A Plea: Stop misusing “tragedy”

A bad thing happens. Then journalists, politicians, Church figures, etc., moan about how “tragic” the “tragedy” was. The problem is that 99% of the “tragedies” they bemoan, aren’t tragic or tragedies. It drives me nuts.

From First Things editor R.Reno, to whom I am grateful for taking this up.  With my usual treatment:

[NAME DELETED – I won’t include the rat-bastard queer Muslim terrorist’s name] murder of forty-nine people in Orlando has been called a tragedy—“the Orlando tragedy,” as we hear so often. The word is apt only in the mistaken sense in which we use it now. “Tragedy” has become the word we use when we’re at a loss. When we describe the slaughter of twenty children by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School as a “tragedy,” what we mean is that that terrible event was meaningless. “Tragedy” has come to denote inexplicable evil.

This is a misuse of the term, one that enables our evasions of political reality. It is exactly the opposite of “tragedy” in its classical sense. In his Poetics, Aristotle says that an action is “tragic” when it unfolds in a way that causes the protagonist to suffer, not by happenstance, but in accord with an intrinsic logic. The suffering of the tragic protagonist is fitting. The upshot is catharsis, a release of strong feeling that restores emotional equilibrium. An event is classically “tragic,” then, when suffering is meaningful. We resonate to suffering cathartically when we sense its meaning—and sense that we are implicated in it.

But when we apply “tragedy” to mass murder, our sense of the word is exactly the opposite of Aristotle’s. We could always describe these events as “crimes”; in a legal sense, that’s what they obviously are. But “crime” seems too modest a word, and politicians, especially, don’t want to be seen as downplaying mass murder. To convey the magnitude of the event—and their empathy for the victims, as leadership must these days—they use the grandest word for “suffering” they can think of. It happens to be “tragedy.” They intend to signal that they are empathetic—overwhelmingly so. The evil is inexplicable, incomprehensible, but the suffering is real and in some way must be addressed. “Tragedy” is what we say when we wish to emote and say nothing.  [Dead on.]

And yet, very often, these events are comprehensible. As for Orlando, we all know that [NAME DELETED] rampage fits a pattern—that of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino most recently in the West, and countless others in the past and continuing throughout the Middle East. But this pattern points to descriptions and explanations that are unpalatable, because they put demands on our leaders and us. So politicians and pundits default to a therapeutic stance. They call the slaughter a “tragedy,” in order to avoid giving it meaning.

What is its meaning? The Orlando slaughter was not, primarily, an attack on gays, as liberal pundits and politicians now insist. They favor that interpretation, not only because it gives them leverage in our culture wars, but because it provides an easy, predictable, and unthreatening horizon of meaning. “Mass murder of gays, just like the last incident in_______”: You can’t fill in that blank, which is why this way of thinking about Orlando reassures. It does not involve thinking about real threats, and it does not require real leadership to meet those threats.

No, the slaughter in Orlando was an attack on our society. All of us who remain loyal to a country that allows for gay nightclubs were its targets. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

Many commentators, including President Obama, seem unable to grasp this basic feeling of solidarity when we’re under attack. In a particularly thick-headed commentary in the Washington Post last fall, Andrew Shaver appealed to psychology to explain why we are much more agitated by terrorist attacks than by the ever-present dangers of dying in a car wreck or from cancer. Shaver’s analysis missed the point. I am upset about Orlando because I am aware that [NAME DELETED]’s killing spree was part of a larger battle plan. That plan has been clearly articulated by an implacable enemy that will kill as many Americans as necessary in order to secure dominion over us. I don’t “fear” dying in a terrorist attack. I am agitated by Orlando and San Bernardino because I am patriotic and recognize that an attack on my fellow citizens is an attack on all of us.

This naturally suggests that we should speak of the “Orlando terrorist attack,” or even of an “act of war” in Orlando, rather than of “the Orlando tragedy.” But this way of talking would suggest that America has enemies, which is a prospect we don’t like to contemplate.

[…]

Abraham Lincoln did not describe the shots fired on Fort Sumter as “tragic.” Franklin Roosevelt did not refer to Pearl Harbor as a “tragedy.” As recently as September 11, 2001, we did not take refuge in that empty notion. That we do so now says something about our national decadence—a therapeutic decadence, which evades the hard responsibilities of political leadership.

Read the whole thing there.

Fr. Z kudos.

And let’s, please, stop misusing “tragedy”.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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21 Responses to A Plea: Stop misusing “tragedy”

  1. Kerry says:

    Not tragedies but moral evils. (Drives me nuts too Father.)

  2. HeatherPA says:

    May I add that we also stop misusing the word “hero/heroes”? That really drives me crazy. 99% of the time that hero/heroes is applied to a person, it is grossly misused.

  3. comedyeye says:

    Tragedy:
    a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster:

  4. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Since I doubt anyone else will, I’ll pray for the rat-bastard Moslem terrorist.

  5. acricketchirps says:

    But Orlando is a modern liberal tragedy!

    The very combination of the two great virtues of the liberal hero those of the commitments to first unimpaired access to no-barriers sexual gratification and, second, a moral relativism in which there is no difference among religions and countries and so immigration must also be unimpaired and without barriers are exactly what brings forth the hero’s nemesis, the homosexual (irony) mahometan gunman. What is Gay Pride if not gay hubris… the quintessential tragic flaw.

