I’m not the type of person who shies away from sensitive topics. I like to think that I do a fairly good job of being appropriate when I know that I’m dealing with a particularly difficult or controversial issue. So when something like the Newtown massacre happens, a lot of people — including myself — think that this seems exactly like the sort of thing that I should be addressing in my blog. Finding ways to tie timely current events to psychological research is essentially the very mission statement of this blog, after all.
I’m writing this to explain why I’m not going to be writing about what happened in Newtown here. Or anywhere.
My Intro Social Psych students could tell you that I’m very fond of following up every discussion of a theory or experiment by quickly saying, “Well, it’s not actually that simple, really.” Most students hate this. Eager undergrads often sign up for Social Psychology hoping to get all of the answers to life, the universe, and everything over the course of just a few months – they want to understand why people are the way that they are, why people make the decisions that they make, why people do the things that they do. And, in a lot of ways, social psych theories — and the researchers who create them – do want to explain it all. Many of them are even quick to claim that their theories actually do just that.
But they can’t. Not really.
Every theory comes with caveats. With moderators. With individual differences. With contextual conditions that must be satisfied. With exceptions. And with nuance.
Just as people who come into my class wanting “explain-it-all theories” usually leave feeling disappointed, many people who have been searching for answers about the Newtown tragedy have found themselves coming up short as well. Why do people feel the way that they do about gun control or the right to bear arms? When faced with an insurmountable trauma or personal tragedy, how do we cope? How do we find resilience? How do we move on?
Why would someone walk into an elementary school and savagely murder dozens of innocent children? And how can we stop this from happening again?
These are the questions for which we desperately want to find the answers right now. What I often find myself doing on this blog is, in some way, providing those types of explanations that people so often crave. I know that many times, the things that I write are simplistic – of course, I can’t actually explain everything that happens in the world using academic theories and single-sample laboratory studies. It would be ridiculous to think that I could. But, in some small way, I like to think I’m providing an explanation for some things. Some part of things.
But this time, I can’t. I can’t sit here and honestly attempt to tell you that I have any sort of an answer or explanation for anything that has to do with Newtown. And I’ve tried. I’ve sat down so many times over the past few days and tried to write something about compassion. About empathy. About dealing with trauma. About mental illness. About resilience. About a search for meaning in a world that seems unpredictable and frightening. Yet no matter how much I tried to write about these things, the words never came. I could not think of any study or theory that would even come close to being an acceptable reference. My mind was blank. I couldn’t find a single thing that felt remotely helpful – or even appropriate – to say.
That’s not to say that other writers haven’t found meaningful, important things to say in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Take Emily Willingham’s wonderful piece on the dangers of conflating autism with violent tendencies, or Amanda Marcotte’s piece on the problem with our pro-gun culture. Other writers have had stunning, beautiful insights into small parts of this tragedy and, put together, these parts have come together to form a complex, nuanced, and multifaceted view of a horrific event. It’s just that this time, I won’t – I can’t – be one of those people.
Every scientist and every science writer is, first and foremost, also a human being. We feel scared and confused. We feel emotional. Even in a profession requiring the ability to consistently find the right words to say, they will still sometimes escape us — and we know that no matter how hard we look, we will never find them. They will simply never come.
Social psychology can be a truly amazing discipline. It helps us understand the world around us. It helps us understand why people do the things that they do. But it can’t give us the answer to everything, and it certainly can’t give us a black-and-white answer for this. For example, what could I really have written about how people deal with unimaginable trauma? Some will benefit by trying to imbue what has happened to them with a sense of meaning or greater purpose. Some people will feel offended and belittled by this approach. Some people will respond to this tragedy with compassion and care. Some will respond with aggression and anger. Some will appreciate insights based on logic and reason. Others will only appreciate a shoulder to cry on. I can’t tell you what psychology “says” about this tragedy, because there is no one, all-encompassing, singular thing that psychology says about this tragedy — to pretend otherwise would be presumptuous and irresponsible.
The only thing I know right now is that it’s complicated. The only thing I know is that nothing I can ever possibly say on this small, silly corner of the Internet will bring those babies and those selfless teachers back. Nothing I could ever say would ever come close to explaining why something this unconscionable has happened, and nothing I could ever say would give everyone who reads it a sense of peace, or even a sense of true understanding.
That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to try. Not this time.