Friday, July 20, 2012

Bad Person Spotlight: Appropriating Tragedies for Stupid Reasons


Commenting on tragedies more than likely makes you a bad person. Let’s face it – you’ve more than likely never met or encountered any of the individuals involved, more than likely never been to the place where it happened, and more than likely never experienced anything even remotely similar to the ‘tragedy’ event itself. In other words, commenting on tragedies is more than likely a form of appropriation. Seeing as how I’m a bad person who already  knows he’s a bad person, let’s go ahead and make a comment on a tragedy.

It’s interesting that the 24-hour news machines’ behavior with respect to tragedies is akin to an episode of CSI: Albuquerque (or whatever). Actually it’s not interesting at all—this has always been the case. I don’t think we really expect our media institutions to simply provide a report that an event occurred, and then move on to report other events that are also occurring. Fetishizing a single instance of violence is the bread-and-butter of the United States, maybe even the apple pie—we fixate on an event, twist and contort it into a ‘tragedy’ and squeeze every last drop of blood out of the victims until we know all the excruciating details of their deaths. In fact, their deaths are all that really matter to us—they are worth so much more as bullet-strewn corpses than they ever were as breathing, working people. What characterizes the media’s reporting on these events is an obsession with details: what was the layout of the room, what was the perpetrator wearing, what weapons did he wield, and so on. To make it even worse, we have to become intimate with the victims; we have to know how they felt. We attempt to discern this by listening to interviews of people who were there and listen as they tell us what was going through their mind: did they think about their spouse or their children, their mothers and fathers; did they see people as they died; did they try to help others? Our thirst for a fully-painted picture of violence is a vicarious living of that event; in a way, we yearn to be on the front lines, to be in the middle of a bloodbath and named a victim. We pine for the nearness of death so that its reality can be confirmed to us, a people hopelessly detached from a real and authentic world. Why was there a market—literally, a market—for the crime scene photos from the Columbine school shooting in 1999? Because we want to know what happened so that it can be made real. What’s a tragedy without the intimate horror of dead bodies and pools of blood? Just an event, somewhere else far-removed from our living room couches.

Why do Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have to alter their campaign schedules so they can issue remarks about a ‘tragedy’? What about an isolated instance of psychotic violence makes it a national event? Granted, mass shootings seemed to be a distinctly American ‘thing’ (just like serial killers and movies about anthropomorphic prehistoric animals) up until Anders Breivik murdered 69 people in Norway almost a year ago from today. However, what makes Breivik’s rampage different is that he targeted the kids of prominent Norse political figures; he had a white nationalist agenda with a clear political purpose for his violence—a collective denouncement on behalf of the world seemed appropriate. Now today, we have our political candidates denouncing…well…something. I for one am glad our presidential contenders can agree that dressing up like a batman villain and killing people is wrong, but what other than the event itself is at stake? I wish I knew. Even the lame (but somehow effective) politicizing news machines are having a hard time making their tired ‘it’s about gun control’ talking points stick. I think it’s the emptiness of the event itself that brings it to our attention, its very senselessness. But even as this senselessness piques our hunger for knowledge, it reveals our own obsession for novelty. What makes each act of psychotic and unknowable violence so alluring is precisely because it resists incorporation into our ready-made rules of thumb for understanding the world. Structural violence and poverty? Boring. We already ‘know’ about that—it’s nothing new. Massacres of women and children in Syria? State-sponsored, so nothing interesting. Man slaughters people in a theater? Now that’s new AND interesting. And each event of senseless mass murder might as well be the first we’ve encountered because it’s this very senselessness that grants it the status of being eternally novel. This helps explain why we become so enamored with the details—in lieu of some broader reason for the violence, we must study the violence itself, make it into an object of scrutiny in order to, ironically, bring it to life. Little do we know that we are engaged in the performance of the emptiness that mirrors everything else we do as a society; we obsess over the body and forget that it ever died.

Because events like today’s are so senseless, it renders them visible just like the parade of other empty, unknowable images on television that we encounter every day. Emptiness and visibility have a strange symbiosis in our society; they feed into one another and sustain an entire ecosystem of emptiness and senselessness. It’s no wonder Obama and Romney were obligated to speak out today—if they want to win in November, they’ve got to pay homage to our favorite national pastime.  

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