This weekend dozens of lives were lost to what is often called “senseless gun violence.” Having experienced the horror of watching a loved one lose his life, I know pain can be significantly worse when the death feels senseless. I grieve with the families who lost sons and moms and cousins and neighbors, all the more because the grief, still so new, feels infinitely avoidable, reversible even. The ‘senseless’ nature of what appears to be random violence strengthens the shock, and we sit stunned: surely this could not have happened. Again.
But it has, and we can argue about the many ways to make sense of what has happened, and what continues to happen—over 250 times in 2019—in our country. The shooter in El Paso offered his own attempt at making sense of his actions, posting his thoughts about the world and what is wrong with it. He, echoing certain sentiments of our President, believes that people who are not white are what is wrong with our country. To that end, making all the sense in the world, he decided to kill as many of the problem-makers as he could. Makes sense.
Others blame the power of the NRA and the strong legislation they have passed for decades to protect the free will and rights of gun owners. They will make sense of the deaths by blaming the lack of universal background checks for gun buyers, or trade show loopholes, or bump stocks, or gaping deficits in our mental health coverage and treatment. From this perspective, the resulting violence makes sense.
I’d like to offer another explanation in an effort to make sense of the world around us. It fits here in this series examining the gaps between the things we know to be true and the things we continue to accept, senseless as they are. Outright violence toward others makes sense when we recognize that as a society, we have chosen good manners over the good. Despite the fact that we believe some speech is uncivil, hateful, and even dangerous, most of us rarely choose to speak up when we witness it face to face. Instead, we stay quiet, preferring good manners, and leave the hate lingering, unchecked, in the air.
We, collectively, prefer peace keeping to peace making.
Imagine men, gathered around a grill in a backyard, kids playing nearby. One of them shakes his head and whistles when another mentions the name of a young and attractive teacher at the neighborhood school. The whistler goes on to say, “I wish she’d teach me a thing or two.” The men laugh, some uncomfortably, knowing that teacher has been objectified in demeaning ways.
Imagine a group of women discussing a friend whose kids go to a school with a wide variety of races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. They say, “Can you imagine? Think about all the bad influences the kids will have to deal with. They won’t be able to go to playdates or anything!” The women nod knowingly, while a few just look down, uncertain how to respond to the prejudices and assumptions the other women accept about a community they don’t know.
In both of these instances, we often choose to let inappropriate speech go unchecked. When we stay silent—even knowing it is wrong—we honor the evil spoken by others. We believe the lie that it would be bad manners to express discomfort with another person’s dehumanizing stance. We assume we would be the ‘bad guy’ if we speak up, and instead protect the person whose bigoted perspectives and poor assumptions abuse an entire gender, race or class.
Schools now teach that we all have a part to play in stopping bullies; indeed, bystanders have many options if they want to help. And yet, how often do adults simply look down, mouths closed, while speech that demeans others is muttered around us? We tend to think more highly of ourselves and our good citizenship than we deserve. We like to think we are like Spiderman: good, responsible stewards of all the power we have been given. Instead though, I’m afraid we horde our power and abandon our values if they threaten our comfort.
I understand that no one wants to be the jerk who makes the barbeque uncomfortable by confronting the sexist man demeaning his kid’s teacher. On the other hand, Seriously?! We would rather not say a word of caution than to allow a “great guy” to freely and shamelessly objectify a woman while his daughters play nearby? This kind of thinking helps preserve the hateful thinking of those who demean and hurt others. When we privilege the status quo and our comfort over the safety and dignity of all people, we create environments where a white supremacist mass murderer can believe his thoughts echo the thoughts of most other white Americans. Instead of normalizing words that dismiss or hurt others, could we normalize challenging such thoughts? Could we all have the courage to speak up and say, “What do you mean by that?”, or “I don’t agree; can you help me understand what you are suggesting?”
Last night our neighbors stopped by, and as the conversation turned to the killings of the weekend, we sensed a shared desperation: What do we do? What can I do to stop this madness? Voting, lobbying and education were mentioned; marching and calling out in protest was suggested. Perhaps the hardest, bravest thing each of us can do is to simply challenge the lies told in our presence. Take responsibility for what is uttered around you. Sure, start a non-profit, and call your Senator. In the meantime though, be the person you hope you are. The next time a friend or acquaintance says a terrible thing about other people, speak up immediately to challenge that assumption. Instead of thinking it is bad manners to “cause a scene”, make it bad manners to be a white supremacist. Make it bad manners to tell a racist or sexist joke.
If we stop our silence, perhaps we can help identify those who want to annihilate certain types of people, getting them help before they hurt others. Their destructive thinking should stick out in all the worst ways, not get lost in what a lot of people say because no one ever asks them to stop.