I Am So Sorry

I would like to apologize for the role my behavior played in recent events.

As I was saying recently, we have a tendency to adopt certain identity-segmentation paradigms as mental models to try to explain the world around us, but those paradigms aren’t necessarily very good.

When the news hit that “Orlando gunman” Omar Mateen had a profile on a gay dating app and that he was a regular of the very club he ultimately attacked, many of my friends on social media responded very predictably. Many of them said something to the effect of, “Yet another conservative homophobe who is actually a repressed, self-hating person.” There’s an almost snide tone to it, as if some are satisfied, in a way, to note that anyone who hates the LGBTQ community is actually gay himself/herself. It’s a reaction that leaves me very unsettled, because it seems so nasty to try to score a point for one’s ideological narrative when real people’s lives are on the line.

For the record, my reaction was a terrible and profound sadness for Mr. Mateen. Who really knows what he had to endure? Who knows what sort of emotional pain would drive him to this? Indeed, this is similar to how I react whenever I hear about an on-the-record homophobe who is ultimately outed as gay. How sad. These people must be in such pain.

Needless to say (I hope), none of this excuses terrible people from doing terrible things, but when tragedy strikes, some of us immediately start angling for their version of “justice,” while others (like myself, I hope) feel only grief.

(It’s also worth mentioning that, as of the time of this writing, we still don’t really know if he was genuinely gay, or just “casing-out” a target location.)

Yes, I readily admit it: I felt sorry for the perpetrator of the crime, and in truth I also felt guilty.

The first time I really remember feeling this way was back in 2003, when all-around-bad-guy Rush Limbaugh publicly admitted to being addicted to oxycontin. His critics were not kind. Here is but one example. If one has a taste for schadenfreude, then there is a rich temptation to punch down here. After all, there is this:

“Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. … And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up,” Limbaugh said on his short-lived television show on Oct. 5, 1995.

During the same show, he commented that the statistics that show blacks go to prison more often than whites for the same drug offenses only illustrate that “too many whites are getting away with drug use.”

In reality, it’s sad. Like so many other people, Rush Limbaugh accidentally acquired an opioid addiction as a result of fairly routine surgery. There’s nothing to feel triumphant about. Limbaugh’s addiction doesn’t validate the position of people who are kinder to addicts, it’s simply a sad reminder of how dangerous these newer opioids are.

But, the paradigm problem cuts both ways. It cuts in Limbaugh’s direction: he was painting all addicts with the same brush, but unbeknownst to him, modern opioids can lead even the best of us down the path to addiction. It cuts against his critics too: it doesn’t work to call him a hypocrite without conceding Limbaugh’s implied point that it’s the addict’s fault that he’s addicted. “Two legitimate but contradictory beliefs, one held consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously.” (See what I mean now?)

Now, in Orlando, the ideological positioning is in full effect, with many people calling for stricter gun regulations, and many others calling for stricter immigration regulations, and others still calling for an eradication of intolerance. There are many reasons why each of these narratives fall flat, but while we’re busy calling each other names, a true gaping cultural hole has been exposed in America that can’t be filled with “better laws” or “fewer foreigners” or “more liberalism,” at least not without the same kind of contradiction we saw with the Limbaugh schadenfreude. 

I helped rip this hole open, and for that I am so incredibly sorry. I don’t think I did it alone, but I can only apologize for my own part of it.

Mr. Mateen was a first-generation American, and this is a demographic that we already know struggles to identify both with their native culture and their parents’ culture. Combine this struggle with the conservatism of Mr. Mateen’s parents’ culture, especially regarding homophobia, and then combine it again with the struggles of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants in American culture as it stands. If it’s true that Mateen was a gay – comma – Muslim – comma – first-generation American – comma – from a South Asian family then none of our politically or identity-driven narratives begin to do justice to the multitude of struggles a person in his position would have to endure. Relaxing any one of those assumptions still leaves Mateen with a hefty emotional bag to carry.

We will never see that kind of narrative presented in the popular press, in the “blog-o-sphere,” or in our political discourse. It is far too satisfying – an indulgence far too tempting – to simply double-down on the familiar words: intolerance, radial Islam, terrorism, gun control, immigration, mental illness, the patriarchy, illiberalism. These ills are social, and we latch-on to them because they socialize the problem.

On Stationary Waves, I call it shared guilt: It’s our tendency to see social problems when the problems are in fact individual ones. We all do it, including myself, and for that I am sorry and I am ashamed.

