There should be a word for what happens in our media culture in the wake of tragedy when people jump all over it to score points for whatever their pet cause is. It’s something like schadenfreude, but not quite, because it does not involve rejoicing in the bad fortune that falls upon people we don’t like. Rather, it’s a matter of rejoicing when someone whom we see as representing “the other side” does or says something stupid or repugnant or downright evil, because it gives us a proverbial poster child to point to when we make our arguments. Let’s call it “tragicglee” (not to be confused with last week’s episode of Glee, which happened to focus on a potential tragedy).
We saw it after Sandy Hook, which was a genuinely horrific event, particularly for 26 American families. But even though school shootings of mostly white children by certifiable madmen with assault weapons account for only a tiny fraction of all American gun deaths (as evidenced by the constantly growing statistics, mapped here), gun control proponents have used it as an opportunity to move a few more yards down the field toward legislative reform, even if there aren’t enough votes just yet.
The Kermit Gosnell case has been particularly interesting, with multiple layers of tragicglee. First, there was glee by abortion opponents over this living, breathing example of how abortion rights surely lead to infanticide. “Well,” wrote one critic, “there’s no mystery about where Gosnell could have gotten the idea that his youngest victims weren’t human, or entitled to any protection under the law.” Then there was the glee over the liberal media’s supposed cover-up of the story of a mass murderer that would otherwise have been front-page news. Only later did we begin to see nuanced analyses and to question where conservatives were themselves.
Regardless of who turns out to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, it seems certain that some will gleefully capitalize on them, turning the perpetrators into examples of broader stupidity. Meanwhile, there’s the inevitable glee over the inappropriate glee. (I am not pointing fingers, by the way. I, too, have been known to be overzealous in my criticism of perceived opponents, before all the information was in, and even before I had time to digest the tornado of thoughts in my own head.)
My question is, can such tragicglee be avoided? Not to use examples of bad behavior in order to further an argument almost seems irresponsible, like silencing victims or sweeping bad news under the rug. But telling their stories over and over again, complete with trigger warnings and details, seems like an exploitation of some poor person’s very personal trauma, even if it might be for public gain. Where is the golden mean?