What moral standing do you need to have to feel bad about the Sandy Hook shootings?

How much are you allowed to grieve for the kids at Sandy Hook?

There are people who feel the need to police emotions surrounding public events because, they argue, people feeling things aren’t feeling the right things in the right way: people who are having feelings must selectively grieve for white kids and not children of color; people don’t follow the right policy prescriptions that would have could have should have prevented the tragedy over which people are now grieving; and/or you don’t actually know the people involved so your pain must be phoney baloney mass hysteria, like English people after the death of Princess Diana.**

I’ve been thinking about this. Surely, there is a “cheap grace” aspect to public mourning relating to policy failures. But policy is not nearly as deterministic as people like to believe, and I’m less willing to pass judgment on public displays of emotion than I was when I was younger.

Here’s a selection:

Thai Noodle House Restaurant Owner in Hot Water After Racist Sandy Hook Shooting Comments:

I have trouble labeling his comments as racism because the many, many classes I’ve taken discussing the nature of racism (you need more power and privilege in order to be racist), but the fact that I’m willing to quibble about the term ‘racist’ over his comments doesn’t mean he’s not being a jerk. Here’s the quote:

“I don’t care if a bunch of white kids got killed. F**k Post-Racial bullshit. When kids from minority groups get shot, nobody cares. When Israel launched missiles at the school on Gaza, everybody was too busy jerking off. Why should i care about people who dont give a damn about me? Personal responsibility, right?”

1) Not all of the victims at Sandy Hook were white (only in his imagination: it’s Connecticut, they must be white; people are worried, those kids must be white. Yes, most of them were, but that hardly excuses the impulse to erase the children who aren’t white so you can air your grievance),

2) I saw a great deal of concern expressed over children in Gaza, and I’m not entirely sure how schilling noodles qualifies as “leading the revolution to save children in Gaza while others jerked off” and

3) it’s not clear from an ethical standpoint that you’re a bad person if you show people who are closer to you, both geographically and chronologically, more care and concern than people remote to you. See the work of global cosmopolitan ethicists like Kwame Appiah or many of the feminist ethicists who have challenged abstract notions of “future generations” being more worthy of care than children who are in need now.

All of that said, it’s true that white kids get more of everything, including media and social care, from a racist system than children of color. That is despicable. The question becomes: would people be somehow “better” if they showed 100 percent strict alignment with some race-ethic around children in this particular tragedy: since I show little empathy or care about children in black families who face gun violence, I should show little empathy or care about children in white families who fall victim to gun violence. I don’t know them, thus I don’t care. Yay me, let’s celebrate my equality towards the races. Woo!

Empathy and care are not like a cake where, if I give some to you or to an animal, that means there’s less for everybody else. It’s entirely possible that the people sickened by the murders at Sandy Hook are also worried about children in Gaza. It isn’t that nobody cares. It may be the right people who are positions of power don’t care enough to undertake the work of preventing the deaths of children in Gaza, but acting like people don’t care at all is probably wrong.From the Economist: Fake Tears :

CONSIDERING the frequency with which gun massacres now occur in America, the media attention they garner, and the failure of that attention either to shift public opinion regarding gun control or to prod the political system to take any action at all, the outpouring of sentiment over the shootings Friday in Newtown, Connecticut is probably best viewed as a ritualistic exercise in mass histrionics. Not for the friends and family of those killed, obviously; for them the killings are a real and horrific tragedy. Those of us who view the events remotely, however, unless we start to evince a newfound appetite for gun-control measures to prevent future mass slayings, are doing little more than displaying and enjoying our own exalted strickenness.

Do people writing in the Economist really have so little insight into the policy process and so little capacity for understanding that it is impossible for any nonpathological individual to both a) think that gun control doesn’t work AND b) feel bad that 20 children are dead? I’ve favored automatic weapons bans for years, I guess I’m morally allowed to feel bad? Yay me. (This is bad moral logic indeed.)

Look, messing around with the Bill of Rights is a big, honking deal in terms of the policy process. Yes, we place restrictions on the practice of fundamental rights, but that doesn’t happen—or it shouldn’t happen—carelessly. A bunch of us are still annoyed at the weakening of due process that occurred for the sake of expediency in dealing with terrorism. Yeah—same deal: monkeying with rights needs to happen with deliberation and care—not because of a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy, be it 9/11 or Sandy Hook. Did Kant live in vain?

Beyond that, this reaction doesn’t allow for people who once didn’t support gun control but for whom the Sandy Hook tragedy forces them to change their minds. It’s entirely possible that a person once supported one policy, sees the tragic consequence, and then bitterly regrets and mourns what happens.

We have ample evidence that an automatic weapons ban makes all sorts of sense. Just like you aren’t allowed to libel without civil consequences and you aren’t allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater, it makes sense to place some limits on the extreme form of rights practices. But that doesn’t mean the policy is a no-brainer or that your failure to subscribe to a particular policy disallows you from feeling bad about a tragic event OR that you must never ever share your pain over the tragic event.

Not everybody who looks at a tragedy is merely gawking or performing.

Do the caviling arbiters of who is allowed to feel bad and who isn’t have anything to contribute? I’m not sure. Hypocrisy is everywhere, and the last I checked, moral inconsistency is not a prima facie argument in ethics. They do, however, get us to thinking about why we feel entitled to grieve–what elements of social contract went so horribly awry that we now feel the anger and the pain we do.

For many of us, school was a haven from an unhappy home. Little kids going to school now do so under a long shadow that haunts their parents every time they drop them off. The most important thing a six year old should think about is the merry-go-round. And snacks. The fact that we’ve lost that is worth mourning, even though we’re probably doing it wrong, and all the criticisms of us contain an element of truth.

**By the way, I don’t think grieving over Diana was mass hysteria or inappropriate, any more than I would condemn the grieving around Michael Jackson. No, they weren’t saints; but leaders hold symbolic value to people, and it can hurt to lose somebody you identified with. Why people need to be so judgy mcjudgypants about what you are allowed mourn makes no sense to me. Fine, you don’t feel anything. Carry on. Leave others alone to deal with their own feelings unless, as Aragorn pointed out after Gandalf’s death Khazad-dum, the hills will be soon swarming with orcs.

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One response to “What moral standing do you need to have to feel bad about the Sandy Hook shootings?

  1. me

    I understand where you are coming from. But it is very hard for me to morn for a predominantly white area .when I see so many other groups over looked. I don’t want any parent to experience what they have . But really what would be the result if this was a group of a different color. When others start caring abt people other than those that look like them, just maybe I might start caring. God be with us to help us love.