I watch PBS Newshour sometimes when I’m waiting for DemocracyNow! to come on in the mornings. The reporting on PBS is well-intentioned though influenced by corporate and wealthy sponsors in order to make up harsher and harsher cuts in government support over the years. It’s a decent source of information, a more polished, slightly more toothless lens through which to look at the world.
Yesterday was the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were killed and 15 were injured. According to many sources, there is one shooting every 60 hours in this country. The shooter was a 19 year old who had been expelled from the school and apparently had a pattern of domestic violence, stalking girls at school, and White nationalist comments online. This was definitely an individual who had been under suspicion for the potential for violent behavior, though he was not stopped in time. This is a profoundly shocking loss for the community and families in Parkland.
In discussing this, Judy Woodruff of PBS leads the story with the following:
Given this tragic pattern, one could throw up his hands and think there’s nothing to do. But we have to believe, for the sake of our children, there is a way through this. How do we think about it?
She echoes this question with the program guests:
What would you suggest we start to think about now?
What is one way we should be thinking about this right now that could move us forward?
I understand our collective need for discussion, for problem-solving, but this approach troubles me. Something about asking how we should think reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s alleged deep suspicion for newspapers, which he argued told us what to think about the world’s goings on. Though they give important information we couldn’t otherwise access, media representations do tend to urge us to move in certain directions in our thinking – and even to suspect our own abilities to think critically about our reality and our ability to influence it.
In terms of the shooting in south Florida, the way of framing this conversation typically involves making a list of shootings – Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, the Pulse Nightclub, Columbine, San Bernardino, Tucson, Colorado – and then asking about how and why the gunman did what he did. Conversations about mental “illness” tends to emerge as a go-to point of focus (though I’m grateful for work like a recent article by Dr. Jonathan Metzl, who argues against demonizing people with emotional or psychological disabilities and challenges for mass shootings), and the stories tend to become individualized, discussing the personal path of the shooter or shooters to this destructive endpoint. We tend not to look at the systemic problems that give rise to easier access to guns, and more lethal ones at that, for more than a moment. Or rather, we tend to be shepherded away from such thinking. This is happening through our country’s leadership as depicted through the media as well. The President, for example, refused to comment on gun control questions at all in his address about this tragedy yesterday, and Alex Azar of the Department of Home and Health Services claimed that mental illness would be a target in this debate.
Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! made a great point in her reporting: that most mainstream networks on the left and the right have set up the terms of debate for us, terms which do not generally include a serious discussion of the influence of NRA money on government decision-making. Metzl added to this critical position by starting from a truly ethical perspective:
Why do we need so many guns in the first place? What kind of society do we want to live in?
I want to contribute a commentary on media’s role in how we might think collaboratively about our present and future: What kind of society do we live in that we need the news to start even the basic thinking about yet another mass killing of children? It’s almost as though we have a collective mental block, a cognitive blank in the face of what seems inevitable.
This is the problem. It’s absolutely not inevitable that these shootings happen. I do not pretend to have an answer for violence writ large in this country, for why people may find themselves drawn to hurting others. However, I think we need to resist the storytelling approach to framing these painful events that depoliticize the broader context in which shooting violence takes place. Individual stories have their place, but we have to remember the structural reasons that possible-ize such violence that are obscured in “these difficult times.” Plainly put, the NRA lobby is paralyzing our lawmakers, and our democracy, through the use of money as political speech. They have spoken for us about gun use and possession, even though the majority of Americans favor new legislation for gun control that requires background checks and bans the purchase of semi-automatic weapons (see here). And behind this potent influence on our government is a White nationalist, patriarchal discourse that shushes all questions, lulls us into inertia.
I’m not saying, don’t read the newspaper or watch the news. I’m saying, be ready to ask more questions before sinking into the warm bath of “maybe tomorrow will be better.” Because it won’t. Not without serious collective action against the forces of White patriarchy and violence that fetter our government and feeds whispered responses into its well-oiled message machine.