You Are Extremely Bad At Thinking About Tragedy

Today, some asshole killed a shitton of people in Las Vegas. Fifty eight deaths, at time of writing. This sucks. Like, 58 deaths is a lot, and this is a horrifying tragedy worthy of news coverage.

Let’s talk about some reaction-clusters to this that I’ve been seeing on Twitter. First off, we have the gun control cluster. This is where conservatives say “don’t talk to us about gun control today, give us time to grieve,” and liberals point out that we have a mass shooting literally every day in America and so no, we won’t, we need better gun control laws. You can rest assured that tomorrow’s mass shooting will have fewer casualties and thus receive less media attention. Something else bad, or funny, or weird will happen and everyone will yell about that and not talk or think about gun laws until there’s a media-worthy massacre a couple months from now, we’ll recite the same positions and come away with nothing but a reinforced loathing for the “other side.”

Next, we have the terrorism cluster. This is where liberals say “if this dude weren’t white, he’d be called a terrorist!” and draw comparisons to headlines about white shooters vs black victims. Conservatives seem to mostly say “this is a gauche reaction to a tragedy,” or point out that non-ideologically-motivated murder doesn’t quite count as terrorism, or whatever. In any case, tomorrow everyone will stop worrying so much about who is and isn’t a terrorist, because something else bad or funny will happen, and we all come away with nothing but a reinforced loathing for the “other side.”

We also have the thoughts-and-prayers cluster. This one is conservatives retweeting politicians who say “our thoughts and prayers go out to <latest victim>” or send out their warmest condolences. Liberals fire back about how thoughts and prayers don’t help anything, and politicians should be increasing gun control laws if they actually think and pray about the tragedy. I hope you know how this paragraph ends.


My point here, insofar as I have one, is that none of this is principled, meaningful discussion, nor is any of it meant to fix things. This is just a hysterical reaction to a flashy event. Yesterday everyone was having these same reactions to Puerto Rico, but now something bad happened and we have to shout about Las Vegas instead. Yesterday it was, “if you care about the tragedy in Puerto Rico, maybe work on climate change?” Tomorrow it will be “if you really care about the tragedy in <new area>, maybe work on <arguable source problem>?” And I’m sure everyone genuinely feels like they’re right about this, but today we care an awful lot more about gun control than we do about climate change, and that just doesn’t make sense if what’s happening is a genuine, principled desire to reduce death and suffering.


In 2015, there were 96 vehicle deaths per day. The CDC reports 121 suicide deaths per day in 2016, and that’s far from the worst killer on the list. About 1500 people die from malaria in Africa, each day. If you care about improving the world, about reducing suffering and unnecessary deaths, you have to think about the actual numbers, the actual causes of death. We should be willing to accept a Las Vegas shooting-level incident every single day if we can cut the national suicide rate in half. We should be just about willing to trade off one Pulse shooting a day in return for halving the vehicle deaths statistic. And if we can halve the impact of malaria in Africa, most victims of which are children, we should be willing to accept quite a large number of Sandy Hooks.

It’s important to have advocates for even smaller causes. Radically restricting gun access in America is probably low hanging fruit that could save a lot of lives with relatively light investment. Investments in self-driving car technology are likely to reduce vehicle deaths; this is kind of a long shot, but it’s good that someone’s working on it. Terrorism has a pretty low body count, at least in America, but it has other negative effects and deserves people working to curb it (I’m not going to speculate on methods here). Heroin overdoses kill around 40 people a day, which is plenty to be worthy of attention.

But unless you’re laser-focused on one of these smallish causes, or have extra leverage towards it, or can only motivate yourself to speak up/donate/work towards improving things you care about personally, they’re not what’s important. You should be advocating for more cancer research, for more malaria prevention, for less cigarette smoking, for the big causes. Stopping to worry about a few people murdered by an asshole with a gun is time not spent worrying about the things that cause extraordinary, large-scale death and suffering. Donate your time and money and advocacy for the important causes, or else accept that you’re experiencing an emotional reaction wrought in you by the media, and don’t act like your response to tragedy is principled.


Please don’t search for a way to read this as me being callous or heartless. I am furiously angered by people being unable to deal with the world’s actual, horrifying tragedy and instead myopically focusing on flashy tragedy with emotional pull to it. In absolute terms, malaria is more fucking important than gun control, because more people die because of it. I wish very much that there were not mass shootings, and I am very sorry for the people affected by the Las Vegas shooting. But I am very sorry for the many, many more people who will die of other causes today, as well, and ultimately we have to allocate our resources where they can do the most good.

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