A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss important truths helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.
It’s an axiom of communication analysis that meaning resides in the receiver. Words can be what communities want them to mean. Even so, when a term creates more fog than clarity, it overuse needs to be noticed.
The reporting in our national media has been calling the shooting deaths in Las Vegas “tragic,” as if the fates had some role to play in the bloody event. We are far too comfortable hearing man-made catastrophes like this massacre described with a term suggesting loss and grief, but deflecting the subject of agency. The label is apparently meant to give an event the emotional gravity it it due. But its widespread usage lets Americans off the hook too easily.
Here’s what I mean. Americans love euphemisms. “Taking one’s own life” sounds slightly softer than “suicide.” We ask directions to a “bathroom” when we need a toilet. These are perhaps harmless ways to moderate our language to preserve the sensitivities of others. Yet we really must get over the kind of Victorian ‘covering’ of awful events that happens when a term effectively maintains a cultural blind spot. Regarding the event in Las Vegas, arguing direct culpability by a single innocent citizen may be too much. But no high-functioning society tolerates the kind of gun accessibility that exists in the United States. If one result is a “new normal” of deadly and routine mass shootings, then we all collectively bear some responsibility. The neutralizing euphemism of “tragedy” dims a light that needs to shine brightly into the dark corner of rampant gun violence. Las Vegas is a less a tragedy than a mass murder. It was domestic terrorism as a bloodbath.
To call an event “tragic” strips it of a focus on agents and means. That’s a change from the oldest meaning of a tragedy, which was a theatrical form designed to let us witness flawed figures whose actions brought about their own demise. Think of Macbeth, Hamlet or even modern narratives of Richard Nixon. All have been rightly portrayed as participants in their own undoing. But we undo this emphasis on direct culpability by ignoring destructive and enabling social norms, giving ourselves unearned comfort in a term of compassion.
Of course the victims and families directly involved are justified in talking about their altered lives as a tragedy. But journalists have a duty to be more clear-eyed. A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss evidence of a culture that won’t change helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.