Politicizing Tragedy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Following the gun violence of the last weeks in the US, charges of “politicizing” the tragedies has become a regular staple of political discussion. Indeed, on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott issued a warning against politicizing tragedies: “The first thing I’d say is that we need to take a step back from politicizing every event.” But what is it to politicize an event? What does the charge of “politicizing” a tragedy come to?

Politicizing clearly has a negative connotation – in “politicizing,” one does a wrong. Thus politicizing is what philosophers call a thick term; it both describes and evaluates. In using it, one describes some political advantage inappropriately gotten. Yet, in the case of politicizing, it is not clear where the alleged inappropriateness lies. Why is politicizing problematic?

A brief tour of the usage suggests there are three different conceptions of the wrongness of politicization. These are wrongs of etiquette, deliberation, and personality. We think, though, they all share a similar dialectical function.

The etiquette version of the criticism of politicization amounts to the claim that one has shown insufficient regard for others’ feelings. There are events that prompt reevaluation of political or policy issue, but sometimes the moment simply is not right for that conversation, since people are in grief, shock, or some other state of vulnerability that would be exacerbated by the discussion. So the criticism of politicizing an event is that one has introduced an item for discussion at an inappropriate time, given the arc of human emotions. Thus then White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders following the 2017 Las Vegas shooting: “There is a time and a place for a political debate. But now is a time for us to unite as a country.”

One problem with the etiquette version of the charge is that it dictates how those criticized should grieve. In point of fact, outrage and grief may be best expressed and worked through by having discussions about how future instances may be averted. If the tragedy in question has political causes, then politics is a perfectly appropriate component of grieving.

The key is that the charge of politicizing that tragedy, then, has its purchase only if one thinks that the political considerations brought out in the grief are misguided or irrelevant. Importantly, Sarah Sanders, in the same briefing after the 2017 shootings, makes it clear that she thinks the blame is only on the shooter in that instance:

We need to remember that the only person with blood on their hands is that of the shooter. And this isn’t a time for us to go after individuals or organizations. I think we can have those policy discussions, but today is not that day.

And so, depending on one’s antecedent political views, a mass shooting prompting a push for broad gun control may seem inappropriate politicization, but prompting a push for prayer in schools may not. Hence the charge of politicizing presupposes a particular conception of the relevant facts and moral character of the event being referenced.

This intersection between one’s antecedent political views and where one detects politicization gives rise to a second conception of politicization’s wrongness: deliberation-based politicization. In these instances, the charge of politicizing a tragedy amounts to the claim that the politicizer is taking advantage of the outrage and other strong emotions prompted by a tragedy to subvert the slower but more reliable deliberative processes of critical discussion. In this version, one politicizes a tragedy when one capitalizes on the public’s emotions in order to achieve quickly a political result that ordinarily would take a more extended and deliberate effort. And, perhaps further, one achieves a result that extended deliberation would not yield. The charge of politicizing an event, then, comes to that claim that the norms of critical thinking have been opportunistically circumvented for political purposes, replaced by strong but unreliable emotions. And the result, those making this charge allege, is that whatever policy results from this will be ineffective. Take, for example, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, after the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton, responds to questions about whether the Senate will move quickly to pass gun reforms by saying that: “If we do it prematurely it’ll just be another frustrating position for all of us and for the public.”

And, as we saw with the etiquette version of the politicization charge, the deliberative version also has its critical edge only against the backdrop of some particular assessment of the facts and values about the event in question. That is, McConnell’s charge of politicizing the tragedy sticks only if one agrees that the existing policies are the products of reasonable deliberative processes, and that proposed deviations are likely to be ill-considered. But, of course, the reasonableness of existing policies is precisely what’s at issue.

Finally, the person-based view of the wrong of politicization focuses on the motive of the target of the charge. When President Trump commented on the way candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 US Presidential election were critical of gun laws after the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, he challenged their motives:

In many cases they’re running for president and low in the polls. A couple of them in particular, very low in the polls . . . . So, these are people that are looking for political gain.

The line seems to be that since being the loudest voice on this issue will produce more interest, candidates will rush to the fore with their outrage. But note that Trump’s criticism has bite only if one agrees with him that the Democrats’ stance is unfounded or irrelevant. After all, believing that the country must tighten gun regulations is a good reason for a presidential candidate to talk about the issue in the wake of gun-related tragedy. Trump’s charge that the Democratic hopefuls are merely seeking “political gain” functions as a criticism only if one believes their proposals to be moot or otherwise unserious. Once again, the charge of politicization presupposes a particular view of the issue in question.

We have seen that the charge of politicization is a political version of the allegation that one is taking advantage of the emotions of a vulnerable audience to press for a favored conclusion whose support does not depend on emotions. It is hence the allegation that one is reasoning from irrelevant premises. The problem, as we’ve argued, is that despite our agreement that we should not argue from irrelevant considerations, in the cases where the charge of politicization are most prevalent, we disagree about what the relevant considerations are.

Thus although the concept of “politicization” looks like a norm of discussion that we should abide for the sake of conducting proper argument about, say, gun regulation, the concept functions differently in the vernacular. Accusations of “politicizing” gun-related tragedies are most often thinly disguised proxies for the first-order political disagreement over guns. The claim that the other side is “politicizing” the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton is nothing more than a tactic for dismissing their position on gun regulation. Accordingly, in the midst of a tragedy, the charge of politicization functions as an implicit defense of the political status quo. It is, despite its purport to be a reminder of norms of civility, actually a political maneuver.