The usage of we throughout this piece has been broad: American or non-American, black or white, insightful or absurd, independent of how clever we may seem. It’s a testament to the real degree of segregation and isolation in society when even a mass shooting isn’t so uniformly impacting to trigger a change in these expectations.

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