The horror and tragedy of the massacre committed in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, a massacre that at this point stands without reason or explanation, is incomprehensible even to a society that has seen such a number of times in the past decade. So far, we have seen no evidence of a political motive, no evidence of a religious motive, no evidence of a financial or personal motive, and no evidence of mental illness. We might consider the last point tautological i.e. anyone who’d do this must be mentally ill, but that’s not a conclusion that satisfies. We remain puzzled and frightened by both the magnitude of the act and by our inability to make any sort of sense of it.

We don’t do well with the unknown, and we don’t do well with things outside our range of normal experiences. We can understand murder, we can understand war, we can understand terrorism, because history has shown them all to us. And obviously, we can denounce all of them even as we understand them.

We’re not, however, wired to fathom things that fall outside our sensory or experiential range. We cannot understand the extremely large or the extremely small other than in the abstract, we cannot imagine colors that we’ve never seen, and we cannot comprehend someone who would spend weeks, months, or years and devote enormous resources to planning a massacre that defies reason, logic, or the norms of human behavior.

When we encounter things that we cannot understand it is in our nature to try and rationalize, to try and fill that void. Thus, we assign reasons, point fingers, and demand that something be done.

Naturally, we cannot fathom that we and “ours” (those who think as we do) have any connection to the mass murderer, so when we assign reasons, point fingers and demand action, we focus on “others.” The high-charge emotions elicited by this atrocity prompt people to react in the moment, and many react via the most in-the-moment way available today: social media. Facebook and Twitter were inundated, as were comments sections of news outlets, and while many posts voiced sadness, prayers, condolences and the like, many others lashed out. Not at Paddock himself, whose inscrutability in this has left all but some conspiracy nuts with nothing to say, but at the aforementioned “others.” Guns, having been the mechanism of murder, caught the usual brunt, but country music fans, Republicans, gun owners, pink pussy hats, and white people all drew ire on social media.

It got so bad that several people I know simply checked out of their social media feeds for the day. One friend deleted his FB app from all his mobile devices.

This illustrates the dissonance of modern social media. While these wildly popular platforms (Facebook is worth $500B) are wonderful tools for social interaction, building and maintaining friendships, and communicating with the world, they are also prime vehicles for rage, hatred, tribalism, segmentation of society, and other anti-social behaviors. I recently watched the Discovery Channel “documentary” series Manhunt: Unabomber, which portrayed the FBI’s years-long search for Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski, as some might recall, wrote a lengthy manifesto against industrialization, claiming it “destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.” Kaczynski was, to understate matters, a murderous nut, but I can’t help recalling his diatribes in the doc as I contemplate how fractured our society has been, thanks in part to social media.

When people communicate at a distance via written word, there’s a demonstrated tendency (among some, at least) to write things that would never, ever be said aloud face-to-face. Accusations like “racist” and “nazi” are, to borrow a colloquialism, “fightin’ words” if uttered at someone in person, but on social media, they’re often dropped as casually as the day’s weather forecast. Indeed, some people seem to actually take glee at leveraging atrocities to gain dialogic advantage over their friends and acquaintances. That’s, to put it bluntly, sick. It speaks of a fundamental societal illness, one that’s propagated and transmitted by social media faster than any physical virus ever could be.

I’m not predisposed to blaming social media platforms for this illness. They are tools, first and foremost, and while it’s worthwhile to inquire as to whether the controllers of those tools are exerting their own influences on society, we should look first and foremost at the users of those tools: us. Just as a gun is merely a hunk of metal, wood, and/or plastic absent the hand that wields it, social media platforms are nothing without their users and that which they transmit through them. On the other hand, these platforms serve as buffers, just as being in the safe confines of a car facilitates the exhibition of “road rage.” Such buffers take away our natural reticence against being aggressive and offensive, because they protect us from immediate physical retribution. In other words, we’re more likely to be assholes if there’s less chance we’re going to get punched in the face. That aspect of social media can be deemed a contributor to our current state of division and social illness.

Is there a cure? I don’t know. I do know that each of us controls what we say, write, and post. But, not everyone is going to exhibit restraint, and those who don’t often incite like-kind responses from those who do. This elevates the degree of restraint each of us needs to exercise, if we are to ever recover. Sadly, we’re going the wrong direction, and that in itself may be a contributor to the atrocities we too often see on the news.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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