What’s so fascinating and occasionally unnerving about the B-plot to our gun tragedies is the way they become a search for the far more diffuse and remote causes of violence. Namely, the cultural reasons that violence erupts, or the cultural reasons that we find ourselves unable to stop violence. Our elite culture has mostly rejected the idea that popular entertainment that glorifies violence is the problem. So now we search for something deeper. Can we really trust people with these religious convictions against what the state has deemed lawful? Does religion itself become an impediment to intelligent reform? Are people being radicalized by the deinstitutionalized and ungoverned free speech on the web? For now, the culture war spats that come out of these tragedies are mostly conducted within the elite media, using the tools of social stigma. People ask whether pro-lifers can use less-charged rhetoric. Or demand that the state of South Carolina take down a flag that is used to endorse racist violence.
People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.