When “Divisive Rhetoric,” Not Regularized Mass Murder, Becomes Offensive

On May 24, 2022, a gunchild created unspeakable grief after he mowed down 19 children and 2 adults in a Uvalde, Texas, classroom. Questions regarding his psychological triggers can be plenty. The answers to these types of questions will not bring the young children and their teachers back, nor will those answers provide relief for their loved ones’ bottomless sorrow. Asking these sorts of questions will not yield answers that will noticeably reduce such unnecessary death. These kinds of questions, since Columbine, have produced very similar answers, and tragically similar outcomes: mass death.

Between May 14, 2022, when another young male fixed on a fascist phantasm murdered 10 African Americans in a grocery store, and the May 24 Uvalde tragedy, mass shootings happened at a California church and then three graduation events around May 19/20. These shootings informed the headline that asked, “COVID-19, Mass Shootings: Is Mass Death Now Tolerated in America?” Another headline queried on May 22, 2022, “Shootings at Graduations: A New American Normal”? (The former Deconstructionist in Chief, Donald Trump, responded during this American carnage by “retruthing” a “truth” that advocated civil war.) President Biden, for his part, asked with disgust another question after the Uvalde mass murder, “Why are we willing to live with this carnage?”

I do not feign to have a definitive answer to any of these related questions. These questions, however, should provide a large berth for a wide set of voices to respond to the moral demand for us, all of us, to enter into an honest conversation about our comfort with preventable mass death and about the patterns of interdependencies that have naturalized the wanton disregard for the sanctity of life, the precondition for pursuing “life, liberty, and happiness.”

On May 25, I wanted to sit with my discomfort and sadness about the inexplicable murder of 19 children and their 2 teachers. Perhaps, I would talk about the tragedy with my own children once they returned from school. I intended to leave my emotional space uninterruptedly raw to guard against confusing numbness for comfort.

The cacophony of indignant and tortured celebrity condolences caught my attention, punctuating my reflections on the Uvalde tragedy with more horror. Celebrities are who we hear from, at least initially. They have a privilege of time, and get more airtime than the rest of us. The murdered children cannot speak. It also takes some time for networks to line up the narratives and interview parents, giving us the illusion that things might change this time. Another network or two will find an overconfident white man to remind us that guns will keep us safe, safer with more guns and prayer. Maybe these public relations hacks for The Party and the NRA will pour salt on the victims’ families wounds and accuse the deep state of staging a false flag operation as a pretense to somehow confiscate the 400+ million guns waiting to discharge sometime soon at a public, or private, place near you. Only if those sweet teachers had a sidearm during civics or arts and crafts. Only if we stationed a battalion of armed police in our elementary schools. Only if more of us had more guns. Only if people weren’t so weak-kneed about protecting our rights, then the bad guys would be less inclined to use guns.

Here is an A-list example that appeared in my news with the aura of newsworthiness. Matthew McConaughey, the politician-in-preening, scolded, “Once again, we have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us.” He asked, “What small sacrifices can we individually take today, to preserve a healthier and safer nation, state, and neighborhood tomorrow?'” Nowhere in a lengthy meditation did McConaughey even mention guns, though one needs to strain only slightly to see him hedge on the hallowed 2nd Amendment with the oblique reference to “responsible” and “rights” and “freedoms.” Alright! Alright! Alright! In a long list of contortions, Tim McGraw’s perplexed me. Admittedly, I do not follow McGraw’s music or his political positions, though I am aware that he has sensibly recommended “common sense gun control.” So, my concern is less with him or his motives than with us, the U.S. As genuine as McGraw’s statement otherwise seems, the thing that sticks in his craw appears to be “divisive rhetoric” because it “has done nothing to help this problem—it’s only made it worse.”

Rhetoric opposing weapons of mass murder is “divisive” and has made the problem worse? This issue has less to do with McGraw than with our culture, with the linguistic reservoir in which his statement swirls and from which it was flushed, creating semantic confusion by applying “divisive rhetoric” to an opinion with which we disagree or a fact that we simply don’t want to accept. “Divisive rhetoric” floats in the same semantic region as the politicians’ conversation stopper: “Now isn’t the time for finger-pointing.” How can anger at collective failure to protect children’s lives be divisive? There should be no “both sidesism” on matters like this one. This isn’t Trump. This isn’t Biden. This isn’t even an issue about whether to invest in the poor or further enrich the wealthy. The core issue is that someone murdered 19 children and their two teachers. How can there be two sides? How could witness given to the mass murder of children and their caring teachers and recognition of a key tool in that murder be construed as divisive?

