Not Our Pain: The Wholesale Co-Optation of Orlando

In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag writes:

A painting or drawing is judged a fake when it turns out not to be by the artist to whom it had been attributed. A photograph—or a filmed document available on television or the internet—is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict.

This quote seamlessly speaks to the reaction to the events at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and the ways in which various media pundits are attempting to label this tragedy through politically divisive and problematic terms.  What is attributed as one event is actually another and the deception en masse is paralleled by a public willing to buy into their own participation in this rather fake community of public mourning.

I am referring more specifically to Owen Jones’ mantrum on Sky TV whereby he wanted to command the language and terms by which the Pulse murders are framed discursively.  He lashes out at his interlocutors: “You don’t understand this because you’re not gay!”  and Julia Hartley-Brewer responds appropriately, “I don’t think that you have ownership of horror of this crime because you’re gay.”  I watched in disbelief as this one man, consistently interrupting the female seated to his right, attempted to cut out of the discussion, the very people with whom he was ostensibly in discussion. Indeed, this scene plays out the worst part of identity politics: the ethos that everything is about me or my excruciatingly narcissistic and atomised notion of myself as community.

I have been part of the LGB community. I lived through AIDS and lost a good number of friends and family to what was a political targeting of our community, when one really could speak of community.  I was in ActUp in the 1980s and 1990s and saw what violence against homosexuality looks like and I recognise the difference between a mentally ill gunman, who mowed down dozens of people in a gay venue in cold blood this past weekend and an all out war against gay men, against homosexuality. I understand when I am being pandered to by someone who claims to represent my community, the likes of Owen Jones, who actually believes that one must be gay to empathise with the horrific social and quite personal aftermath created by mass murder.  I also recognise when other pundits jump on that already shiny and well-oiled saddle of Islamophobia ready to give us all a ride on that mechanical bull built on hatred, racism and xenophobia which is all too present in the UK, and all too well-hidden.  I believe that these two impulses—to own a tragedy through the homophobic underwriting the lives of those murdered within a highly politicised and crafted narrative and the concomitant Islamophobia that follows whenever any male with an Islamo-Arab background murders one or scores of people—work together to create

There is a subtle but very real distinction that must be made between what is an assailant’s delusional, male-entitled, culturally driven rage against others and the all out institutional, repetitive, and cultural inscribed erasure of gay lives and bodies.  This gunman who now is revealed to have been a frequent flier at Pulse, who may or may have not had homosexual tendencies, was a person living in a post 9/11 country who would never really be able to fit into the U.S. stylised, milky white self-congratulatory neoliberalism of gay weddings (and gay divorce) because his very heterosexual marriage (and divorce) did not work out as he had wished. This pretty much sums up the typology of many mass murderers in North America: males, angry, socially marginalised due to ethnicity and/or religion, divorced, groomed to be violent, often soldiers or former soldiers, and they all have a heavy helping of mental health issues.  These characteristics might shift slightly, but the one commonality on this list is male.

Mostly, however, I recognise when the problem of all these acts of violence occur and these pundits are collectively running around like children on Easter morning looking for their eggs, as they concoct one narrative after another: talk shows rambling on about ISIS, rainbow flags replacing nationalist signs of “pride,” and journalists given platforms by national media to issue one platitude after another. Indeed, Jones would have us believe that we cannot understand anything because those who have another take on how to interpret violence and death are presumed not to be gay (like he is) and more to the point, that we are not him. Jones’ unique vision into the horrors of mass murder become discursive fodder to plump up his career as he treads upon women’s bodies and lives in other instances without so much as an eye blink.  And Jones is not alone as other journalists have come out in the eerily narcissistic hall of mirrors that plagues these memorials, attempting to own it as part of the various satellite movements from any of the identitarian acronyms.

Humans were murdered. In death identity politics have no place. It is nothing short of divisive to turn what is one man’s exercise of masculinity, violence, and reliance upon the Second Amendment into a buttressing of our particular political agenda.  Mental illness and male privilege is the issue that nobody wishes to undertake in the media today. Shooting after shooting, Ft. Hood after Sandy Hook, and we are left with one commonality in 98% of the cases. There is one thread connecting these events that major media elides from its discussion and which we must undertake as a society: male violence.

