Software / Writing

Why Spectacle Matters

The sum total of all the deadliest mass shootings in the US is still dwarfed by deaths due to flu alone. Is this a valid reason to quell our response to mass shootings? Source

Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist, has garnered a lot of criticism for a tweet he posted regarding the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

The most charitable interpretation of Tyson’s tweet is that he wants people to look past their instinctive reactions to the mass shootings and pay more attention to more mundane issues that cost us more lives. Insensitivity aside, why is this stance so asinine?

Tyson is failing to consider how a mass shooting is different than a bunch of less dramatic events. Imagine instead that there were 34 more individual homicides that day than usual. Even if all the homicides had been racially motivated, without a single actor that takes the lives of many people it’s difficult to imagine that any of the individual homicides had the goal of planned, systematic, elimination of a minority group. Proof that there are those amongst us interested in things like “*shooting as many Mexicans as possible” *raises more uncertainty than an equivalent number of individual homicides might. In other words, the intent of a mass shooting could be more dangerous, so we treat it with an elevated response. More broadly, even when the results of two events are the same, the event with larger instinctual response might mean that we’re more wary of what that event signals.

Events that terrify us raise more questions about the future. How many people like the killers are really around? How much influence are conspiracy theories really gaining the States? Could this be a sign of something larger? Individual homicides, even if they’re racially charged, are less likely to raise the same questions because the bar for the event to occur is so much lower. Even in large numbers, they pose less systematic risk [1]. Car accidents and medical errors? Even less.

Overreactions to grotesque scenarios are still a real problem. It’s well known that people are more moved by individual narratives than data; this is why non-profits like UNICEF promote their services through individual stories rather than by giving prospective donors the figures on, say, child mortality rates. We should be careful about our knee-jerk responses to the stories we hear. Reducing every event to its body count, however, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We should pay attention to a spectacle because of its causes, not its death toll. The shootings are horrific because we want to believe they’re not possible, that the cause, the desire to kill large numbers of people, doesn’t exist. The reasons are terrifying, so we react differently. There’s nothing wrong with that.


**[1] **What I mean by systematic risk here is that the threat is unpredictable, destabilizing, or part of some larger trend. A good example of this might be killings that are a part of a religious doctrine or conspiracy theory. Similar to the financial definition of the term.