As we have repeatedly argued at this site, how we classify acts tells us much about the world we are trying to create. And among those telling acts of identification are choices to see something as evidence of a widespread structural issue in which many of us are all implicated or, instead, as the unpredictable result of a lone actor with impenetrable motives. We’ve seen debates on this before, of course, and, in light of the mass murder of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, just two evenings ago, by a white suspect who is now in custody, well…, we’re seeing this debate take place again.
Certainly, readers will have to make up their own minds as they continue to learn more about an event that, at least for me, is tough to characterize as anything but a terrible tragedy: Is it just a crime or evidence of terrorism? The result of a bad apple or but one more instance of a long history of endemic racism and white supremacy in the U.S.? Are the motives all too apparent or, as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in her initial statement:
… we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another….
Or perhaps it was perpetrated by a mentally disturbed person? But if so, then what does that say about how we, collectively, care for people with mental illness? For individualizing the event, as many seem tempted to do, still bounces back on us all in surprising ways.
But my goal isn’t to sort it all out in one brief blog post — who could be either so naive or bold as to try that? Instead, I just hope that readers will mull over the implications of how we frame, and then understand, such events as they read the coverage and listen to the news broadcasts in the coming days and weeks — regardless the source — taking seriously that the world we live in is actively constituted not just by how we act but also by the way we talk about those actions.