Omar Mateen wasn’t “a Muslim.” That is, he wasn’t a guy who went on a shooting spree because he was a Muslim. He doesn’t fit that profile. Mateen wasn’t “a homophobe,” either, at least not in the sense that he went on a shooting spree because he couldn’t bear to live in a world with gay people. For that matter, he wasn’t even “a terrorist,” at least not in the sense that he had a clear political message to impart to the Government of the United States of America.

The problem with the various social-ills narratives is that no one of them is strong enough to account for the full force of the situation Mateen must have found himself in – a situation to which we all contribute, all of us.When we pin it on that particular thing, we grant ourselves permission to overlook this particular thing, and this particular thing is probably something to which we ourselves contribute. I know it’s true, in my case.

It’s surprising to me, however, because I would expect a pervasive social problem like misogyny, or homophobia, or gun control, or etc., to be a much more difficult to solve than solving our own individual shortcomings. Yet people are so quick to invoke shared guilt and thereby evade responsibility for producing an environment where one of our own neighbors wants to go on a shooting spree.

So for my cowardice, my weakness, and my inability to fully account for those shortcomings I wish to offload onto the shared guilt of identity narratives, I can only apologize, and try to make amends.

I’m writing all this because I happen to know what it feels like to be an outsider, and I have learned over the years just how rare true outsiders are. Even a very small team is a team. Most “individuals” feel individualistic because their team is very small. Very few of us just don’t fit in anywhere. I don’t expect many to understand it, so I am compelled to write. I don’t write this for the benefit of those of us who already know, but for the benefit of those who have always had a social group to belong to, and thus struggle to understand the motives of a person who is simply lone.

There are probably many reasons why Omar Mateen did what he did. We cannot overlay any narrative paradigm, no matter how personally appealing it is, because like everyone, Mateen must have experienced a wide variety of different kinds of antagonism and marginalization over the course of his life. Which one of them was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Was it any one of them? Was it any one in particular? Is it the combination of three or more that turn someone into a killer?

No, please. It’s all of them. At any point in time, you may belong to this segment or that segment, and at any point in time you may find yourself the brunt of some social force that pains you deeply. Remember that feeling. We all feel it, all of us, yes, even the privileged white males like myself who find ourselves on the outside more often than you think.

Remember that feeling, because the moment you feel it, you know what you need to heal. You don’t need identity politics, you don’t need new laws or new immigration policies. You don’t need better philosophy or more liberalism.

A person can only take so much hate before they break, and when they do, it might be a suicide or a homicide, a drug bender, a car accident, or anything else. A person might find a healthy outlet for their pain, or they might never. But it’s you and I that are causing this pain – and by “you and I,” I mean literally YOU and literally ME .

We speak and write and laugh and sing and act at the expense of each other, and we do it all the time. We even do it right here on this blog. We come out of tragedy with an “other-ing” mentality, where Those Who Commit Heinous Crimes are always them and never us. It doesn’t matter whether them is “bigots” or “gun nuts” or “homophobes” or “immigrants” or “conservatives” or “the patriarchy.” Whoever it is, it’s them. And because it’s them, we exonerate ourselves, even if we share some vague sense of responsibility for eradicating our favorite root social cause. The point is, we’re one of Those Who Know Better, even if that means we must indict our segment.

My hope here is that, in reading this, you think back to someone you’ve known who didn’t deserve what you gave them. Think of someone you unfairly ganged-up on, and think about what a lifetime of receiving such treatment would do to a person.

Would it turn someone into a killer? Maybe not. But what if it could? Would you change your behavior – your individual behavior – then?

3 thoughts on “I Am So Sorry

  1. pxdelaney

    This got me thinking about a few things to do with identity politics generally (and, really, not this specific case):
    1) This is really the most sympathetic expression of “intersectionality”. That is, the idea that we are navigating multiple identities at any one time, rather than the idea that we can be reduced into ever smaller tribe, each tribe separate from the others and to be spoken to only by their own.
    2) All identity politics that deal with individuals has some flavor of synecdoche – individuals standing in for a social group, or vice versa. There’s an injustice there but I don’t know how to talk about big issues without generality. I just rather not have individuals trampled in the process.

  2. just to let you know i feel this way all the time but then i feel guilty for feeling sorry for the perp. I think it is because of the worlds desire to see everything as, for lack of better word, black and white. People want a victim and a villian. They don’t want anything in between. But, in fact, we are all in between. No one is always a hero or always a villain.

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