Since the killings this past weekend we have been witness to a shock that serves as a theatrical absurd. Absurd because this is not new, nor is it surprising. What is surprising is that such violence goes unquestioned, the gunmen are inevitably linked by media pundits to flimsy narratives of terror and repressed homosexuality while, even if these narratives were to be found true, the deeper issue of male violence remains untouched.  So there is no need for anyone to feign shock—the United States is one of the most violent societies on earth with shootings occurring at rates so high that such tragedies are just more of the same.  The theatre of mourning is, I believe, a production of social beings who extend what seems like empathy but, in fact, they are merely participating in the same machinery of denial that allows for all social acts of violence to remain part of the scenery. The production goes on as programmed.

Make no mistake, my friends, this is one of the greatest legacies of neoliberalism whereby one believes that dropping off a bouquet of roses or a handwritten letter to the dead at the scene of a death indicates our humanity. I would argue the contrary—that such actions deploy the very uprooting of our humanity and instead evoke the plasticity of a society where beating one’s breast is the surrogate for true action.  After all if the shooting of six-year-olds in Newtown, Connecticut did not spark the necessary political changes in gun laws in the U.S., why would 49 gay men and women?  It is clear that the images of those mourning the Orlando victims are interpolated within the mechanisms of violence where representations of mourning become in themselves adverts for the act of violence. It is through watching the suffering of the living who are entirely disconnected to the dead, only driven by a faint narrative of homosexual belonging, that the sacrifice becomes our own narcissism. It is, as Owen Jones would have it, really about him and his ilk. Sontag describes how suffering functions through the mediatised image to confer power on the sacrifice:

Images of the sufferings endured in war are so widely disseminated now that it is easy to forget how recently such images became what is expected from photographers of note. Historically, photographers have offered mostly positive images of the warrior’s trade, and of the satisfactions of starting a war or continuing to fight one. If governments had their way, war photography, like most war poetry, would drum up support for soldiers’ sacrifice.

The problem with Owen Jones’ invocation of, “You don’t understand this because you’re not gay!” functions to propagandise death as something knowable only to the living who suffer, the dead merely serving as talisman for the journey of ego, a covert attempt to make this suffering as part of the larger ethos of murder by Islamic State or neo-Nazis.  Yet the moment of death is personal for the victims first and foremost, it is secondarily so for their loved ones and direct real-life communities. Where Jones and others see a gay agenda, the families of these 49 victims see only death and loss.  There is a montage of current political agendas where each community is staking out Orlando as theirs: on the one hand découpage-and-pasted next to the scene of dead bodies reminding me of Sontag’s analysis of Robert Capa’s “at-the-moment-of-death picture of the Republican soldier appeared in Life on July 12, 1937.”  Sontag writes:

It occupied the whole of the right page; facing it on the left was a full-page advertisement for Vitalis, a men’s hair cream, with a small picture of someone exerting himself at tennis and a large portrait of the same man in a white dinner jacket sporting a head of neatly parted, slicked-down, lustrous hair. The double spread—with each use of the camera implying the invisibility of the other—seems not just bizarre but curiously dated now.

For Sontag the “witnessing” of tragedy and war demands that we make heroes of the dead, inscribing them with bravery and zeal, a product for consumption for future tragedies. As each identitarian group tells non-gay people not to “co-opt this tragedy,” the bizarre result of such admonitions is that these individuals are co-opting this tragedy in the most highly stylised and arrogant of political pledges.

Let us cease memorialising our own importance and instead let’s get out and plant a tree, make an elderly neighbour a home-cooked meal, stop being a hedge fund manager. Anything. Do something but definitely not a horrific Simon and Garfunkel schlockfest in London’s Soho and definitely not more of the Islamophobia typical in the aftermath of violence by someone who happened to be Muslim. These events of violence are horrific, they are tragic, and they are sad. About this there is no doubt.  However, what we must understand is that this shooter was a product of us all—our culture, our society, and our violences.  And this is the hardest part of all to accept—that Mateen has taken part of the very culture of indulgence that allows us to take our horror and reaction to violence without evaluating our domestic and international violences that we are perpetuating this very moment. From on-ground troops in the Middle East to drones flying high above family gatherings in Pakistan, we are part of one of the most violent societies on earth.  And the truth about Mateen, like our armed forces overseas, is this:  that we take to eerily similar violent measures to snuff out the narratives with which we disagree.

We need to stop feigning shock and start moving towards a political activism of peace.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.