Tuesday, 27 May 2014

'Ownership' of a tragedy

There are at least three major political topics involved in the discussion that has followed the mass shooting last week in Isla Vista, California; gun violence, violence against women, and the link between violence and mental health. This article focusses on the first and last of the three, while this one discusses the second (they aren't necessarily the best articles on any of the points involved, just ones I found on facebook this morning).

All three of those debates are weighty and difficult. They are also very important, but many people are better-placed than me to tackle them in writing. What motivated me to write today is an argument I saw (also on facebook, because that's pretty much my only contact with the outside world) between people discussing the gender dimension of the tragedy and someone arguing that the 'real issue' was gun control.

I have subsequently seen more of this tug-of-war over how we should respond, politically, to the tragedy. You can argue it any of the three different ways, in both directions - from the obvious ones, like whether or not male gun control activists should be 'allowed' to dismiss women talking about sexual violence and the 'men's rights' movement (they shouldn't), to the perhaps-less-obvious, like whether mental health should be blamed (and I stress, people identified as having mental health issues are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators; the media's insistence on blaming psychological problems is hugely damaging to campaigns for rights for disabled people).

But this isn't a zero-sum game. A tragedy is not a pot of political capital, finite in depth, from which different campaigns must compete to draw. Treating it as such cheapens both it and the people doing the treating. For anyone outside the circle of people with an immediate personal link to the event, a tragedy is a lesson, and it is a poor lesson that has only one thing to teach.

Would Elliot Rodger have been able to kill and injure as many people as he did if access to guns in America was more tightly controlled? Almost certainly not. Was his attack driven by misogynistic motives and a misogynistic culture? It seems so. Would he have turned to violence at all if he had had access to better support for his Asperger Syndrome? That's a very complex question, and worthy of deep investigation.

No one group owns this terrible event, except possibly the families and friends of the victims. No one person speaking about this has the right to tell another that their view is irrelevant or wrong (again, except perhaps to ask them to be more considerate of the feelings of those directly affected). No such division should be allowed to get in the way of learning from Isla Vista (and Sandy Hook, and Steubenville, and all the other towns that have lost their names to human disasters).

1 comment:

  1. I agree absolutely, and it speaks volumes that political commentators feel the need to compete for attention when their aims are far from mutually exclusive - complementary in fact.

    I see this as a manifestation of a more general problem with political discourse: tribalism and polarisation resulting from a system of competition between political groups leads to both inefficiency (i.e. time/resources wasted on mudslinging that masquerades as 'debate') and crap policy outcomes.

    What will emerge from the public response to Isla Negra? A sensible, evidence-based policy programme designed to simultaneously address failings in mental healthcare, counter the prevailing cultural obsession with status and entitlement to such, and implement some (any!) form of gun control? I wouldn't hold your breath.