Since the school shooting in Florida last week, as a nation, we’ve seen, felt, experienced, and listened to nonstop profound emotional displays. That is merely a statement of fact with no judgment imbued into it. It has been most prevalent coming from those directly affected by the tragedy (rightly so), but all of us have felt the pain of it, particularly if we have children and can put ourselves in their place. Our hearts bleed for those who have experienced such an unspeakable loss.
In the emotional aftermath, the students have been given a platform by the media to vent their pain and anger. We’ve seen continual coverage by the media of these grief-stricken students expressing their outrage. Outrage which is entirely understandable. Of course, if I were cynical—which I am—I might point out the exploitative nature of the media’s coverage of these teenagers in order to get ratings and advance their agenda (in that order). But others have already done that, so there’s no need here.
Then last night, two different spectacles never before seen occurred: very public forums were set up for the sole purpose of venting at elected officials for everyone to see.
The purpose of this piece is to consider and reflect on all of this. Not the gun debate itself—but how we are conducting ourselves and its effectiveness.
On one hand, I believe it must have been healing on some level for the students and parents to be able to rage at people in elected office who have the power to “do something” about it. I have a great deal of empathy for anyone in the midst of grief, and it’s any parent’s greatest nightmare to lose their child. Additionally, who has ever seen one person after another express themselves in such a way to the President of the United States?
Marco Rubio and Donald Trump both deserve acknowledgment of the good they did by opening themselves up for this, knowing this was exactly how it would go. Some would say it’s the job of our elected officials who (theoretically) work for us to listen to us and, thus, they deserve no special acknowledgment. But people often forget that politicians are people, too, and, while they ought to expect to listen to their constituents, it’s not their job to take abuse. So, yes, I think it was well done by both of them.
But that brings me to my question: with one side using emotion alone to make their case and the other side hunkering down in a
defensive posture, will anything positive come of this?
Absolutely no one would tell the parents kids they shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling. They have been traumatized and experienced a grave injustice. We react to both because we have an expectation that things like this won’t happen and, furthermore, we are righteously indignant at injustice. However, the first advice given to anyone who has just experienced a trauma is: don’t make any major decisions. In other words, take some time and experience your feelings and your grief and later, once you’re not operating purely out of emotion, then start making decisions. Furthermore, and this is said with all compassion, experiencing a horrific tragedy doesn’t automatically make one’s ideas on public policy good, right, or efficacious.
On the other side, those who are concerned about their rights being taken away are watching this, and a couple of things are
happening: 1) they’re feeling personally attacked because of the convictions they hold, and 2) they’re wondering what proactive (or reactive) measures they might need to take to protect themselves and their right to protect themselves. Both of which cause them to feel defensive in the same way a prey would.
Each side is looking at the other with skepticism mixed with hostility, which is not conducive to finding effective solutions.
That, then, brings me to the next logical question: do we want an effective solution? Is that what we’re looking for, or do we only want to “win”? Or to express ourselves until our emotion runs out? That is a question each of us needs to answer.
We all processes things differently and respond to things differently. For some—many, in fact—emotional appeal holds a greater sway than reason, which they find cold. Others mistrust emotion when it comes to decision making (and even more so when it comes to deciding public policy which would affect an entire state or nation). For them, the ratcheting up of emotion has the
opposite effect those engaging in it would hope for: it pushes them away, rather than persuading them to their cause.
So what do we, the Divided States of America do? One of the first things all of us need to do is to stop demonizing those on the other side and viewing them as “the enemy.” They are our fellow Americans, and they’re not seeking your harm. It will help to see them that way.
I think the second thing to do is to give room for the emotion of the moment while not giving it ultimate power over us. The pain and anguish felt by so many is legitimate and valid. I do wonder if last night’s airing of grievances might’ve been better for the parents and students if it had been done in private to allow for more honesty and less need for display (on all sides, since everyone was cognizant of the Camera). Then again, that depends on the goal of the events: was it to give an opportunity to express feelings, or was it to further iron out possible changes to public policy? The goal of the Trump event seemed to be the former, while the CNN/Rubio event was stated, at least, to be the latter. That being noted, public policy was never intended to be driven by emotion, as valid as it is right now.
The aggrieved need to be heard and listened to. Ideas should be considered and not discounted. But any change in public policy—whether this or any other—should be slowly and methodically deliberated and debated. Effective laws don’t spring from emotional reactions, as much as we would wish otherwise.
There are no easy answers here. I’ll merely reiterate what I suggested at the outset: we all want effective laws which will keep us and our children safe. We will never get that if we view those on the other side as “the enemy.” Let us return to seeing them as fellow Americans who want the same things but see a different path to getting there. We have no hope of reaching our goals if suspicion and hate and a desire to defeat the other side are our only motivation.
This used to be our national motto: E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.