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.

If Not Now, When? On Politicizing Tragedy

11 thoughts on “If Not Now, When? On Politicizing Tragedy

  1. 2

    –“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?”–

    This quote seems pretty vague and like you could interpret it any way you wanted. What does it mean to be “for” someone? I think I’m for myself first, and for others second. I think I care about others a lot more than some other people who are, like, against welfare because they think people are poor because they’re lazy or whatever. But I’m an anarchist/libertarian/voluntaryist. I think those are compatible, but maybe someone else wouldn’t.

  2. 3

    That excuse sounds so very familiar. There was a period in my country’s recent history when “let’s not politize this sad issue” was the norm. It was Franco’s dictatorship. Everything was too delicate and too soon to be “politized”, meaning, to be debated at all. It’s a propaganda excuse to keep people from questioning what made the tragedy happen, why it was possible, and how it can be prevented. If you do it today, it’s too soon; if you do it tomorrow, you’re just reopening old wounds and preventing the nation from moving forward. Conclusion: shut up.

    The whole “it’s not the time to score political points” rethoric has this component of anti-thinking propaganda, an attempt to delegitimize those who want to talk before they even start.

  3. 5

    School homicides have fallen steadily over the past decades. Has the number of guns in America fallen? Of course not. Violent crimes in the nation’s schools (rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault have also fallen. These two trends follow along with the general population. Source: National Center for Education Statistics and The Center for Disease Control and Prevention

  4. 6

    On a related note, when I gun enthusiast gets all butthurt about calls for gun control after an event like this and pre-emptively insists “now is not the time,” it’s clear they recognize the problem but don’t want to deal with it. When I pointed this out to someone yesterday, it’s possible I lost a friend.

    Time will tell.

  5. 7

    We need to talk about gun laws in the US. It’s a confused and insane conglomeration of mostly useless nonsense as it stands with laws varying wildly from State to State and even locality to locality. What needs to be done is scrap ALL gun laws as they exist now and replace them with a unified set of laws nationwide that makes rational sense.

  6. 8

    Yes, please. The 2nd is about a “well regulated militia”. I’m fine with expanding that to “well trained and responsible gun owners”, I think it would improve matters. I enjoy shooting, but I want to be safe while at a range, along with matters in my house or on the street or in a school. I can own a gun, shoot it, and enjoy both without the need for extra-large magazines or automatic weapons. Every time we have a slaughter like this, it’s one more incentive to have the talk, to make new laws, not to “respect the dead by not talking about it yet.” The best way to respect the dead of any tragedy is to talk about why it happened, and find ways to avoid it in the future.

  7. 9

    Thank you for this. The “not now” reaction makes me so mad. I don’t mind if people disagree with me, but I can’t stand the self-righteous insistence that this isn’t the right time. I think this often comes from people who feel like this event puts them at a rhetorical disadvantage. They claim that it’s wrong to have this argument now, but I think that part of them objects to it because they feel like it’s not fair.

    By the way, I think you’re one of my favorite bloggers, now. I didn’t know about your blog until you moved to FTB, but I love what I’ve read so far. I’m a feminist, atheist blogger who works in a mental health clinic, so your blog is right in my wheelhouse. Thank you for what you do.

      1. I run a blog for a psychiatry clinic in Gainesville, FL. Here’s the link:
        Right now, there are a lot of similar announcements because the founder of the clinic is a child psychologist with a wall full of honors, so he has been asked to talk about the Connecticut shooting a few times.
        I think you’re a very clear and cogent writer. I’ve wanted to link to your posts on the blog a few times, but the clinic’s blog isn’t one that editorializes.
        I hope you do get the job you want. The field could use as many thoughtful people as it can get.

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