Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Observing Tragedy

Warning: This post contains apparent grotesque callousness towards victims of violence

This morning, as the elevator doors were closing, someone hurried towards them. Someone close to the door saw them and put a hand in the way. Then, after the approaching person entered we heard that voice saying, "Please stand clear, doors are closing" and beeping as the doors slowly shut. That last person who got on the elevator said, "Sorry, that's my fault."

My gut reaction was to say, "No it's not, we're all equally to blame." In my building it seems normal that you try to make it through a closing elevator door. It's also normal that if someone is coming you hold the door for them. I have every reason to suspect that all of us would be a door rusher and a door holder in the same circumstances as the person who boarded last and the person who held the door. It's not our doing or within our control that we arrive as an elevator opens its doors or as the doors are starting to close, so any one of us could equally have been the person who held the doors open.

This assigning blame by examining possible universes thing isn't really something I thought other people would understand without explanation, and odds are slim anyone wants a lecture on ethics and blameworthiness in the elevator in the morning, so I didn't say anything. I'm sure the person didn't really feel that bad about holding up the elevator for us anyway.

But I don't need lengthy explanations to come to conclusions like our shared blame over holding up an elevator door. It's my instinct that we are all equally to blame, the thinking about why that is and justifying it comes after the fact.

Which is true: that I survived my trip to work today or that while I did survive I also died but with slim enough probability that it doesn't make much of a functional difference? Since the event has passed, I think the former is probably truer in an ordinary sense of the word "true" but I also think that the ordinary sense in which we use the word "true" leads to a lot of mistakes. My instinctual preference for the latter is validated, I think, by the fact that process and probability based thinking leads to better decisions than outcome based thinking.

When something like the Orlando shooting happens, I carry on with my day. But I carry on with my day somewhat distressed by the reactions of other people. Sometimes that makes me feel angry or sad, and my emotional narrative is well summarized by this tweet:
Other times, though, it just makes me feel alienated, like everyone else is part of some common delusion that I can see from the outside but I can't buy into. While the news and the politicians and the people at work get upset about the 49 people killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, I just sit there wondering why they weren't equally upset about the 49 people killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 11.

Most likely, from the perspective of nearly everyone in the world, that question makes me seem as absurd as it makes you all seem to me. From your perspective it seems like I'm saying that you should be as upset about imaginary things as real things. From my perspective it seems like you are all upset about the date and time it happened rather than the actual event. Like June 22 you just wishes that the shooting could happen on June 23 instead of June 12 so you wouldn't have to worry about it.

Forty-nine people are dead because of an incident that occurred on June 12. Those people aren't around to talk to enjoy or to suffer through their lives, to interact with the people who loved them, or to pay public transit fare. And everything that is wrong with the world that makes this kind of thing happen is exactly as wrong today as it was on June 11.

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