Vicariously responding to tragedy: do no harm

As the recent terrorism deaths in Paris and Lebanon show, there is no shortage of death and misery in the world. These events also highlight the filters within our media, country and culture that either focus or ignore tragic events depending on proximity, culture and race. For example, we are not daily exposed via the media to the tens of thousands of preventable hunger and poverty related deaths across the world.

When events such as the Paris attacks occur – if they are widely reported – people have many responses. I think the best review of these was this sad cartoon by First Dog on the Moon.


One response Mr Onthemoon does not explore here is the conspiracy response.  Typically within hours of any mass shooting or bombing these responses pop up. My social media and news feeds are generally tailored enough that I avoid them. However, this morning I came across one on a Facebook friend’s page in response to the San Bernardino killings. Since it was on a closed group I will not provide details of the commentator:

Personally I don’t believe what happened in San Bernadino is anything other than a Gvt. hoax to attempt to take people’s guns away and hate on muslims (sic) and I’m disappointed in all who are falling for this type of media manipulation.’

Yup. Typical. I am not going to respond much to the child-like cry of ‘don’t take my guns!’ Gun control is another matter. Suffice to say, I am constantly surprised at how many intelligent, spiritual practitioners insist on their right to ‘bear arms’ among countless horrors and who devolve into adolescent or toddler pique when the concept of gun control is raised. Most of them are from the continental United States, young or middle aged men – indeed the exact demographic of people most likely to blow innocent people’s brains out with the guns they insist they have a right to own.

I am interested here in the conspiracy view. I suspect, and I have not read the literature on this, that the theorist, in responding with immediate views of government or extra-governmental conspiracy is simply reacting to the horror of the situation, in the same way as the avenues of coping Mr Onthemoon draws in the cartoon above. The conspiracy theorist, in her assumption of special knowledge that the rest of us do not have, is insulating herself against the raw horror of the events. It stops her being involved and gives a focus for her anger.

However, I do not accept that such responses are healthy. These ideas are not simply nutty memes. They cause damage. I cannot imagine the hurt of having a family member murdered in a mass shooting. And then to have some vicariously involved stranger from another city or country say it was a hoax? How cruel, really, how cruel can people be?

Conspiracy theories that deny the deaths of innocents or assume that they were somehow involved betray an inability of the theorist to empathize or sympathize with the survivors and families of the dead.

In the example above you and I (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist too!) are assumed to be media dupes. Now of course, it is highly unlikely the commentator, or any of the thousands no doubt similarly holding and sharing these views right now, have any PERSONAL knowledge of the events. That is, they, like you and I, are separated by time and space and relationships to the people and places involved. These folk are relying on media reports just as we are – albeit, smaller and stranger media. We are all (most of us) experiencing these tragedies vicariously.

So the burden of proof cuts both ways. Conspiracy theorists, like most of us, are seldom there when deaths occur.  THEY DO NOT PERSONALLY KNOW. And, even if these events were ‘a hoax’ it would be impossible for someone removed from the situation to KNOW after such a short time and no investigations. And if you do not know, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING that will cause hurt and offence. Simple.

Of course, I do accept that our governments and other bodies do on occasion act conspiratorially. However, the instant and blanket discounting of real people’s pain and suffering is not acceptable. These types of theories need to be stopped – both at the social level by not sharing them and vigorously questioning them, and at the personal level by the theorists themselves engaging in some thought and concern before posting or passing on ideas on social media. Please do not allow these ideas to spread unchecked.



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