Because the concept and use of the phrase “divisive rhetoric” is divisive. It is a tool that produces or reinforces the very divisions interlocutors claim to be mediating, opposing, or transcending. The term confuses the elements of the conversation, redirects it, or stops it dead in its tracks, like the countless victims of gun violence. Is the issue the expression of grief and sadness for the unnecessary loss of life? Or, the implicit or, God forbid, explicit recommendation that laws be made to curtail access to guns? What, again, were we talking about? “Divisive rhetoric” functions powerfully when deployed in conversations that concern public issues. There are issues of power and control at play in such moments, and “divisive rhetoric” functions in the interests of power. “Divisive rhetoric” casts the disgust with a shared problem as the problem. Consequently, syntactical inversion appears with semantic confusion, making criticism of guns, not mass gun death, the problem. Groups benefit from this confusion. Ask gun manufacturers. Ask the politicians who give thoughts and then pray for money—from the NRA and gun manufacturers. Ask the tyrants of the world, large, small, or aspirant-failed or failed-aspiring.

After a decade of divisive rhetoric tweeted from the bully pulpit and amplified by a supplicant media, it is almost shocking that Americans can be as moved by divisive rhetoric as they are about a ceaselessly growing pile of (children’s) bodies. More than 200 mass shootings have been committed in 2022, 27 of them in schools—in 145 days, 1.4 mass shootings/day! How could tough Americans be so uncomfortable with divisive rhetoric? With division being our apparent unity, Americans can only expect to see things as divisive. Our discomfort is with dialogue, not divisive rhetoric.

This discomfort is no more obvious than in the countless expressions that the A-listers merely rehashed and amplified in social media, some of these already retold and amplified again by politicians. See Governor Abbott’s uninformed and cruel response, translated: Address your concerns about gun violence to your under-funded community social workers and overbooked therapists, not Abbott, other politicians, gun manufacturers, and Wayne LaPierre. If we had a capacity for dialogue, our first response to a shared tragedy would not be to sort responses into “unifying” or “divisive” rhetoric boxes. Our first response would not be semantic somersaults protecting guns over the lives taken and to be taken by guns. One response might be to grieve with others. Another response might be to support the families who lost their children. Another could be to work with our local schools and other public institutions to support them, instead of letting corporateers compel them to be labs for the testing industry or double as proving grounds for Bushmaster and other weapons manufacturers. Then, we could engage in dialogue to learn how to mitigate our shared problems rather than compound them. That this won’t happen yet again illuminates damning things about us.

We have become dangerously deskilled in the human art of dialogue. Blame can be attributed to anything ranging from repugnantly high inequality and its perverse work-life imbalance that deprives us of time to anti-social media that has made many of us into narcissists with thin bandwidths for dissonance and a host of other factors. Yet, we choose whether we engage in conversation with others when we have time to do so, or if we bury our heads in the screen in our hands, or in the sand, while others bury their loved ones. How do we challenge the all-too-easy tendency to fracture ourselves and communities, and dialogue, when others with far greater power benefit from this tendency that produces a slow death spiral, one that is literal and figurative, biological and political? I’d be the last person to tell McConaughey or McGraw to shut up and act, or shut up and sing. Their opinions are not a problem, much less the problem. That their opinion is presented to us as if we should turn to them and we take the bait instead of turn to each other is a problem. This is an elemental sign of a fractured people.

This fracture contributes to moral and political blindness. We should have the capacities to empathize with the Uvalde families’ pain without the fog of fracture and without any means-end calculus, other than it is both human and humane to care for others. We dehumanize ourselves, when we don’t defend others’ humanity and dignify the loss of it by interrupting the patterns of relationships producing the loss. That we struggle to do one of the most basic human things by failing to care for others, that we cannot be moved beyond arbitrary division by common loss, indicates an immeasurable ignorance combined with a devastating moral indifference that does not bode well for us. Politically, Uvalde was another attack on people in a public space–public schools, the 27th in 4.5 months. It was an attack on a space that is intended to represent and serve us and us it. It was an attack that, beyond forever breaking the victims’ families, raises questions about how badly we have broken our relationship to the public and public schools. This was another attack on the public as such, by one of our own. Made in the U.S.A.

History does not provide positive lessons when citizens attack other citizens, or worse, do so while other members give thoughts or prayers, avoid speaking for fear of engaging in “divisive rhetoric,” and become habituated to the routinized loss of life and mechanized patterns of response to it. “Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” The answer is not a comfortable one, certainly not one becoming of a society that holds the sanctity of life in such rhetorically high regard. For all of the talk of a tyrannical government that gets attached to allusions to gun control, we perform the very work of tyranny over each other with ever-greater efficiency, –increasing frequency, and -intensifying force. This is one of few things on which we do not need the government’s assistance.

If children fear going to school, and if people fear about praying in their houses of worship, shopping and working to feed their families, or even sitting in their house, out of fear of being shot, then we’ve not only produced the tyranny from which the gun lobby has said guns were to protect us, but also, and with great irony, have willingly asked or allowed the government to help construct this cage of guns. A premature experience of a man-made, heavily armed hell, history shows, is what we get when we find “divisive rhetoric”—not regularized mass murder—offensive.

Christopher G. Robbins is a Professor of Social Foundation at Eastern Michigan University.