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Evaluating Our Own Reactions at the End of a Terrible Week

It is yet another grim week, as we process yet another mass shooting, yet again the biggest in modern American history. Twitter is performing its grief ritual: shock into anger into impassioned appeals for gun control into furious replies from people with eagles as their profile pictures. The top headline on The New York Times’ opinion section reads “Nothing Will Change After the Las Vegas Shooting,” and the Onion just republished that piece about how we’re the only place where this regularly happens for the fourth time. Everyone wants to do something, but nobody knows what to do, so we just sit in front of our laptops and get more freaked out.

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Was it always this way? In my early adulthood, I took to the streets for marriage equality, and after a couple of decades, we got there. This year, I’ve marched for any number of issues—women’s reproductive rights, gun control, putting our president back on The Apprentice where I can resume ignoring him—but I have no idea whether we’re doing anything. Are we just texting codes to phone numbers, just making small donations when the spirit moves us, just leaving it for the next generation to fix? Fellow Old Guy™ Luke O’Neil, Certified Millennial Ben Boskovich, and I try to make sense of it all.


Luke:

I certainly don’t want to portray myself as some battle-tested, take-to-the-streets activist, but in this short year I’ve already done more marching and protesting, and reporting on marches and protests, than I can remember since Occupy. And I am sad to say, I don’t think any of it has done anything. Has it? The protests around the time of the travel ban seemed to push things back a bit, and the protests against repealing the ACA, particularly from people like ADAPT, seemed to help a lot. Or did it all just postpone things?

I also want to be careful not to discourage people from protesting and organizing, because it’s very important—I think?—but I can’t help but be generally discouraged and cynical about everything getting worse, despite so many tens of millions of people being furious and motivated. Was it always this way? In the ’60s, anti-war protests eventually worked, but it took so, so long. My first taste of protesting and marching was against the Iraq War, but what did that do? It’s just so hard not to say “fuck it,” which is I guess what they want us to do. That said, literally nothing will change after this attack in Vegas. It just will not. I really have no answers here. Someone talk me off the ledge.

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Dave:

As we write this, there is someone at the Senate Equifax hearing, in a camera seat, dressed up like the fancy monocle guy from Monopoly. So clever and elegant protest is still a thing that’s being done. Whether it will have any effect is another story.

This year especially, I feel like we’re responding to The Big Problems with immediate action and then fatigue. Hurricanes blew in, and everyone I knew donated money and had benefit shows. Another crazy white guy opened fire, and those of us who could donate blood stood in line to donate blood. But then when it’s time to roll up our sleeves and address The Big Issues, like climate change and gun control, we go online and all the wind gets knocked out of our sails. We’re still having to make the argument that these are actual issues. We’re back at square one, always, and then the process repeats itself. I guess my question is: How do we get to square two?

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“When it’s time to roll up our sleeves and address The Big Issues, like climate change and gun control, we go online and all the wind gets knocked out of our sails.” —Dave

Luke:

I wonder if the readily available pressure-release valve of social media means people are less likely to protest effectively, since it instantly scratches the itch with bravado. Or does it ultimately help, with people wrangling their followers together to donate money to this or that cause?

Ben:

I’ll also say I don’t want to discourage people from doing their part—attending marches, standing in solidarity with those affected, donating via text. But there are too many opportunities to phone it in now. Look at Harvey vs. Las Vegas. On one hand, you’ve got Houston Texans poster boy J.J. Watt raising millions of dollars for hurricane relief in one of the more impressive efforts I’ve ever seen. It was important for someone like him, a wildly popular public figure in Houston, to motivate people to help. I think Watt knew what he could accomplish given his stature and stepped up to the plate. That rules.

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On the other hand, post-Vegas, you’ve got Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who attended high school in Las Vegas, responding to the tragedy with a phone-it-in move less impressive than actually phoning it in. He wore “Praying for Las Vegas” cleats at last night’s game. A small gesture his PR folks (and perhaps Under Armour’s, for that matter) thought might be a good opportunity to flex on Instagram. I saw this and asked myself, “What the fuck good is this?” It’s not an unkind gesture—I’m not suggesting that. I think Harper, like any morally adequate human being, feels awful about what happened in his #HomeTown (his hashtag, not mine). But what you guys are talking about is evident here. Our culture has devolved to sending a “thoughts and prayers” message, painting our shoes, or changing our profile picture to a gross “Welcome to Las Vegas”-themed tribute (designed and provided by Facebook itself), as an adequate-enough response.

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Luke:

Thoughts and prayers have been pretty thoroughly eviscerated again and again every time there’s a tragedy, and yet, people are still out there thinking and praying. Ben, why did that post from Harper irk you so much?

