On Jan. 5, President Obama appeared on television to unveil new gun control measures. While speaking about the shooting at Sandy Hook — and in the full glare of the cameras — he shed a few tears. Some people were moved, others outraged — and others attacked for being moved or being outraged. But in this shouting match, what was lost was a real conversation — and moreover, appreciation that a conversation is what democracy should be based on.
Grief is intensely private, and yet like all our strongest emotions, its vivid reality in our minds has to be expressed in some way to be made tangible to others. The ethics of grieving get muddled when we’re reacting to a public tragedy. When a multitude of people react to a tragedy, they apply to it different morals and different worldviews, which inevitably politicizes it. What does it mean to make something political? The philosopher Hannah Arendt suggests it is simply to bring it into the public sphere, to make it exist amongst men.
By existing in public, a president’s grief becomes public — and by nature of his position, political. The tears President Obama shed were political in effect, even if they weren’t in intention. Immediately after he shed those tears, allegations arose that they were faked — all part of cheap political theater.
That people are swayed by emotion is not revelatory or even surprising — it is simply a reality of human democracy. And politicians know how well emotions sell, and they don’t shy away from using that to their advantage. So when a politician displays emotion — especially as strongly as President Obama did — it is naive to not question his motives.
It is easy to attack logic. But as Noah Trevor proves in his defense of President Obama, there are very few legitimate ways to attack emotion. When people attempt it by questioning if the tears were real, it is often laughable or despicable — of course the shootings themselves were tragic, and of course President Obama was moved by them. But the sense of underhanded deceit that people feel when someone uses emotion to sell an opposing viewpoint is warranted because of how emotion can override reason. That is why the more interesting question is whether President Obama’s tears are fair, when they invariably move the public and garner support for his action.
After all, our native language is not logic or reasoning — it is emotion. “Primacy of affect“ — which involves emotions preceding, and often overpowering, our conscious thoughts — is a phenomenon psychologists have observed for a while now. Most scarily, emotions can set people on certain paths before they’re even aware of their reasoning — prompting them to confirm what they already feel by selecting facts and arguments.
There is no dearth of emotion in this argument about bearing arms — in fact, it thrives off of it — but by displaying tenderness on screen, President Obama solidified a story: one of frustration and endurance and a compelling moral duty in the face of an uphill battle. A story that so far has existed in words alone. President Obama’s tears did something his words couldn’t do. With words he could express his regrets, his outrage, his condolences and lay out his plans. But tears are a wordless acknowledgment — an acknowledgment of grief that doesn’t move to gain forgiveness, to lay blame or assign a narrative to the events, but just exists, independent of justification. That gives tears a strange power, and that gave his story the vitality to inspire.
So when Ben Shapiro tweeted: “HEADLINE: Obama Cries!!!!!!!1!!!! Give Him What He Wants!!!!!1!!!!” it was arguably an accusation that President Obama wants to be infantilized, which is mean-spirited, petty and dismissible. Or it could point to the unconscious effect emotions have on people and illustrate that the public shouldn’t abandon reasoning in the face of emotion. This argument is very reasonable and a helpful thing to point out in a democracy. A democracy functions on the idea that exposure to the multitude will reveal flaws in ideas — and that will make decisions made by the public less fallible than those by an individual. To disregard or laugh at someone pointing out that a politician may be using emotions to manipulate the public is to be arrogant enough to assume our decisions are insusceptible to human fallacies, and to waste the power of a democracy. It is easy to rationalize our emotional response; it is harder to put brakes on our strong feelings to examine not only President Obama’s proposed actions but the channel he used to enforce them.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, once answered that the greatest difficulty he faced in governance was “creating a just state by just means.“ Like him, President Obama faces a problem unique to a select few: the dilemma of an individual, with subjective views, holding office in a democracy. The president simultaneously has a responsibility to make change and yet cannot do it without the cooperation of others — even when enforcing what seems like common sense to him.
By using executive action, President Obama tried to solve that deadlock. And the image of President Obama wiping his tears, or a video of his pursed lips seconds before the first tear: These are artifacts that stand testimony, in a way words rarely can, to the feeling that prompted the action.
America needs that expression of grief — and the public reckoning prompted by it.
To politicize a tragedy is distasteful — to make it about anything other than the real people and their real suffering that it involves can be insensitive and insulting. To utilize these dead bodies to say you were always right or to further a political aim is disgusting. But there’s another way to politicize a tragedy.
We can politicize this tragedy by bringing it to the forefront of our collective consciousness. We can talk about these shootings. We can talk about them with others who hold differing political views. We can talk about them in political settings. We can turn towards the dead, and we can force ourselves to reckon with the consequences of our dearly held laws. And we can move to do something; we can demand that no more children are shot at — and by politicizing the tragedy, we can use politics to prevent it from ever happening again.
Emotions can be political tools. But that’s not all they are — sometimes they are genuine, and they are impetuses for political change. When that happens, a government “for the people” fulfills its promise.
Compelling people to feel an emotion is not “cheap” — to use it to promote tighter gun laws is not underhanded but intelligent. We make more political decisions with our gut than we like to admit, and it is only human, and all too easy in this climate, to succumb to political emotions. But emotions don’t have to be the enemy of reason — they can instead provide the force for change after all the reasoning points somewhere arduously far away.
I believe better gun control laws are good for America, and therefore that they are a just end. But President Obama’s executive action doesn’t need the defense of ends justifying means. In a stalemate, he created change — and did so in the means available to him. The right is not unjustified in being worried that President Obama shed tears — by using emotion or simply by having and showing it, he made his case stronger. But they got the causality wrong — this time, it isn’t a president using emotion to manipulate people’s opinions. What happened on Jan. 5 was that the collective grief of a nation over needless deaths came to fruition in some kind of redemptive action, and the president grieved like the rest of the nation. His legacy will be, at least in this area, that he passed a just law by just means.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.