I always liked how Friends named their episodes — “The One Where Joey Eats A Pizza, “The One Where The Mopey Guy Manages To Score Jennifer Aniston And Still Take Her For Granted,” etc. It’s a very functional way to catalog events.
I use that same device to track mass shootings — “The One Where They Blamed Marilyn Manson” (Columbine), “The One Where The Guy Killed A Bunch Of People Because He Didn’t Get Laid” (Isla Vista), “The One Where Everyone Argued Over What Should Be Defined As ‘Terrorism'” (Planned Parenthood).
Is that callous of me? Perhaps. I’m a product of the world I live in.
Yesterday’s shooting will always be, for me, the one where people (myself included) posted to social media about how “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough. I’m sure people have done this before — Obama himself called out “thoughts and prayers” after the recent shooting in Oregon — but yesterday was peak “thoughts and prayers” backlash.
It’s not that thoughts and prayers are inherently bad, of course. No one wants to take your thoughts and prayers away (THE WAR ON THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS!); it’s more about the fact that thoughts and prayers aren’t very good at exacting sweeping policy change. Because they have no form, you see.
Here’s what thoughts and prayers are really good at: allowing us to move on completely from a continuous cycle of tragedy so horrendous and random that if you walked into a pitch meeting at Sony and said, “Okay, listen to this, it’s a dystopian landscape where mass shootings occur on a more than once-per-day average and literally nothing changes,” the exec would scowl and say, “Yeah, but who’s going to believe that?”
Thoughts and prayers are our way of announcing to the world, “I’m on the right side of this thing! Now, can I go back to watching The Walking Dead?” The words are the Lunesta of the tragedy cycle; “self-soothing” is what psychologists call it.
But not this time. This time, spurred on by Anthony Jeselnik’s spot-on takedown in his latest comedy special, people were ready to snap back against thoughts and prayers. It was everywhere. Being anti-thoughts and prayers became the zeitgeist of the moment, so much so that the backlash became news of its own. Then, as if on cue, backlash to the backlash arrived:
It is very hard to know what to do after a tragedy, and sending thoughts and prayers and love and good vibes wouldn’t be inherently hurtful, if they existed in a vacuum. The problem isn’t the thoughts and prayers themselves, it’s their amazing ability to let us off the hook, so that we can think about other stuff.
You know what else has this extraordinary self-soothing effect? Tweeting a take down of “thoughts and prayers.” It’s the exact same thing, with just an extra step added to the cycle. It’s no longer cool to offer just thoughts and prayers and then go back to streaming Jessica Jones. But if you mock thoughts and prayers, then… maybe?
Look, I get the feelings of powerlessness. I get the fact that we don’t all know what to do or when to do it or how to mobilize. The Onion nailed this point after September 11, when they wrote: “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.”
But we have to do something to well-regulate our militia, right? If you really study the Civil Rights era, one of the cool things you find is that PEOPLE TRIED SHIT. There were groups and organizations and factions and sometimes they worked together, and sometimes they bickered, but they DID STUFF. There were leaders that the government deemed extreme (Malcolm X) and leaders that the government decided to play ball with (MLK), and all of the pieces conspired together toward something resembling progress. In fact, the pieces needed each other. MLK would never have been MLK without Malcolm X.
We need leaders, we need doers, we need hardline “repeal the second amendment” liberals so that moderates who just want guns to be smartly, thoughtfully regulated don’t seem like crazy leftists. The world is changed by people taking action — even if they fumble, even if they aren’t always perfect. It doesn’t matter. TRY SHIT.
In the case of mass shootings, you can even try shit online. The most effective, compelling thoughts-and-prayers-based response yesterday came from Igor Volsky, writer for ThinkProgress, who dropped a stream of tweets revealing how much money various “thoughts and prayers”-tweeting politicians received from the NRA. That was something.
Thoughts and prayers don’t change policy.
Being snarky about thoughts and prayers doesn’t change policy.
Writing about how neither thoughts and prayers nor anti-thoughts and prayers jokes do anything to change policy also doesn’t change policy.
Trying shit changes policy. Marches change policy. Movements change policy. Using some of the discretionary time that we spend online to find and support people making a difference changes policy. But these things are difficult. These things can’t be composed while on the toilet. These things don’t always give us the immediate validation that tweets and Facebook posts do.
So, we tweet. So, we post. So, we try to write the cleverest thing that will put us on the side of the “right” and allow us to go back to whatever the hell else we were doing… I think there’s an episode of Chopped on.
When I started writing this article, I assumed I would embed the Jeselnik rant that I linked to above. But I don’t have space for it, because, though I still like it, it manages to be just as bad at creating real change as the thoughts and prayers that it mocks. I only have the space for one video in this post. So, I’m choosing this one: