Short answer? Because it’s maddening. It’s so infuriatingly predictable and horrible. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that when tragedy strikes, my first thought, after registering the shock and horror of what happened, is to consider all the ways that the tragedy will be exploited, and guess how long it’ll take until that happens. I’m rarely wrong. Every time there’s a mass shooting, I count the seconds until Wayne LaPierre issues a pro-gun statement, and wonder whether it’ll be him who speaks first, or the anti-gun crowd, neither side able to wait until the bodies are actually cold and buried before they pick them apart for scraps of an argument.
Here’s the long answer. Every single time I’ve lost my cool, and in a moment of pure anguish and frustration written a diatribe against whatever social ill I felt was the “real” cause of whichever tragedy had just happened, it made me feel good for around 10 minutes, but then inevitably sucked me into an irrelevant argument that left me feeling terrible, and utterly disconnected from the empathy I knew I should be feeling. In the aftermath of the Yishai Schlissel stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, I was so angry I got on Facebook and said that I hoped this would cause the Nations to hate us, because maybe if they used this as an excuse to start persecuting us again, we’d get an idea of how wrong and hurtful our homophobia really is. But of course the world doesn’t work like that. Violence doesn’t beget understanding, it begets more violence, until the whole world is blinded by it.
This is especially relevant when we have a suicide in the religious, or formerly-religious world. Immediately, the vultures descend on the body, from both sides, each claiming the suicide victim as their martyr. He died because of mental illness, and we need to do our utmost to address this serious problem. No, counters the other side, she died because her frum family, shitty, callous people that they were, tortured her so relentlessly about her choice to leave religion, that she finally killed herself. No, you don’t know the whole story. No, you don’t know the whole story. And on it goes, the buzzards feast, and secondary to the entire discussion, is the reason the discussion is happening: A person died.
A few years ago, an IDF soldier was found dead with his weapon next to him. The circumstances around his death were a little murky, but since he had been an open survivor of abuse who had described his struggles on his blog, certain activists immediately jumped to the conclusion that it must be suicide, because it fit the narrative they wanted to promote. And as just a cause as I’m sure they felt their co-opting of tragedy was, as just as I’m sure everyone who exploits tragedy for their agenda feels it is, they did so without regard to the feelings of the family, the actual mourners who were now left bereft of a son, a brother, a cousin, and on top of all that had to read agenda-driven speculation online while their loved one awaited burial.
Personally, I decided not to discuss it at the time. I can’t tell you why—it wasn’t because of this policy that I have, which, at the time, I didn’t yet have—but something stayed my opinions. About two years later, I got a Facebook message from the sister of that soldier, thanking me for not jumping on the bandwagon that was using her brother’s supposed suicide as a soapbox for their opinions. She told me that they still weren’t sure what it was, and that she appreciated the fact that I hadn’t used his death to make a point. That was the moment that I realized what had stopped me from discussing it—the understanding that the very worst time to discuss tragedy, is immediately in its aftermath.
If we intend to teach, to educate, to change the world in a way that prevents tragedy from happening again, then the absolute worst time to discuss it is when emotions are running high, no one is particularly interested in discussing things rationally, everyone already has an opinion that you’re not going to change, and nothing new will be added to the conversation that one billion other people with a Facebook account won’t already be saying. And of course all these post-tragedy rants range from the mildly to wildly offensive, not just to people on your friends lists, but also to the victims and their families who have to hear the world fighting for the endorsement rights to their pain and suffering.
If you must speak following tragedy, if you absolutely must say something because it hurts too much to keep it all in, try to think about what the victims and their families want to hear. Make it about them, not yourselves. What we might call slacktivism might just be compassion. A world standing in solidarity, saying “We’re here for you, all of us, and we have a lot to say, but we understand that right now is not the time to say it.” And yes, changing your profile picture to include a different overlay might not actually change anything, but you don’t need to immediately start changing anything in the direct aftermath of tragedy. If there was something you could have done about it, presumably you would have.
But the tragedy happened. And there are people who suffer in its aftermath. And those people need love, and support, and a feeling of safety and security while their world crashes down around them. They don’t need your opinions, and they don’t need your agendas. There’s always time for that later, when the passion and anger has subsided, and we can begin to discuss how to prevent it from ever happening again. When you won’t say things you’ll later regret. When you won’t lose friends because you absolutely had to speak your mind. When your words are motivated not by an angry desire to watch the world that allowed such tragedy burn, but by a love and empathy that needs the world to heal.