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‘Now Is Not The Time’: Is It Wrong To Engage In Political Debate Following A Tragedy?

Written by Alexandra Couto and Guy Kahane

In the days following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018, many of the surviving students and staff gathered to demand immediate change to the gun laws that allowed Nicholas Cruz to kill so many of their friends and pupils. Many students held banners on which it was written: “We don’t want your thoughts and condolences, we want policy & change!” Speaking at the rally, teacher Melissa Falkowski said “They say ‘it’s not the time’ — Now is the time! There is no other time!”

Was Melissa Falkowski right? Or is it wrong to engage in political and moral debate so soon after such a tragedy? Should we instead just offer our “thoughts and prayers”, postponing public debate to a later time?

In a recent paper, we try to answer this question about the timing of debate following major tragedies. It all depends on whether there is any force to the common criticism that ‘now is not the time’, which is often heard after a disaster, but rarely explained or defended. Here are some ways of fleshing out this complaint: Disaster and Debate in Journal of Moral Philosophy

Too little information?

You might worry that in the hours and days following a tragedy we just don’t know enough to engage in useful debate. It may seem, for example, that this was a terrorist attack. But later we might discover that the attacker suffered from mental illness, or was merely a disgruntled co-worker. So it would be wrong (even dangerous) to jump to conclusions before the fog clears.

However, in very many cases we know enough fairly soon. And starting debate early needn’t mean that its conclusions must be hasty—when we start debate, and when we end it, so to speak, are different issues. In any event, one often hears the complaint that ‘now is not the time’ even when all the relevant facts are known. So the complaint couldn’t be just the banal advice to wait till enough information is in.

Too much emotion?

Another worry might be that immediately following tragedy our emotions are too raw, and that this will severely distort any conclusions we may reach (think of lynch mobs, or excessive military responses). So we should postpone debate until our emotions cool down.

Now we don’t deny that intense emotion can sometimes undermine decision-making. But this version of the complaint assumes a crude and implausible view of emotion. Emotion often facilitates, and may even be required, for sound practical deliberation. Anger at needless deaths may be exactly what we need to think matters through properly. Moreover, that later moment of calm debate may never come—if we wait too long, the tragedy will be but a dim memory for most members of the public (we will return to this point below). Finally, there is the point we already made earlier—that we start debate early hardly means we need to rush to conclusions, let alone condone mobs or rash military action.

No space for grief?

You might worry instead that early debate, or the drawing of general lessons from a tragedy, are incompatible with feeling genuine grief. And by starting debate, one essentially forces others to engage in it, even if only to complain about the initiation of debate. This can be seen as a kind of ‘affective pollution’ that prevents a fitting response even from those who do not want to now engage in this debate.

However, in order to understand what has happened we often must consider a tragedy in light of broader political issues. To know how to properly respond emotionally to the particular tragedy itself, one needs to know what it means, what exactly happened—a response, for example, to a tragic death that treats it as something entirely generic is itself incomplete and inappropriate. It surely matters whether the death was due to, say, accident, insanity or racial hatred. So a tragedy often only makes full sense against a broader background of events and issues—of which some will inevitably be contentious. Indeed, an atrocity may itself be motivated by political grievance or anger at some policy, meaning that the tragedy will be ‘politicised’ from the start. We cannot understand (and respond to) anything without employing some general concepts—there is no such thing as just confronting the unadorned particularity of things.

‘I told you so’?

It might also be objected that debate not only draws our consciousness away from grief, but also makes the grief we do profess insincere. What we really care about is the general political point that we think is demonstrated by the tragedy, not the tragedy itself. Worse, if the tragedy is perceived as offering powerful confirmation of one’s prior views, or even as a means to promote one’s political agenda, it can seem as if at one level one actually welcomes the tragedy, and covertly finds some satisfaction in it: ‘I told you so’.

But tying a tragedy to a larger political or moral issue needn’t be motivated by a cynical desire to demonstrate that one was right. Moreover, if this was the issue, why should this be a problem specifically for early debate? After all, we could be treating the tragedy as a ‘means’ to support some general point even if we referred to it in later debate. And the suggestion that we should never connect tragedy to a larger debate makes no sense. Great tragedies and disasters are exactly the kind of things we should take into account in moral and political debate.

Disrespectful to victims?

A related charge is that early debate is disrespectful to the victims, that there is something defective about seeing the tragedy as merely an example of some general point. Is this really compatible with caring about the concrete harm done to particular people?

However—and building on our responses to the previous objections—failure to tie a tragedy to the larger issues may itself be disrespectful to the victims. If the tragedy is due to great injustice, then pure grief may be incomplete; it should be accompanied by anger or outrage. As we said above, a proper understanding of the tragedy requires a grasp of its significance. In other words, by tying an event to something larger, we can increase, rather reduce, its individual meaning. We make it matter more.

So we do not see cogent reasons to postpone debate. But there might be an even stronger argument to be made. We will end by floating that idea that we, as citizens, might actually have a (defeasible) duty to engage in public debate, a duty that has more clout at certain points in time—and perhaps especially following a major tragedy.

The political philosopher John Rawls famously argued that if liberal democracies are just institutions then we, the citizens of such democracies, have a natural duty to support them. But liberal democracies require public debate to flourish and prosper as democracies, and thus supporting liberal democracies requires a degree of engagement in public debate.

Such a duty doesn’t of course yet support the claim that we have a greater duty to engage in public debate, shortly after tragedies have occurred. To arrive at this conclusion, we need to add the Rawls-inspired idea of a division of moral labour. Adapted to our context, the basic idea is even if liberal democracy requires its citizens to engage politically at least some of the time, we can’t expect citizens to be engaged in political debate and decision-making all the time. That would be far too demanding. Citizens also have their own lives to live, and personal projects and values to pursue. So we must restrict the demands of citizenship by introducing a division of moral labour. This can be achieved, in part, by delegating much of the political work to professional politicians. But it can also be achieved by restricting the intrusion of the political into ordinary life to specific periods. There’s obviously the intense public engagement with politics preceding major elections. But another such period might be that which follows major events, including national tragedies. That’s because these are times at which the attention and emotions of the general public have already shifted to the national (or international) scale. They are thus unique points of opportunity for the general public to actively engage in political debate. Given that, as we have argued, there do not seem to be strong reasons to resist this opportunity, citizens should seize it in order to fulfil their duty to support, and play their part in, just democratic institutions.

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