November 29, 2015

Exploiting the Planned Parenthood Shooting to Promote a Narrative

Supporters of Planned Parenthood
Supporters of Planned Parenthood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The tendency to exploit tragedies to push our preferred political narratives seems so common these days as to be nearly universal. The political left and right both do it; political authoritarians and libertarians both do it. Activists for virtually any cause join in. Once our scripts have been activated, we mindlessly regurgitate whichever "facts" contained in the early reports advance our chosen narrative, selectively ignoring or dismissing those that do not. Amidst this rush to blame our enemies and advance our cause, we tend to lose sight of the victims and of potential solutions to the problems we face.

The immediate aftermath of the recent Planned Parenthood shootings provides a particularly vivid example of the lengths to which some will go to push their narratives. Twitter is a great way to get a sampling of not only what the people one follows are doing, but by searching hashtags, one can obtain a much larger and more diverse sample of general Twitter users. I saw a few conservatives celebrating the violence, with some saying that anyone associated with Planned Parenthood got what they deserved. Others explained that they do not condone violence against Planned Parenthood, but they also don't feel too bad for the victims because they shouldn't have been there.

Predictably, most of the outrage this time came from the left. I saw many liberals and progressives blaming Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and many more blaming conservatives in general. This started prior to the reports that surfaced yesterday in which the alleged shooter was described by police as saying something about "No more baby parts" and intensified afterward.

The outrage timeline was particularly fascinating here. Mere hours after news of the shooting broke and well before the "baby parts" report came out, many liberal or progressive atheists among those I follow on Twitter had decided the following:
  • The shooter was not mentally ill.
  • The shooter was a Republican who had been directly influenced by conservative talk radio and Fox News.
  • The shooter was a Christian extremist and/or a Christian terrorist, motivated to do what he did by Christian fundamentalism.
I opted to withhold judgment on the first point since I did not have nearly enough information at the time to make any such conclusion. Nobody else did either, but this did not seem to stop many from doing so. However, the second and third points did occur to me. The moment I heard the initial report, I found myself wondering whether the shooter was a conservative Christian terrorist too. I managed to resist the impulse to begin pushing this theory on Twitter because I recognized that I had little basis for assuming it was true. It occurred to me that I might be wrong and that the initial reports in cases like this are often wrong (e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing). I decided that I'd rather not weigh into the fray into more was known. Many of those I follow on Twitter had no such qualms. They were perfectly willing to push their narrative on the basis of sketchy information. I disagreed with them doing so, but I could easily understand why they might do so.

And then I saw this report by William Wan in The Washington Post yesterday, and things changed. Initial reports are often wrong, and I recognize that we might still learn that much of this particular report are inaccurate. Assuming for a moment that it is reasonably accurate, it sounds like the alleged shooter was already a concern to his neighbors and was known to police. It sounds like he was a low-functioning individual who may well have been suffering from some mental health problems. He sounds like the sort of person everyone tried to avoid. I found myself wondering what might have been different if some of his neighbors tried to help him. The report also made it sound like the alleged shooter was not a registered Republican and was probably not connected with any of the anti-abortion groups in the area.

As interesting as I found this report, it paled in comparison to what one prominent Black activist, DeRay Mckesson (@deray), had to say about it.

Evidently, this has to be about race because that is his preferred narrative. Presumably, the only reason the alleged shooter was not shot and killed by the responding officers is that he was White. I share Mr. Mckesson's desire to stop police officers from gunning down so many Black individuals, but this seems like an odd way to go about it.

What I've learned here is that people are going to continue to use every tragedy as an opportunity to push their narrative, regardless of whether the facts support it or not. While there is almost certainly nothing I can do to persuade them that this is a mistake that often undermines the cause(s) about which they claim to care, there is one thing I can do. I can opt not to participate in the process. That is, I can work harder to recognize and resist my own tendency to exploit tragedies to push my narrative, agenda, or cause.

For those interested in doing something constructive, Planned Parenthood makes it easy to donate money online.

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