  6. PostCatholic says:

    The most useful of my philosophy courses while in seminary to this day remains Rhetoric. I wonder if our Reverend Blogger had the same education? If so, he is familiar with Equivocal retreat.

  7. granitroc says:

    We rightly criticize the President (I won’t use his name) for failing to call Islamic Terrorists to account. Still, if we can’t find an adequate, suitable substitute for tragedy (in the case at hand), then why are we wasting our time? Where is Dr. Johnson? Noah Webster? We must have a word people! Perhaps there is a Latin or Greek term? Father Z?

  8. iamlucky13 says:

    I get the sense you can’t use the term “terrorist attack” because the perpetrator was a Muslim, which seems in some circles to mean he was almost as much one of the victims as the perpetrator.

    The word “terrorism” is reserved for the truly heinous crimes, like barricading oneself in a national park and giving law enforcement and others the choice of avoiding confrontation. Considering the death toll in the terrorist attack in Oregon, it would be outrageous to describe the small-time perpetrator of the “tragedy” in Orlando with the same word as for those who took over Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

    So just to be clear, this is terrorism:
    http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/03/opinions/kayyem-oregon-building-takeover-terrorism/

    This is not:
    http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/21/politics/orlando-shooting-gunman-omar-mateen-pulse-nightclub-noor-salman-new-info/

    The second article avoids using the misleading term terrorist, but instead calls him a gunman. The latter term points the blame for Orlando where it must really lie – on the guns.

  9. PDJennings says:

    The word you are looking for is “atrocity.”

  10. Traductora says:

    Exactly. A tragedy would be an earthquake or a hurricane or a non-humanly motivated building collapse… [Ummmm… no.]
    Orlando was simply nothing but a terrorist attack. [Yes.]

  11. atrocity, (thanks, PD)
    slaughter
    massacre
    savagery
    villainy
    heinous crimes
    repugnant violence
    damnable bloodshed — a man died trying to put people in Hell, after all.

  12. Charles E Flynn says:

    Even relatively well-educated children and teenagers often assume that they can learn the meaning of words by observing how they are used, rather than by consulting a good dictionary.

    While the rise of the Internet as a publishing medium has many advantages, the ability to accurately deduce definitions from usage is not one of them.

  13. Geoffrey says:

    “Since I doubt anyone else will, I’ll pray for the rat-bastard Moslem terrorist.”

    I will. It is the Christian thing to do. Name-calling? Not so much…

  14. Charles E Flynn says:

    The Divine Mercy Chaplet and Novena pray, “For the sake of His sorrow Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” There is no exception for Muslims.

  15. Sliwka says:

    I will grant the organic change in meanings of words (nice once meant foolish or simple) but we use it in very odd ways (e.g. “nice and hot” in reference to a soup but “nice and cold” for a frozen dessert). I will grant that tragedy can mean something different than The Philosopher intended.

    Saying that, an avoidable preventable willful evil act is not a tragedy. I think part of the problem as Rev. Fr. Z identified is that there is an inability, without some sort of objective morality, to call an act evil or wrong. Here in the Great White North our military higher ups released a pocket card of criminal and other illegal acts that were ,according to the title, “Inappropriate”. Not wrong, not illegal, just inappropriate. Mind boggling what relativism produces.

  16. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    granitroc asks, “Perhaps there is a Latin or Greek term?” I think of the words attributed to the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, by Tacitus in his Agricola (ch.30): “ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”. But in modern English, ‘ solitudo’ would be so easily misunderstood as to be misleading. One not uncommon translation is ‘desolation’. The first part of the sentence is: “Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium”. But the word produced in English from ‘trucidatio’ seems quite unusual. I find the Latin translated with ‘ slaughter’, ‘ massacre’.

    For the grievousness of a single death or killing,…?

    Another group of words not often enough objected to, to my way of thinking, are ‘execute’, ‘execution’, etc. – which seem all too often and easily used for (terrorist) murders. Such expressions as ‘execution-style killing/slaying’ may be rather cumbersome, but neatly express the bogus pretension that someone is justified in the vile murder done.

    Meanwhile, Sandro Magister has a very interesting account of how the Holy Father, with striking care for choosing his words, has moved from “genocide – I insist on the word” on 9 July 2015 to “I don’t like it – I wish to make this very clear — when some refer to what is happening to Christians in the Middle East as a genocide. This is reductionism… Let us not turn a mystery of the faith, a form of martyrdom, into sociological reductionism” a couple days ago (18 June).

  17. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I was also reminded of a passage by Winston Churchill from 1909 (as First Sea Lord, with reference to the naval aspects of German militarism, and the exchange of diplomatic notes), “They sound so very cautious and correct, these deadly words. Soft, quiet voices purring, courteous, grave, exactly-measured phrases in large peaceful rooms. […] It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of […]. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats”.

  18. misternaser says:

    Not too surprising that “tragedy” is being misused, since for quite some time we’ve been misusing lots of other words, such as “gay” and “marriage.”

  19. KateD says:

    How about ‘goat song’? Could we say that instead?

    That tunnel opening ceremony in Europe…now that was a tragedy!

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Edward Pentin has news of the Holy Father departing from his prepared text to use the word ‘genocide’ in Armenia today.

  21. robtbrown says:

    The electronic media leaps at the chance to use words like “tragic”, “shocking”, and “stunning”.