Wednesday 28 September 2016

Orlando tragedy was a mirror for narcissists

The grief of the people of Florida was hijacked by gay activists and social media warriors, writes Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

In memory: Crosses, one for each victim, line a walkway as a memorial to those killed in the Pulse nightclub shootings a few blocks from the club in Orlando. Photo: David Goldman/PA
In memory: Crosses, one for each victim, line a walkway as a memorial to those killed in the Pulse nightclub shootings a few blocks from the club in Orlando. Photo: David Goldman/PA

I have been to Orlando twice in my life. First as a 13-year-old with my parents, when it seemed impossibly huge and impossibly exciting - and then as a 33-year-old when it seemed small, cheap and incredibly tacky.

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In the interim, Orlando underwent its own seismic shift in perspective. In 1991, a group of gay men and women defied the saccharine family-only image of Disneyland and began congregating in Orlando's biggest theme parks.

There were only a few hundred of them in those years but they wore red shirts to make themselves more visible. They brought their children by the hand. Word of mouth turned Gay Days, as it became known, into a national festival in the US, nestling somewhere in the niche between Groundhog Day and Southern Decadence. By the time I returned, two decades later, the number of revellers had swelled to 300,000 and the message had been received loud and clear by Disney, and America generally: gay people are families, too. I had come out by then myself and Orlando, for all its kitschness, seemed to bookend the two big changes in my life; the onset of puberty and the slide into middle age.

I might then have felt, as many people here seemed to feel last week, that the tragedy in Orlando was kind of all about me. I might, as Owen Jones did on Sky News, have thrown an enormous strop because people weren't willing to underline the fact that this was all about my pain and my community's suffering. I might have written, as others did, that the unease they felt showing affection in public was related in some way to the shooting. I might, but I would have stopped myself, because I realise that a tragedy like the one in Orlando is a mirror in which every narcissist sees his own image.

In our relentless 24-hour news cycle, there is an unearned sense of immediate involvement in every grand tragedy that floats across our screens. On social media this breeds preening displays of faux empathy and flag washes over our Facebook profile pictures. It is inconsistent of course: we are Paris (but not Beirut or Baghdad), still the main thing is: we are all together and everyone knows we care.

Some of us have to care professionally. European news media organisations no longer have money to fly someone to Orlando to do on-the-ground reporting, so instead we have journalists projecting their own meanings and motivations on to the tragedy. Gun control is, of course, a bit tedious for us, since, besides gangland violence, we don't really have a gun problem and most of us fail to understand how America can't just sort the issue out. Islamic extremism is tough, too, because it's been done before and because, in our liberal guilt, we don't really like blaming Muslims.

Even mental illness isn't really a comfortable subject because we have to be careful about offending people who are mentally ill but without homicidal tendencies. Homophobic violence is a subject we can get our teeth into, however. And so following Jones's lead, the Western media seized on the one aspect of this shooting, besides its gargantuan scale, which made it different from all the others.

The most strikingly consistent thing about the endless gun shootings in America is the randomness of the settings in which they have occurred. Schools have featured, of course, but there have also been shopping malls, bowling alleys, rock concerts and the street.

We mostly don't give much airtime to the belief systems which might have informed the shooters' motivations, since these are self-evidently insane. We didn't ask ourselves, after Sandy Hook, what this meant for upper middle-class white children everywhere. When Anders Behring Breivik murdered 69 young people on an island off the coast of Norway his subsequent trial did not prompt the debate he had hoped for about immigration and white power in Norway. In Orlando, however, the homophobic motivations of Omar Mateen were placed front and centre. On CNN, Anderson Cooper grilled the governor of Florida about her record on gay rights and we began to see this shooting in terms of a hate crime.

Jones plaintively asked his fellow panellist on Sky News whether we would have failed to denounce the attack as anti-Semitic if it had happened in a synagogue but the analogy is false because of the context in which it occurred. Orlando, as a city, is nowhere close to the frontline of the evolution of LGBT rights and Omar Mateen committed his crime, in spite of, not because of, the attitudes that pervade in a city, which falls somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum in terms of its attitudes. Gay marriage has been legal there longer than it has been legal here and it hosts one of the biggest gay festivals in the US. The maniacal homophobia Mateen nurtured was his own. But, like the man charged with murdering British MP Jo Cox, he was quickly presented as the armed wing of a cause.

This struck me as disrespectful to those who died in Orlando. If I had got out of the Pulse nightclub trailing blood behind myself. I wouldn't really have much time for someone writing that this was like the time they felt afraid to hold someone's hand. If I were looking down from the afterlife, I would be dismayed that journalists and social media warriors thousands of miles away had followed the lead of an insane gunman and focused solely on my sexuality, or had stormed out of a television studio in such a dramatic huff that they had to spend the next 48 hours reiterating that they weren't trying to make this all about them (yes, you were Owen).

In the Irish Times last week, Una Mullally wrote "there is a difference between gunning random people down, and seeking out a subset of people for whom you wish to target with murderous rage. To deny that hate, or to subsume it into another narrative, denies its roots in society".

The glaring problem was that the narrative was so complex and foggy.

The major factors in the Orlando shooting - mental illness, access to guns, gender, internalised homophobia, and religion - did not lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all explanation. But if you were to be logical about it the things that the shooting shared with all other similar American mass shootings - the gender of the shooter, and his tragic access to firearms - would be the most helpful things to focus on in terms of trying to prevent this ever happening again. Instead we got wall-to-wall gay rights.

I have experienced homophobia in many different forms in my life. I have felt the unease that Una and others have written of. I have seen the spectrum of homophobia from the Fairview Park judgement to the casual bigotry of schoolyard; both seemed so sinister because they were folded into the respectability of suburban Dublin. Something about Orlando makes it seem far removed from all that, a random, distant crime, committed by an unwell loner, as unconnected with our Irish experience as the shooting of Malala Yousafzai was from feminism and children's rights here.

There is a tendency in life, as in academia, to see the world through the prism of your own expertise. Psychologists believe problems have their roots in our inner lives, economists see the world in terms of economics, and, given not that much to work with, gay journalists are able to see the complex causation of mass homicide in terms of LGBT politics. In doing so, they are fighting the good fight with the wrong weapons, and disrespecting the dead.

Sunday Independent

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