Caring Is All We Seem Able to Do

Bags packed for a long overdue vacation, I saw the first reports: “Latest mass shooting” does not narrow it down as much as one would like, and that is exactly the problem.

Three days ago, I would have been talking about the murder of 10 people in a Buffalo grocery store. Today, I am talking about the 19 dead students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas — one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. The adjectives are shorthand for our sins.

Two weeks ago, politicians decried peaceful protests at the homes of Supreme Court justices as unseemly and dangerous. It took Congress mere days from the leak of a draft opinion to pass a law granting justices additional security. A few hours after the shooting, Texas Republicans suggested arming teachers at schools. It is the kind of unserious proposal that young children offer for solving world hunger. “Just drop a big wheel of cheese from the sky!”

Not to make light of teachers, but mine used to fuss in the hallways about dragging the multimedia cart from room to room. It is hard to imagine my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sims, armed. She wore orthopedic shoes and often lost her markers in her short cropped Afro.

Teachers with guns is a fantasy, no matter whom you cast as Mrs. Sims. Trained police officers in Uvalde were no match because the shooter had comparable weaponry. We may as well send in wheels of cheese.

What we do instead is hope, the grisliest kind of hope. We hope, in some twisted way, that the next victims will be worthy enough for us to care about. If not high school students, then maybe the elderly. If not the elderly, then maybe the very young. If not the very young, then maybe one of their own. From Columbine to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to Sandy Hook, no one has mattered enough.

The problem is not one of caring. Even the people with whom I vehemently disagree probably care. I concede that. The problem is what they care about more and how little it matters how much the rest of us care.

We post pictures of the dead and the bereaved. We do this because we cannot or will not accept that others know the same facts that we know but care less about them than we do. In these moments, we struggle to make the other side care. Parents know that children are murdered. Religious faithful know that the elderly are murdered in church. Politicians know that their constituents live in fear of being gunned down. But other things matter more to them. Winning an argument. Owning a gun. Making money. Never having to think of distasteful things. And winning more arguments. Theirs is a challenge for a priest, not politics.

We also ignore what sociologists would call the material basis of emotions. Emotions are not politically neutral experiences; they emerge not from the ether but from the earth, the very foundation of our dirty, delicious, embodied lives. I’m reminded of research looking at the relationship between racial identity and empathy. In a study that measured levels of empathy among white Americans watching a white police officer shoot an unarmed Black man, the more that viewers identified as white, the less empathy they had for the victim. Commitment to membership in the racial majority can shape our emotional response to human tragedy. You see a similar relationship as it relates to all kinds of other violence. This is not an empathy gap but an inequality gap. People care as much as their material reality allows them to care.

As for the rest of us who care marginally more about murdered people than we do about winning an argument or owning a gun or being sad, the challenge is harder. We actually want the politics of hope, even safety, but we cannot secure it. We cannot bring about the world we want to live in through voting, through boycotting, by suing. Anne Helen Petersen writes in her newsletter: “Collective and individual action feel impotent. The idea of representative democracy comes to feel like a farce.”

She is right. It feels like a farce because it is a farce. Petersen names the risk: a legitimacy crisis brought about because our political system no longer convinces those it rules that it deserves to rule. The political analyst Elie Mystal put it even more sharply: “All the people who care to stop school shootings already vote for politicians who also care, and all the people who don’t care either vote GOP or don’t vote at all. It’s all baked in. And the people who don’t care have shown that carnage doesn’t change their minds.” It does not change our minds.

I keep thinking about something else, something related to legitimacy: the crisis not just of how we vote but of citizenship. I’ve written about the consumer-citizen. She expresses her political beliefs through her consumer practices. As consumer-citizens, we have been conditioned to believe that if our votes don’t matter, our donations will. And if our donations don’t do it, then we can simply call the manager or email political liaisons. Citizenship looks like leaving a Yelp review for the representative who was elected in your gerrymandered district.

None of it is enough. Citizen-consumers are ill equipped for the electoral politics we have. That politics is bigger than our preferences. Big donors, both corporate and supranational, have more say than the majority. The issue isn’t that voters don’t care about gun control but that caring is all we seem able to do.

I do not know what will change our model of citizenship. But I do know that the tools we developed as citizen-consumers are obsolete and we make new guns every day.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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