The Politicisation of Tragedy

By Daniel Appiah

In the wake of tragedy, it most often seems that nothing is appropriate. The frequency with which we are exposed to tragedy in every form of media has created an emotional illiteracy through which is expressed in the vacuous empathy of the online masses.

We ‘#Prayfor’, whichever city is the latest victim of human evil, and we implore commentators to refrain from the blame game. However, blame, and moreover, shame, seem to be the order of the day for ‘#NeverAgain’.

After the Florida school shooting on February 14th of this year, the survivors created a social media group to discuss and campaign for stricter gun legislation. They used the hashtag ‘#NeverAgain’.

I initially thought it refreshing that the survivors of a tragedy were themselves creating their own political momentum, but it is increasingly evident that this fledgling movement is becoming the victim of liberal inaction.

Attempts to avoid politicalising tragedy or being ignorant to the exhibition of horror has stunted any meaning, emotional or otherwise, afforded to the tragedies that fall upon Western society. The years pass, and the same kinds of tragedies occur. The Never Again movement has provided, for quite possibly the first time, a very clear message on the part of survivors: this tragedy is political, things can’t remain the same.

Supporters gathered in their hundreds in the days after the shooting, but this was not a vigil. It was a political rally. Emma González, a figurehead for the movement, gave an emotionally charged and empowered speech in which she called ‘BS’ on the various assumptions which in her mind allows mass shootings to continue to happen. This pacifist call to arms directed its ire at the National Rifle Association and its political benefactors.

While I commend the resourcefulness of the campaign to have mobilised such support in such little time, they misunderstand the political climate in which they live. Sarcastic and whip-cracking comments – such as were seen in Never Again’s subsequent CNN appearance before politicians and NRA representatives – may be social media gold and a legitimate argument to already anti-gun Democrats, but it alienates the very people that need to be convinced for real change to be enacted – the NRA gun owners and legislators themselves.

Campaigners for better gun laws may have been able to weak-arm President Obama into minimal reform, but Never Again need to wake up to the fact that they live in a different America. As anti-Republican and anti-Trump as they are, Never Again are failing to reach the people who really matter in this gun debate. No matter how inspiring, the victims of tragedy do not hold the means to legislate for change.

Not only do Never Again lack the means to reach the people that matter, but they appear also to lack the will to do something about it.

Groups of students of the Never Again campaign rode buses to the Florida state capital to demand change to the law, but these freedom riders for the 21st century offer no new arguments. What they offer instead is an activism of emotion, whereby the virtue of their grief is seen as reason enough to enact change. In an interview with the BBC, students talked about what they were hoping to happen as a result of their campaign. What struck me was the impotence of their goals. One student confessed that he did not expect immediate action, but a conversation about what guns mean to different Americans. Really? Token calls to ‘start a conversation’ is seriously enough for these people?

The conversation has been occurring for decades, yet eleven of the twenty deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred during the last ten years. Another student gave her evaluation. “I am hopeful that they will hear our stories, understand our pain, and react.” Here lies the manifesto of Never Again’s politics of tragedy. They encourage us and lawmakers to hear, understand, and react; to listen and believe. I commend the survivors for being so bold in their testimony, and it is important. Nevertheless, Never Again’s emotionalism stunts rather than extends the debate. As much as it may seem inappropriate to say, emotion convinces few.

Never Again is crippled by its own liberalism. They profess a need for radical change but seem liable to settle for a mere conversation. They claim a need to properly invest in mental health but refuse to condemn the culture of rehabilitation that meant that the Florida shooter was not taken out of the system toward which he directed his wrath. Never Again claim they are determined to take on the United States’ gun lobby that represents the interests of a $30 billion industry.

Whilst the Florida tragedy remains prevalent, the emotionalist argument of Never Again will continue to gain coverage and kudos in the media. It must look to the future, their future and their methods that will fail to convince the people with power to actually change things. If movements like this are serious about change, the politics of tragedy can never again operate on a tweet and a prayer.