Within hours of the deaths, columnists had already published thinkpieces and hot takes. When people were still trying to come to grips with the Orlando shootings, we already had debates raging about gun control, homophobia, the threat of terrorism, and attacks on freedoms. When people were still trying to grapple with the fact that somebody had shot a politician, we already had columns springing up about the violent nature of contemporary political discussion.
I get why people write when they are confronted with terrible news. It’s therapeutic. By writing it down and spilling it out on to a page, we use a different part of our brain and this helps order our thoughts. I get why news companies publish these articles: delicious clickbait. Readers want to be outraged or reassured, and nothing sells like a tragedy.
But it can’t be healthy.
The unifying factor between the various thinkpieces was the ‘People Other Than Us’ Doctrine. We’re great, it’s those people that we oppose who are responsible for this. Muslims, maybe. Or right wing pundits. Terrorists are definitely to blame. People who oppose gun control should hang their heads in shame.
It’s never us. It’s definitely not us. We are great and savvy and intelligent and reasonable. We don’t do these sorts of things. People Other Than Us do.
I’m conservative. Few things scare me more than right wing terrorism. In the various jobs that I’ve held and the various work that I do, I’m more likely to be taken out by a far right white supremacist than I am a socialist Muslim. And he’s not going to be wearing a burqa or a turban. He’s going to look just like pretty much everybody else on the street, right up to the moment when he lets rip. Nobody will think it’s suspicious when he buys an excessive amount of petrol. Or when he buys an odd quantity of fertiliser. Or when he goes to pick up a few guns from his dodgy mates who only accept cash. He’s going to fly right under the radar until the very, very end.
And that scares me.
The worst part about him is that there are going to be so many narratives that intuitively fit. The anger of the nationalist right. The anger of the white men. The anger of the disaffected who feel threatened by everything. Nobody will actually know what his beef will be, but there will be so many people who will just intuit it from the motion of the spheres. They will just know because they have always known: it’s People Other Than Us who do these things.
I’ve written before about how much it affects me when I hear about self-harm in immigration detention centres. I support offshore processing, and I keep thinking that if only more people were louder about improving the standards of care in IDFs, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. Given that I support offshore processing, isn’t there more of a moral obligation on me to be louder about improving the standards of care? But how do I do that when it’s just me trying to be heard over people shouting in a toxic debate?
And when the Orlando shootings happened and when the Jo Cox murder happened, these were – very likely – people just like me pulling the triggers. These were people who are very likely to be supportive of policies that I support, hold intuitions similar to the intuitions that I hold, and who participate in the same political culture in which I participate. How do I shut down the homophobia in my own backyard? How do I shut down the fear on my side of the fence?
Public debate is a bin fire. People are actively encouraged to be as terrible as possible to each other. There are no incentives to be better.
But dishing out hot takes that divide us even further as a community aren’t going to help – especially when they’re based on flimsy, unverified information.
When the Orlando murders occurred, the LGBT community struggled to be heard over the hot takers shouting ‘Muslims!’ and ‘Gun control!’ Yet this was their time to grieve. This was a direct attack on their community, and people wanted to deny them an opportunity to tell their story.
When the Jo Cox murder happened, journalists played rent-a-cop, interviewing people and coming up with wildly differing eyewitness accounts. Desperate to fill a news cycle, they also helpfully provided us with information about a man completely unrelated to the murder who had been cautioned by police for making abusive threats to Cox’ office.
None of this helps. All it does is push the idea that People Who Aren’t Us are bad, terrible, and a constant threat.
We are all responsible for the quality of our public debate. When we keep broadcasting Lyle Shelton’s hate-filled rants, when we keep sharing Andrew Bolt’s latest video, and when we keep making minor celebrities out of hateful, hateful people, we make it more difficult to have the sort of discussions that will make us better people. Mark Latham shouldn’t have a job in media, and yet we reward whatever media outlet puts him own with outrage clicks and links.
If you want to improve the quality of public debate, find somebody who disagrees with you and make friends with them.