Responding to Tragedies With Banal Platitudes—as Jimmy Fallon Did—is Self-Serving, Complacent, and Detrimental to Change

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Responding to Tragedies With Banal Platitudes—as Jimmy Fallon Did—is Self-Serving, Complacent, and Detrimental to Change

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, in which at least 50 people were killed in a gay nightclub, there have been so many productive discussions and debates about homophobia, America’s gun laws, and the influence of “radical Islam” and ISIS. There have even been useful debates about which of these issues should take prominence in the national dialogue—over the course of two days, a friend convinced me that the circumstances of this particular incident should be making us talk more about America’s gun control laws and homophobic culture, and less about ISIS, which was almost an afterthought for the shooter. Omar Pateen’s primary motivations were a hatred for gay people (that included a good deal of self-loathing stemming from his own desires), and whose primary vehicle for committing the heinous crime was the ease with which he legally procured an AR-15.

There’s room for disagreement on that point—conservatives only want to talk about radical Islam, and mainstream media has a hell of a time even recognizing the homophobic element of the shootings—but there should be no disagreement on the broad idea that American inaction in the aftermath of these increasingly common tragedies is the scourge that lets them continue.

Unfortunately, I’ve been noticing a very different kind of reaction both on television, the Internet, and social media, and it’s become so prevalent as to be nauseating. If I had to describe this genre in two words, it would be “banal” and “platitudinous,” and if I had to condense them all into a single example, it would look like this:

“Hey, everyone? I’ve got a crazy idea: How about instead of hatred and violence, we try love? I am so incredibly sad today, and I just want to reach out and hug everyone. Please go out and be kind to someone today. No matter what you believe, no matter who you’re voting for, please go out and love someone. We are better than this.”

Now, at some point after reading enough of these insipid responses, I had to ask myself a difficult question: Why is my gut reaction to roll my eyes at these words, and why do I feel a sense of annoyance that lingers to such a degree that I want to write an entire article about it? I mean, am I the kind of person who doesn’t agree that love is better than hate? Is this really the issue I want to be tackling right now, when, on the surface, it’s among the least important aspects of the Orlando shooting? What’s with me?

Here are my answers:

1. Their words are empty and meaningless. They are written by people who are consciously refusing to make an effort to understand the dynamics behind why these shootings happen, which is why they ramble on with weak platitudes and perform their grief without reference to cause or solution. It’s enough to post a video of a puppy befriending a lion in a zoo, because “we all need this right now.”

2. Their words are self-serving. Maybe the authors are truly deluded enough to believe a Facebook post or a doe-eyed “why can’t we all just get along?!?!” essay is going to usher in world peace, or that the next shooter will see it and throw down his weapon and take up salsa dancing instead. That kind of internal self-aggrandizement is well within the bounds of belief. But what’s actually happening, I think, is that they’re using a tragedy as a way to grab a share of the facile redemption narrative that always follows an atrocity. Basically, they want applause.

3. Their words are apolitical at a time when only political thinking, and aggressive political action outside of the establishment, can force a change. In this way, they actually diminish a potential movement, and signal to Senators and Representatives and other leaders that, sure, you can still take lobbyists’s money and vote with the NRA to nix even the faintest whiff of gun control, and you can continue to erode LGBT rights, and you can continue to scapegoat a minuscule band of foreign rebels for problems that are born, nurtured, and reproduced inside our own borders. Nevertheless, the authors seem to believe that “not politicizing” the tragedy should earn them a blue ribbon, when actually it undercuts the possibility of reform.

4. Their words are a method of ignoring the problem. By raking in Facebook likes or Twitter hearts or YouTube views or Internet comments, they are tacitly endorsing the idea that anybody is actually doing anything. They type the words, others praise them, and they flatter themselves that they’ve done something courageous or important. The truth, of course, is that they’ve done nothing except redefine what democracy requires of its citizens in the worst way imaginable. They’ve turned complacency into a worldview, and institutionalized armchair activism.

I’m going to pick on Jimmy Fallon now, which is harsh since he is far from the only guilty party. But his monologue last night—his first since the shootings—was a pitch-perfect example of the empty platitudes that have washed over the larger discourse. Watch it here:

Let’s take a closer look at what he actually said, piece by piece. Fallon’s words in bold, starting after his recap of the incident:

“I know everyone is angry right now and not really knowing how to react. But this is a time where people are looking to us and how we will react.”

Fine. Hopefully we react better than we did last time, when the 9/11 attacks led us down a road that ended in two hopeless “forever wars,” an explosion of extremist Islamic ideology, and the prospect of endless quagmire in the Middle East and terrorism at home. But that requires specific plans and actions for a way forward, because in their absence, it’s all too easy for demagogues to seize power.

