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Grief and Policy: Navigating Tragedy in the Social Media Age

Jumping into policy-making after a tragedy may not be best. If we aren’t careful, we can fall for policy errors that can actually make the problem worse.

When I hear that a terrible thing has happened, part of the way I cope is to jump straight to fixing things—and especially to jump right into the nuts and bolts of policy. Policy is one of the most important ingredients in creating long-lasting improvement. It feels good to think about the next step. 

It’s also a terrible idea. 

I worry that social media policy-making is not good therapy—and not good policy either.

I’ve tried to come up with a little how-to guide of what to do when tragedy strikes—some mix of policy lessons and emotional self-help that, with any luck, could help me (and maybe others) to navigate things a little more productively the next time something terrible happens.

Pay respects to the horror

In times past, we would experience only the tragedies of our community. Now, we hear of all of them from everywhere. 

In the face of such tragedy, I’m not sure hiding works. I don’t want to become so cold that it doesn’t affect me—and yet, I can’t possibly bear the weight of the tragedies of all of civilization. I’m not wired for it. I don’t think any of us are. 

I have a friend who heard of a school shooting and wept. Then he prayed. He asked what he could do. He knew it was not enough. It was all he could afford. I’ve done the same. When I heard of a recent horror, I sat with it. I thought about it. I paid my respects, so to speak. I gave myself a little time to simply experience it.

The time and place for fury are different than the time and place for solutions.

When I worked as an administrator in public schools, a bad day was one in which I had to punish kids. An awful day was when I had to investigate adults. The worst of all was when I had to get filled in on some horror in a child’s life by the school’s social worker.

I was grateful to have a commute that gave me time to simply sit with the horror before seeing my young children and wife. It gave me time to pay my respects.

Facts first

When the emotional processing is done—or, at least, when it is far enough along to let me think clearly—it’s time to focus on the facts.

Some branches of the military have an interesting practice. When there is a critical failure of some kind, all involved come together for a “hotwash,” an after-action report that is meant to focus on what happened. The only goal is to meet together and get the facts straight. The key to a good hotwash is to pause feelings of accountability—not because they aren’t important but because it’s not the right time. The goal of the hotwash is to ensure you have the story right, that you’ve learned everything you can, and to focus on preventing a future similar incident.

No shopping hungry

“Making policy after a tragedy is how you get the Iraq war.”

If the tragedy is recent enough to make you lose your cool on Facebook, then it’s probably an indicator that you’re not rational enough to make thoughtful policies about it. One should avoid policy-making-while-emotional for much the same reason they should avoid grocery-shopping-while-hungry—you’ll have a cart filled with things you didn’t actually need.

There is an important place for fury. (Go ahead. Click it.) What the little cartoon says jokingly, I say seriously. But the time and place for fury are different than the time and place for solutions. 

Here are some other rules of thumb on how to check your own emotions—from my own hard experience: 

  • If you look at your “shopping cart” of policy ideas and your overwhelming preference is simply to add more, you may not be ready to go shopping. 
  • Do people who take a different position from you on a policy matter come off to you as uncaring? Or are they just good people with a different take?
  • If someone is in a different emotional state from you, does your brain label them as an opponent? If someone is emotional, do you write them off as irrational? If someone is rational, do they come off to you as minimizing or calloused?
  • Is your first instinct in a tragedy to blame the tribe you love the least?

These are only rules of thumb, but they are worth considering.

No perfect worlds

I learned an important policy maxim from my father when I was young: “even a town of 100 people has a jail.” I once thought it was a cynical way to think about humanity. Now I think it’s a crucial lesson about confronting the hard realities of life.

There are two lessons here.

First, beware of the just-world fallacy. Nirvana is not for this world. We should do everything we can to improve things. Adjust your expectations: no town, no matter how good, no matter how effective the sheriff, no matter how close-knit, can get by without a jail. There is no country on earth that has ended homicide, theft, or poverty. The best we’ve done is reduce such things. The lasting changes tend to be marginal and incremental, and those wins are worth embracing.

Second, even if you get every policy right, you’ll still need people to do the right thing to make real progress. Any policy that treats people as mere objects—rather than humans endowed with free will—is ignoring reality. 

No silver bullets

I remember walking into economics class in college; on the board was the question, “what is the socially optimal homicide rate?” 

We should reduce homicides. It’s important. It’s also important to realize that eliminating all homicides would be too costly—in resources, in civil liberties, and in collateral damage—for us to possibly get to the number zero. I have no interest in engaging in fatalism here—we can make a difference. But that difference will be marginal, incremental, and deliberate. Have the fortitude to meet the catastrophe of civilization with courage. It does not require you to lower your expectations for a better world. It only asks that you confront hard realities with clear eyes.

I saw a T-shirt once that read: “No solutions, only trade-offs.

We should seek to eliminate evil, but utopianism is a cheap anesthetic to the harsh realities of the world. It also distorts our policies to be more poison than cure. We should be passionate in our determination to end all societal ills. We should be equally humble about what policy—even very good policy—can accomplish.

Outcomes, not intentions

Too many, as Thomas Sowell wisely observed, measure a policy by its intent rather than by its outcome. Consider the temptation to ban AR-15s to fight gun homicides—despite there being relatively few gun deaths involving them. Consider the desire to mandate more reporting in child abuse cases, despite strong evidence that it makes the problem worse

In 2017 nearly 20,000 people died in car accidents while wearing a seatbelt. But there is an important reason that we aren’t discussing banning seat belts—they save lives. It is imperative to talk about what is going right in addition to what is going wrong. Our impulse to throw out a system because of a tragic case needs to be checked—even if the case really is tragic, and even if we really do need to find every possible way to improve. 

Relatedly, be wary of the temptation to at least do something. 

Policy is not therapy. Its goal should not be to help me feel better about the problems in the world. Policy is hard and complicated, and the more simplistic my thinking is, the less likely it will work out as expected.

“Even a town of 100 people has a jail.”

My point is not that policy shouldn’t be pursued. My goal is to complicate your thinking on your favorite policy recommendations so that you are dealing with them honestly. If you think that the answer to a policy issue is simple, that may be a marker of simplistic thinking, not a marker of moral superiority. Most complicated problems are solved by marginal improvements and multiple cohesive policy changes.

We are in a great project to build Zion. That potential should inspire and motivate us. We shouldn’t be complacent in the face of great evil. And we should work to improve the world around us. But policy is complicated, and improving the world is more difficult than making big changes because you wish it was better. Working toward that Zion future requires thoughtful, sober-minded people to grapple with difficult questions and competing tradeoffs in moving us one step at a time toward that future.

About the author

Benjamin Pacini

Benjamin Pacini is a husband, father of four, and faculty at BYU-Idaho in Elementary Education. He served as a teacher and administrator in Baltimore City and Washington D.C. for ten years. He is currently pursuing an EdD from BYU.
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