“Thoughts and prayers have been pretty thoroughly eviscerated again and again, and yet, people are still out there thinking and praying.” —Luke

Ben:

I only pick on Harper because, like Watt, he has the ability to actually do something about it. Nationals fans love the guy, and he plays in D.C., where he’s surrounded by people protecting people’s meaningless gun rights in exchange for profit. Seems like a good opportunity for him to protest. To encourage the people of his city to vote accordingly. To, I don’t know, take a knee until his fans do the right kind of phoning it in—calling their congressmen. Think that’ll get the President talking about gun control on the tarmac? If what we’ve seen with the NFL over the past few weeks is any indication, I’d say yes.

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Luke:

What about performative solidarity posts?

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Ben:

It’s fucking gross to change your profile picture to a Vegas-themed collage. It does nothing for anyone except you. That’s the sickest part of what you see more often than not after a tragedy. It devolves into: How does this affect or relate to me? “Oh my god I was just in Vegas last month!” “Ugh I was just listening to Tom Petty last night” “So sad for Nice, my privileged ass’s favorite place on the planet where I spent 4 days in the summer of ‘09! :(“ If you aren’t going to take actual action—if you’re not going to vote, to donate, to march in the streets with the those affected—I do think it’s best to say nothing at all. Keep your prayers between you and whoever you’re praying to. Share your thoughts specifically with people who ask for them. Don’t send a catch-all message that only says: I want you to know I’m aware of this and making myself a part of it. It does nothing.

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Dave:

I think it does all boil down to that moment with your phone. Something bad happens, you get a push notification to text a code to a five-digit number, and you do, and you’ve donated $5 or put your name on a petition, or something that’s not nothing, but that’s also not quite enough. Something even worse happens, you go to the march and Instagram the cleverest signs, and you boost their signal a little. None of this is bad, but none of this is as good as it should be. You’re still not engaging in real life with people whose beliefs are different than yours. It’s a strange thing: We have the potential to be better informed and more connected than ever, yet Donald Fucking Trump is in the White House. Something is broken.

“We have the potential to be better informed and more connected than ever, yet Donald Fucking Trump is in the White House.” —Dave

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Luke:

I think there’s a careful distinction to be made about engaging with people whose beliefs are different than yours. That to me almost always means giving the worst people alive a chance to air their shitty grievances, hearing them out in the sense of Fairness and Discourse, and then ultimately compromising your own position and meeting them halfway, having changed nothing. On the other hand, living inside of a closed-loop of dogma doesn’t seem to be a great idea either. I’m heartened by so many people calling every day for social and economic justice and the emergence of a louder and more organized actual left. But the whole issue of left-infighting is something I’m not convinced we’ve figured out how to contend with yet either. Yes, I am in favor of a vastly higher living wage, universal healthcare for everyone, and do not think capitalist solutions will ever do anything for us besides enrich corporations, but there are many people, ostensible potential allies, who don’t yet see why those sorts of things are necessary. How do you get to them?

Ben:

It’s a tough one, especially when “them” is someone you love or are close to. I’ll gladly try to make a random stranger feel like a moral failure, but I’ll let my parents do and say whatever they want. It’s cowardly, but the juice isn’t always worth the squeeze there. Some people can’t be changed. I think it’s about identifying people who might be open to hearing what you have to say, same as you’re open to hearing what they have to say, and putting your effort into that discourse vs. banging your head against a concrete wall. Pick your battles, I guess.

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Dave:

Right now, Jimmy Kimmel and his wife and head writer Molly McNearney are taking their own recent personal experience and turning it into some really satisfying late-night monologues. Millions of people watch them, and then millions more pass them around the next morning. They’re actually reaching—and challenging—tons of people who disagree with them. This is a good thing! But of course, right on schedule, now we’re seeing the memes and the street art. People calling him a cuck, or dragging him for daring to evolve since The Man Show, or basically just telling him to shut up and entertain them. This is a double standard I don’t understand: Everyone is allowed to have an opinion, but somehow only entertainers are told to keep theirs to themselves. Nobody tells the dentist down the street with the Trump-Pence sign on his lawn to stick to mouths, but if you’re an actor or a joke-teller or a song-singer, somehow you’re supposed to keep your yap shut. Even when what you’re saying is: Maybe fewer of us should die horribly if we can help it.

“Keep your prayers between you and whoever you’re praying to. Share your thoughts specifically with people who ask for them.” —Ben

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Luke:

I think that gets at the fundamental problem here. There are tens of millions of people in this country who simply do not care if thousands are killed every year by guns, or if health care is taken away from millions, because they lack a basic sense of empathy. You can’t protest that.

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