Why Spectacle Matters
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.
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019
On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…
500 to Medical errors
300 to the Flu
250 to Suicide
200 to Car Accidents
40 to Homicide via Handgun
Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.
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? An individual homicide, even one that is racially charged, is probably caused by a more benign situation. It has less systematic risk. 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.