Beyond the tragedy of the suicide in Supernova is the instrumentalization of the suicide. Now that it is too late for him to change his mind, the suicide spends his last minutes being informed of how competing interests are going to use his death to further their own agendas. The tragedy behind the tragedy is its reduction to argument-fodder. It is a reduction which effectively erases the personhood of the suicide himself; not only has he lost his life, he has lost possession of his life's (and death's) meaning.
What I took away from Supernova is a visceral reminder of the second (and to my mind far superior) formulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative(2): That we should treat persons (ourselves and others) always as ends in themselves and never as means only. The application here is that we should never reduce a person to a tool only, that is, we must not instrumentalize a person. Any action we take has to be one which recognizes the full personhood of the persons whom that action will impact. It is important to notice at this point that this does not mean that we should never act in a way that treats people as a means—the only is crucial here—it means that we cannot treat persons as mere means. After all it is basic to cooperation that we are using ourselves and others to achieve a goal. What it important is that we do not, at the same time, lose sight of that person's own good. We can (often we should) use people to accomplish our goals, but we can only do that if acting in that way benefits them as well.
After the horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas the reactions were rapid and predictable: We started with grief, already tinged with a little suspicion. We watched one another on social media to see how others were reacting, many of us watched particular accounts and outlets for cues. Calls to reexamine gun regulations came out at nearly the exact same time as calls to not talk about gun regulation and attempts to portray the people who talk about gun regulation in the immediate aftermath of a gun related tragedy as macabre and insensitive. The White House has promised "we'll be talking about gun laws" and has also said that we should not talk about guns yet. The talk show hosts have talked about the shooting and have tried to use their platforms to move the country on the issue (I'll post two of the more moving monologues at the bottom) and various media outlets and analysts have attempted to give us some insight into the issue(3). And while the analysts skew left, the right has been staking out a "moral high ground" position by calling on everyone not to "politicize" the tragedy. And of course the crazies are already screaming "conspiracy."
|So... yeah this isn't going very well|
Here is the thing. We can't not politicize this tragedy.
It is basic to human nature that when something bad happens we want to help. That is a good thing. People near Las Vegas were lining up to donate blood because that is a way they knew they could help. The stories already coming out of this tragedy about the heroism of first responders and crowd members reactions to the shooter are heartbreakingly beautiful(4). In times of tragedy many of us want to help. It is what we do. But most of us can't actually do much. We can donate money to the red cross and we can post supportive statements on social media, but after this sort of tragedy there isn't a whole lot we can do.
Except that we can try to make sure it doesn't happen again. See, there are actually two problems with calls not to politicize this (or any of the other) shooting tragedies. The first problem is that it smuggles in (or sometimes outright states) an accusation of opportunism. The underlying message in the calls against politicization is that calls to change our laws in an attempt to prevent future tragedies are violations of the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: that people who call for gun regulation in the wake of these crises are reducing the victims to political tools.
The status quo is an invisible position
but it is still a position
The second big problem with calls not to politicize these tragedies is the fact that "we should not change our laws in light of these events" is, itself, a political position. I don't know how to emphasize this enough. Because we live in an existing country, with existing laws and existing social structures, to call for silence is to tacitly advocate for the politics of the status quo. "Things should not change" is just as political a statement as "things should change".
Of course it doesn't feel that way to the folks making the charge. The status quo doesn't feel like a position, it feels like "normal". So calls to change the status quo hurt. People may well be crying "opportunism" because it feels like they are being attacked when they are hurting and vulnerable. At the same time gun regulation people are calling for moral clarity in light of greater evidence of damage, others are feel that their emotions are being manipulated in their moment of pain—and they want to push back.
So how should we respond to tragedies like this? My only real recommendation is that we try to do it with a lot more charity and a little more honestly. We mourn, and we help. Just don't try to pretend that people who want to help in a different way aren't doing the same thing that you are. What looks to you like moral opportunism may be their moment of moral clarity.
Footnotes(1) I like to imagine that I got out of Supernova at least roughly the message that Gabriel meant to put into it but if not, then I will have to be content with thanking happy chance.
(2) I am not, as a rule, an enormous fan of Kantian ethics. However, with quite a few other non-Kantian ethicists, I am a fan of the second formulation. So please don't read this as an endorsement of Kantian Deontological ethics as such.
(3) Fivethirtyeight.com has a compelling piece about the statistical victims of gun violence (it is suicides) for example.
(4) Also there is the story of that one guy who reacted in a quintessentially American way and stood up under fire to flip the shooter the bird.