Now, obviously Fallon can’t say any of this, because he works for NBC and his job is to pander to people and avoid offending sensibilities at all costs. What follows cannot, by definition, be an incisive look at what’s plaguing our country, because that is an inherently political take that you will never, ever see come from the mouth of a man who spends most of his time inventing games to play with celebrities, and coming up with compliments that are disguised as questions. So I have to ask: Why even address Orlando? Why even talk about it, when you know every word out of your mouth is going to be an act of anodyne cowardice?

“This country was built on an idea that we don’t agree on everything; that we are a tolerant, free nation that encourages debate, free-thinking, believing, or not, in what you choose.”

“This country is founded on the idea that everybody is always right for the simple fact that we’re American and won’t get put in a dungeon for speaking our minds. So let’s celebrate that right by being as inoffensive as possible.”

“I, as a new father, am thinking, ‘What do I tell my kids? What do I tell them about this? What can we learn from this? What if my kids are gay? What do I tell them?’ Maybe there’s a lesson from all this. A lesson in tolerance,” he said.

How about, instead, a lesson in reality? How about if your sons or daughters are gay, you tell them the truth about how there will be people out there who hate them, and who want to hurt them, and who will never, ever be tolerant? About how the only way to preserve and protect a kind of life where you can be openly gay and have a reasonable hope of not just surviving, but gaining respect from your peers and pursue prosperity, is to constantly fight for it? And that if you don’t mind, people will hurt you, and people will take away your rights, and you will be demonized and victimized and minimized? That the world of today—like the world of yesterday, and the world of always—is a fucking battlefield where happiness is never guaranteed, but must be bought at a heavy price?

How about any of that, instead of hoping for tolerance in a vacuum?

“We need to support each other’s differences and worry less about our own opinions.”

What? If I support someone else’s differences, isn’t that actually my opinion? And isn’t part of the fight for tolerance swaying people’s opinions with action?

Get back to debate, and away from believing (or supporting) the idea that if someone doesn’t live the way you want them to live, you just buy a gun and kill them. Bomb them up. That is not okay.”

Okay, great, thanks for the tip.

My big problem with this entire speech is this: Who does he think he’s reaching? What will any of this preaching to the choir accomplish? If someone who’s considering an act of violence saw this clip, how would any of Fallon’s words change anything?

The truth is, they can’t, because they’re vacuous.

You know what might have changed something, and made an incredible impact? If he had said something like this: “It’s inherently wrong that a mentally ill homophobe who was on the FBI watch list at one point can go out and buy an AR-15 legally. That shouldn’t be allowed.”

That would be tremendously meaningful, coming from him. But it also might offend his sponsors, or part of his audience. He can barely even imply that homophobia is wrong—he has to say it delicately, because he’s constantly playing a ratings game and tolerance for gay people is just barely a majority opinion in America.

“We need to get back to being brave enough to accept that we have different opinions and that’s OK because that’s what America is built on.”

This is nothing. This is astounding in its nothingness.

“This idea that we can stand up and speak our minds and live our lives and and not be punished for that. Or mocked on the Internet. Or killed by someone you don’t know.”

Fallon: “Hate is bad, guys! Stop hating!”

Every gun and and bomb on the planet disappears

This was just one bad guy here. Forty-nine good people and one bad guy. And there will always be more good than evil.

Or will there be some evil, some good, and a whole lot of complacency that tips the scales in the wrong direction?

When I think of Orlando, I think of nothing but fun and joy and families. If anyone can do it, you can. Keep loving each other, keep respecting each other, and keep on dancing. We’ll be right back.

And that’s how it ends—a maddening non-response to a tragedy, carefully crafted to say nothing while trying to capture the rhythm of inspiring rhetoric. It’s manipulative, it lacks purpose, and it punts the problem to the future. Now, do I think Jimmy Fallon can do anything to stop domestic terror or hatred? I mean, maybe—he has a very public profile, and Samantha Bee showed what it’s like to have the balls to raise an actual issue—but I recognize that he’s just one person. But once he made the choice not to say anything concrete, he should have let the whole thing drop rather than insulting the victims by tap-dancing around the reality of their deaths. This was, at heart, a cowardly act of evasion, and it should make us all angry.

I recognize that I’m coming at the Orlando shootings from a pessimistic perspective, especially by American standards. I think what happened at the Pulse Nightclub was inevitable, and that it’s going to happen again. I even think that without the sort of drastic change that feels impossible in our current political system, we are probably too late fix this problem, or to fix climate change, or to fix the entrenched wealth and power inequality that will further radicalize people around the world.

Still, I hope there’s a solution, and I know that if one exists, it will come from those us who still hold a shred of democratic power antagonizing for change in the most aggressive way possible. But the pressure needs to be overwhelming in order to succeed, and every time someone who should be fighting puts on rose-colored glasses and spouts some lazy platitude, it reduces that pressure and makes it easier for us to do nothing. It’s a form of endorsing passivity and ignorance, and it’s a form of giving up. If we have any fight left within us, we shouldn’t accept it.

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