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How We Talk About Orlando & Everything After

Like so many others, I was crushed when I heard about the Orlando shooting—another in a long and unending line of seemingly random mass shootings across the country: San Bernardino, California; Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; Killeen, Texas; the list goes on.

The thing is, I’ve always hated it when people like me said things like that. I didn’t know anyone who was present at any of these shootings. I don’t have close friends or relatives in any of those cities. Besides being a woman, I don’t belong to a systematically undermined, threatened, or criminalized group. I have no experience with the most direct and devastating consequences of violent events like these.

But as I’ve thought about it over the last 24 hours—as I’ve watched the news, scrolled through Twitter, turning over and examining the pit in my stomach all the while—I’ve felt moved to join the response. Not because I have anything unique to offer, or because my response will change anything. Because I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a ridiculous, selfish luxury for me to sit back and be removed. To think, “How awful,” no matter how genuine the sentiment, and not participate.

I feel a responsibility to acknowledge and engage in the shared experience of living in America at this moment, as a human being. I feel a responsibility to give shape to this pit in my stomach, out loud. I feel a responsibility to try.

On Saturday night—the night of the shooting—my boyfriend and I watched Requiem for the American Dream, a film exploring the deterioration of democracy and economic equality through a series of interviews with Noam Chomsky. As I’ve browsed Twitter over the past few days, following various conversation threads about the Orlando shooting, I’ve kept recalling a section of the film about solidarity.

Chomsky describes the dilution of solidarity as a basic principle of maintaining the concentration of wealth and power that characterizes our country’s economic divide. He explains:

“Solidarity is quite dangerous. From the point of view of [Adam Smith’s “masters of mankind”, or the self-interested “principal architects of policy”], you’re only supposed to care about yourself—not about other people,” Chomsky says. “This is quite different from the people they claim are their heroes, like Adam Smith, who based his whole approach to the economy on the principle that sympathy is a fundamental human trait.”

That—“the principle that sympathy is a fundamental human trait”—keeps echoing. Obviously, the context here is different, and I don’t bring it up to start an argument about the economic divide.

I bring it up because it’s hard to hold that sentiment in focus in the aftermath of an event like this. It’s not just the horror of imagining a person—any single person in a crowd—opening fire on the people around them. It’s also watching and reading the polarized, hate-filled arguments about what or who is to blame for it.

These vitriolic exchanges can be breathtaking cruel and devastating in their own right. I don’t begrudge anyone’s anger—I’m angry too—and I believe it’s right to express it, with all its ugly and uncomfortable questions.

But right now, in this moment, the bitterness feels more acute. The conversation isn’t just threaded with prejudice; it’s embedded with hate that feels distinctly louder and prouder than it has in my lifetime. The generalizations are no more sweeping, but they’re bolder and more confident. Bigoted insults are as rote and predictable as ever, but they’ve got muscle. They don’t bite; they chew.

It’s thrown me harder than I expected. It probably shouldn’t be surprising, but the gut punch of it has stopped me in my tracks.

I know that, in a vacuum, this kind of rhetoric doesn’t correlate with any one political affiliation, and I don’t believe in characterizing an entire group of people in one way—even if I’m sometimes guilty of that very thing. I also think it’s fair to expect an especially strong response to this, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history and a hate crime on so many levels.

But I can’t stop coming back to one thing: for the first time in history, the corrosive tone and tenor of the conversation—the lazy, hate-driven discrimination and knee-jerk judgment—has a mouthpiece on the national stage. And watching it continue and escalate, even in a time like this, is horrifying.

When I examine it closely, I recognize the pit in my stomach as a gnawing, widening sense of defeat. Not political or policy defeat, though that’s part of it, but the defeat of any representation or protection of our solidarity as Americans, and as human beings. The deadening of our fundamentally human desire to help other people, even when we’re doing okay ourselves, or when we find fault with others’ lives. The (pun intended) trump card against our shared humanity and the common experience it requires we recognize.

For a year now, we’ve heard brazen bigotry projected through a megaphone—and the larger conversation has followed suit. We’ve seen more humane voices on the defensive, denouncing and repudiating and distancing. Perhaps we’ve even felt ourselves hesitating to express our own thoughts out of fear—not of reproach, necessarily, but of verbal abuse or even violent retaliation that is implicitly or explicitly allowed.

Now, I know there are a lot of reasons to feel hopeful too. There are the winding blood donation lines in Orlando. There’s the footage of overflowing vigils all over the world. There are heartfelt statements and articulate speeches and moving, human moments of love and support. They’re what keep that sense of defeat from closing in completely.

This morning, I read a Psychology Today article in response to the Orlando shooting, exploring the role of empathy and perspective in fighting hate. “If you try to protect yourself against your own feelings,” writes the author, “you simply cannot afford the risk of loving and caring about others.”

In the wake of devastation like this, and after the tumultuous and disturbing election season we’ve seen unfold, my inclination to stay out of it—to privately react and reflect—just feels so plainly inadequate.

So I choose not to avoid my feelings or keep them to myself. I choose to share them. More importantly, I choose to join the chorus of voices who are striving to communicate—to react, to argue, to agree and disagree—with empathy, humane language, and a sense of solidarity. I want to make that chorus one stronger. I want it to be louder, projected from as many hearts and minds as possible. I want it to lead the conversation.

I choose this in part because I don’t know what else to do, but also because I think it’s the only way to drown out the hate. It’s the only way to help shift the conversation toward empathy and respect. So we can respond to a tragedy like the Orlando shooting not as political instruments or peddlers of our own, isolated grievances, but as connected human beings.

So this is my voice. It belongs to the chorus.