Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Meaning of Saturday

We’re meaning-making animals. That’s what we do. We’re good at it. We’ve been practicing since the first human capable of reflective thought looked up at the sun and wondered why it was there. Must be a reason, right?

The massacre in Arizona, like any tragedy, goads us to look for a meaning behind it all. If one doesn’t present itself tout-de-suite, we start constructing them ourselves. We can’t help it. It’s what we do.

Our attempts to make meaning from the world can be sublime or grotesque. They can take the form of the Sistine Chapel or the ravings of Glenn Beck. Even the incoherent blatherings of the shooter himself show a damaged human mind struggling to impose some sort of meaning on life’s flux.

The hemming and hawing going on in the media today show the good, the bad, and the ugly of our penchant for meaning-making. We hear people on both sides try to fit the gelatinous goo that are the shooter’s published ruminations into a mold (hopefully one that matches that of an ideology we do not cotton to ourselves). “He read the Communist Manifesto! He’s a liberal!” “He read Ayn Rand! He’s a tea-bagger!”

Talk about a fool’s errand. It ain’t happening. There’s no “there” there.

There are, I’d hazard, some common sense conclusions one could draw about what might have made these murders less likely. Would it help to have fewer guns in the country? Probably. Would it have helped if we had kept the ban on 30-shot magazines for semi-automatic weapons in place? Definitely. Do we need more resources to deal with mentally disturbed people? Absolutely. Would it have helped if this unemployed drop-out had been able to find a way to serve others, giving a purpose to his life? Quite likely. Say what you want about him, the guy was grasping at a way to give his life meaning (apparently sending out dozens and dozens of job applications and trying to join the army, only to be refused).

If we had some sort of national service program in which people without jobs could, regardless of their education or abilities, find some way of contributing to society and be compensated for this contribution, I think we’d be better off as a nation. Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

But those hypotheses don’t satisfy the craving for what the event means. We all try to fit Saturday’s events into some sort of story that we can tell ourselves, to make it stand for something. If we are fated to make the events into a symbol, we should be mindful of how we do it. I’ll suggest how the language of rhetoric might (believe it or not) allow us to think more clearly about the ways of seeing Saturday as a meaning-laden symbol in the next post.


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