I, not us and them

ParisI’m going to say “I” quite a lot in this column.

Lately there’s been a little too much “we”, “us” and “them” for my taste, but mainly I’m doing it because writers indulge in the imperious “we” only when they’re feeling authoritative, secure enough to speculate on what “we” think; and right now I’m not sure I know a damned thing.

Another awful thing has happened, this time in Paris.

I didn’t want to write about it. These days, no matter how quietly I might write, my column is a monologue, spoken against and over and through ten thousand similar monologues, all forming an unintelligible cacophony of analysis.

Mainly I didn’t want to write about it because a column is a performance, and a performer by definition is the star of his or her show, and I do not want to insert myself and my career into the murder and maiming of 500 people. In order to be honest I must write about “I” and not “we” or “them”, but this latest horror is fundamentally not about me.

The solution? Don’t write about Paris. Leave the obituaries to people who knew and loved the dead. Leave the analyses to those who have read more than a Salon.com article about Isis or Daesh or whatever I’m supposed to call them now.

But then I began to worry. Wouldn’t it be a form of desertion not to write about Paris, or at least a breach of the etiquette of public writing? Surely by virtue of having a voice in a national newspaper I am required to contribute to discussions about awful events? Don’t I have some sort of duty to offer formal condolences?

Certainly, great swathes of the internet would insist that I do. Once, when monsters did monstrous things, we all stood shoulder to shoulder and accused them. Now our solidarity lasts only as long as it takes for the first think-pieces to appear. Then we begin to point at the people standing next to us, first at those we believe allowed the tragedy to happen, and then finally, and perhaps most bitterly, at those who are not showing the required amount of grief or are grieving for the wrong victims.

The demands of this new zeitgeist are confusing to me, and so I imagined myself walking past the open gates of a graveyard and seeing a large family, strangers to me, standing weeping around a grave. I could go over and offer discreet condolences. Some of the family might even appreciate it. But if I chose not to, and instead wished them well in my head and walked on, would I be failing in some basic human duty? No, I decided.

Then I wondered what it would be like to storm up to the graveside and to yell, “You monsters! Don’t you know that someone else was buried over there in that plot yesterday? How dare you stand here at this grave and ignore that one over there?” And I saw quite clearly just how narcissistic that would be; and how revealing.

Much of the  finger-pointing is just an unconscious reflection of unhappy relationships

If I condemn others for not caring enough about what I care about, I am not really talking about an issue. Rather, I am presenting my view of justice and proportion as the topic of discussion. And more often than not that means I’m going through some personal crisis involving an outraged sense of justice and a lost sense of proportion.

Indeed, I suspect that much of the digital finger-pointing and virtue signalling that I’ve seen online, draped in the flag of ethics or politics or religious debate, is really just an unconscious reflection of unhappy relationships, frustrations at work, and deep, understandable anxieties about the future.

For me, the anxiety is growing, but homicidal maniacs are only part of the problem. My anxiety is mostly caused by the chaos of too much contradictory information about too many bloody events with too few lines drawn under them: an endless series of dockets opened and partially investigated before being added to a pile.

Like someone clinging to the clapper of a vast, deafening bell, I feel swung this way by spun reportage, then that way by canny speculation. I swing to the political left, drawn by my desire to believe that people are good and that everything is going to turn out all right, and then I swing to the right, pulled by my suspicion that only brutal might can defeat death cults.

And all the while the clanging resounds and resounds, making thought impossible; turning me into a creature of sound bites, of half-read headlines, of uninformed squabbles over religion and migration; of pure reaction.

Every time the words get in the way. Perhaps because, in the end, there are so few words I can say honestly and without pretence:

I’m sorry this happened.

I don’t understand.

People are monstrous.

People are kind.

People survive.

I hope.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Published by Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

3 thoughts on “I, not us and them

  1. i don’t Know what to say, that was beautiful. but that to is not what i mean for how can so much death be transformed to beauty by your pen. so i say again, that was beautiful, but should i scream it aloud it will never be enough.


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