In Defense of Non-Reactivity

“Read the manifesto; don’t fall into the trap. He’s trying to be polarizing by pushing buttons he knows people will respond to in very specific ways.”

The above is my most popular tweet ever. It currently has about 1300 likes and 60 retweets, modest by twitter standards, but two orders of magnitude greater than anything I’d ever tweeted before. I sent it off as a response to Contrapoints, who I mostly disagree with, but whose content I generally like and follow. She had posted something about the Christchurch shooting being proof of the danger that racists pose to the world. Included in the thread were various pictures of people, Cernovich et al., making the “ok” sign, which, because that sign was used by the shooter in a mug shot, we were now supposed to believe meant “white power” rather than “ok.” Like I said, I disagree with Natalie on a lot of things, but she’s not relevant here. Someone was asserting that a sign used in one very deliberate way by the shooter was, for that very reason, intended in the same way by others who had used it in the past. This is like saying the Indians are really Nazis because both happen to use the swastika. I reacted to that error and perhaps fanned the flames I wanted to fight.

If I’d had more than 200 characters, this is what I would have said, though I’m not sure I would have gotten a better reaction: “You must read the manifesto. To not read the manifesto is to condemn yourself to ignorance and to leave yourself at the mercy of those who aren’t ignorant, and who will doubtless twist the facts to fit their narrative. You can only know the twisted if you also know the straight. So read the manifesto. But once you’ve read the manifesto, you must be very careful because of the traps that are contained within.” 

It’s very clear that its author wants sections of the text lifted and taken out of context; he understands memes, he understands how to divide people, and he has a very serious and well-thought out purpose. It takes me more than a few days to really understand a decent poem. How much more complex is this horrible thing he has created? How much harder is it to understand and react to wisely? It is not wise to react to something unless you understand it, and it will probably take more than a couple days to understand the phenomenon the shooter created by ending the lives of 50 people, causing tremendous pain to thousands of others, and by throwing away his own life. We can, however, know that he is either insane or very serious. The contents of the manifesto do not allow us to believe that he is insane.

Therefore, early in such a crisis, our only reaction should be to counsel unreaction. Any other reaction would constitute a disreaction. The status quo is precisely what the shooter sought to change. It is harder to know how he wanted to change it, especially when he has shown a desire to manipulate second order reactions, as evidenced in the manifesto. So, don’t change the status quo. Any other reaction: attacking gun rights, defending gun rights, attacking white nationalism, defending white nationalism, blaming Pewdie-Pie, praising Pewdie-Pie, any other reaction, is probably unwise, given the content of the manifesto. The whole thing is so radioactive that we can scarcely manipulate it directly – we must do it with our hands encased in stiff lead lest we die of the radiation. Mourn the dead, and wait for the fall-out to decay, when it is safer to sift the rubble. In the meantime, we must talk about how to sift rubble safely. That’s not paralysis – it’s sanity.” 

Emotion distorts our perception. It’s cliché because it’s so true: seeing the present through the lens of the past can give us a more useful perspective on that present by allowing us to simulate distance. Recently, I’ve been thinking about Stalin through the words of Professor Stephen Kotkin, his preeminent biographer. What did Kotkin call Stalin’s dictatorship – the murderous, genocidal, and terrifying dictatorship by which something like 20 million people died? He called it, “a transcendent work of art.” More fully, he said: “Stalin’s dictatorship was a transcendent work of art — the gold standard for all dictatorships — you cannot have a cheap psychoanalysis of his masterpiece.” 

I would suggest that the NZ shooter’s actions be viewed likewise. Now, if you think that to call something “a work of art” is to encourage or praise that thing, this may not be the conversation for you.   If your first thought is to accuse Kotkin of Stalinist apologia (or me of mass-shooting apologia), this may not be a conversation that you’re equipped to have. You are either too young, uneducated, or unlucky to understand. If you are confused as to how a name normally so good as “art” should be assigned by sane people to something so evil as dictatorship and murder, rather than casting aspersions, you should be wondering, “What is the definition of art and how could dictatorship and murder answer to it?”

Wikipedia’s definition will serve, emphases are mine: “Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author's imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” Both Stalin’s dictatorship and any given mass shooting answer to this definition. 

Why give the label “art” to something so terrible? Why not deny to such evil any word or thought that might contain the faintest whiff of praise? Because it reminds us that to understand something which has been very deliberately and carefully constructed is not easy, that there may be much we don’t understand (by design) about such an artifact, and that an analytic understanding will not come quickly. It reminds us that, while an analytic understanding may not come quickly, the artifact is designed to be easily understood in a certain way, it is meant to call forth a predictable response from those who behold it, and that this response is desired by the artist. If we do not wish to succumb to the artist’s desires, we must not understand as he wants us to understand. That means we must eschew our first and easiest understanding, since that is most likely the one that has been designed for us by our enemy, and we seek to frustrate our enemy’s design. But this is very difficult, in precisely that proportion to which the work of art is impactful. 

The safe thing to do, if we are unsure of something’s intended effects on our actions, but suspect them to be very evil, is to maintain our previous course, prior to beholding that something, to not be affected, to not move an inch from our previous heading, until we have a thorough analytic understanding of the phenomenon. Only once we’ve achieved that kind of understanding can we move in ways that we are certain do not contribute to evil. We must be patient, contemplative, and restrained, or we risk acting in ways that evil intended for us to act. This, itself, would be evil. To the extent that we cannot or refuse to do this, we are conquered. To the extent that we react slowly, or not at all, we conquer. 

Two eternal truths seem to be in conflict. First, know thy enemy. Second, never do what your enemy wants. But what if your enemy wants to be known? How can you fight an enemy that you don’t know? This is a deep problem, but it isn’t a new one. In some ways, it’s the problem posed by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil back in the garden of Eden. The Bible’s solution – listen to God, don’t disobey – wasn’t satisfying back then and isn’t viable today. What authority would we now allow to limit our knowledge? If there is a limitation that would be good for us, who would we trust to make the determination? It’s the problem posed by any kind of propaganda. Ideas are dangerous. Ideas have consequences. And yet we must know them, judge them, and so doing risk being made into tools by them; else we must suffer manipulation by forces to which we’ve rendered ourselves blind, and be buffeted by explosions to which we’ve made ourselves deaf, but which may, nonetheless, tear us apart.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.

Justin Shelby