The Tragedy of Activism

Western societies have come to deal with the occurrence of tragedy in dysfunctional ways

In an episode of The Crown about the 1966 Aberfan disaster, in which the collapse of a spoil tip on a mountain in a village in Wales crushed a school full of children, Prime Minister Harold Wilson is on a plane to visit the site of the accident. As the team are discussing the potential political fallout from the incident, Wilson’s advisor says: “Come on, Harold, this is an accident caused by unprecedented rainfall—its not political.” To which Wilson responds: “Everything is political.”

Whether or not the writers intended, this dialogue contains a truism about the present time. Whenever a horrible tragedy occurs that may appear accidental or exceptional, we can now count on it becoming immediately politicized, linked by cohorts of activists to some long-held grievance or systemic injustice. Following this, waves of protests, social media activism, and televised debates will consume the public’s attention, and the victim will cease being an individual and will be operationalized as an instrument for competing causes.

The most obvious example of this is the death of George Floyd last May, and the international quasi-uprising that followed. The acutely distressing footage of Floyd’s death at the hands of an American policeman understandably got linked to police brutality against black people in the U.S. Then it became about the endemic racism of U.S. society; and then, because the expansionary nature of activism knows no limits, it became about the racist nature of virtually all Western societies.

From a legitimate grievance, a bandwagon was created, with people throwing all kinds of grievances—including ones with no connection to the despicable killing of Floyd—on the back.

Clearly, police violence against black people in the U.S. is a problem. But for many observing the Black Lives Matter movement that was highly visible after Floyd’s death, it appeared to be infiltrated by hyperbole, moral panic, and cynical falsehoods—such that it became difficult to separate the sensible aspects of the anti-racism campaigns from the more outlandish ones.

In my country, the U.K., this pattern has occurred with the death of Sarah Everard in March in South London. Everard vanished one night while walking home from a friend’s house, her body found days later in woodland in the surrounding county of Kent. A police officer has been charged with her kidnapping and murder.

There has been an immediate politicization of this tragedy, with a series of vigils in London. Activists have bound the crime to societal misogyny and the normalization of violence against women.

The safety of women is of utmost importance in any liberal nation, and any indication that it has regressed should be deeply concerning. However, the connection between this disturbing murder and some pervasive “rape culture,” or the idea that Everard’s fate is indicative of a normalization of violence against women, is somewhat dubious. In fact, the very abnormality of the murder is part of what makes it so disturbing. Women are actually less likely to be killed by a stranger than men (though in the U.K. women are far more likely to be killed by partners or ex-partners than are men).

More recently, a series of shootings in Atlanta on March 16 killed eight people, including six Asian women. The heinous killing spree has inevitably been linked to rising anti-Asian racism. But the killer himself, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, has so far not said he was motivated by animus against Asian people, but rather by sexual addiction. He could of course be lying about his motives, or at any rate confused about what was really driving his actions. But the facts of the case suggest the focal point of his violence was the women who worked at the places he felt most “tempted” to visit—their Asian-ness being more incidental than essential. Nonetheless, the Stop Asian Hate movement holds anti-Asian racism responsible.

These examples illustrate the dysfunctional ways Western societies have come to deal with the occurrence of tragedy. We rush to create a new movement out of its ashes, often at disorienting speed. There is no time to reflect or to learn about the particulars of the case. The movements for justice constantly need new inputs in order to effect change, so there is incredible pressure to waste no time in using the tragic instance to mobilize action.

Many laudable and effective mass movements for change have been inspired by the death of someone perceived to be a victim of a cruel or unjust system. But the frequency with which any high-profile tragic occurrence has come to automatically inspire such movements today, or be instantaneously co-opted by them, suggests a tendency to reframe tragedy as injustice.

Injustices are tragic, yes—but there’s something interesting about this conflation. Injustice differs from tragedy by being not merely a deeply regrettable occurrence, but one that could and should have been prevented were things working as they ought. Injustice, and the recognition of it, has this forward-looking quality to it: by its very nature, it calls for things to be changed—for unjust systems to be uprooted and for identifiable culprits to be punished.

Without getting bogged down in the Do social justice movements function like religions? debate, I want to note one important way in which there is a quasi-religious element in the reconceptualization of tragedy as injustice: Just as religions function in part to give meaning to tragedy through narrativizing it—for instance, as part of God’s mysterious plan, or a cosmic cycle of karmic justice, or any number of other theodicies—the reframing of tragedy as injustice makes what may otherwise be merely regrettable and saddening occurrences into turning points within the great narrative of Progress towards a more just world.

By becoming martyrs who died in the name of women’s rights or the fight against racism, the victims’ deaths are given meaning. Incidentally, whether they would have wanted to be martyrs for these causes is rarely asked. Nor, as the 2014 case of Michael Brown attests, do we wait until the facts are in before conscripting particular tragedies into the project of social renewal.

And lost among the hype, the protest placards, and the Instagram memes that constitute each of these successive battles for justice is an important element in any healthy human response to tragedy: mourning. In the desperate effort to honor the victim of a real or imagined injustice by taking up arms, social justice activism forgets that mourning and dwelling on the sadness of the subject’s death has always been one of the most important parts of honoring the dead.

One of the casualties of subsuming tragedy into the broader concept of injustice is that it psychologically crowds out the process of mourning. In fact, the enlistment of the tragedy into the political cause becomes the way to mourn it. To mourn is to politicize—so much so that to not deploy some fresh new tragedy into the forward march of a movement or cause has come to represent a failure to properly mourn it.

But this is a mistake. A vital function of mourning is to interrupt the egocentric patterns that characterize much of our thoughts, and for a second, to direct our attention entirely to another person, while allowing the tragedy to remind us of the fragility of life. When we bypass this solemnity with an immediate move to anger and politicization, we rob ourselves of the humbling effect such solemnity has. In a sense, tragedy itself becomes a victim. Who will mourn for it?