The worst mass shooting in U.S. history just occurred in Orlando, and the question that everyone is searching for is "What caused this to happen?" Before hardly any information is known people are already starting to construct their narratives. So what do we know? It was at a gay night club. The shooter was muslim. There was an assault rifle and a handgun . 50 people died. Another 53 were injured. When searching for a reason as to why this occurred we could immediately jump to: Islamic extremism, lack of gun control, mental illness, homophobia, etc. With such few elements to work with it's quite easy to create whatever intuitive narrative we want because there are so few facts to get in our way.
Now imagine having to wait a year before we formulate a reasonable cohesive story that answered this question of what caused the shooting. Imagine the ambiguity of not knowing lasting an entire year and when people talked about it at work or online, they would shrug their shoulders and say, "I just don't have enough information to really know what caused that man to shoot those people." It seems almost impossible, because the need for a cohesive narrative is so strong. We want answers and we don't want to have to wait through the slow process of gathering information. We want them now.
Is this a terrible thing? No. I think it's probably an evolutionary adaptive behavior that's developed for a good reason. In the face of life threatening events, even when it's not immediately threatening to us, we want to act quickly and decisively. We can't wait to find out the whole story. We go with what we know. It's also pleasurable "to understand" as opposed to have to live with the anxiety of uncertainty. The avoidance of anxiety/uncertainty coupled with the adaptive pressure to formulate quick responses to dangerous situations makes this process of generating causal narratives quick and easy. It just comes natural.
We have an emotional reaction to the event which springs directly from our personal history. We take the little information we are given and then mold it to fit what we already know. If you are concerned about the growing influence of Islamic Extremism, then a muslim name may be all you need to start formulating your narrative. If you are an advocate for LGBT rights, then homophobic forces may be at work. If you are a psychologist, you might be more inclined to see the person as mentally unstable. (Note: This is not to say that these hunches have to be inaccurate. In this case, the gunmen did have a muslim name, and does appear to be connected to Islamic Extremism. He most likely is homophobic, and is also mentally unstable. All of these hunches are probably correct. In and of themselves though, they are extremely partial.)
Imagine someone walks up to you, and pushes you over. What would you say caused your fall? The simple answer would be "the person who pushed me," but that's not satisfying because what you really want to know is "why did they push me?". Later you learn the person is racist against whatever race you happen to be. Now what is the cause of your falling to the ground? You could say that the person's beliefs are what caused you to fall down. The ideas pushed you, the person being an instrument of those ideas, just as the hand is the instrument of the person. Or you could say that racism pushed you. It wasn't the person at all but vast social forces that the person isn't even aware of that caused this to happen.
In the Orlando shooting, all of the possible forces that could be operating are not yet known, but it's quite easy to name some that could have an effect. Homophobia, Easy Access to Guns, Islamic Extremism and Mental Illness can all be conceptualized as forces that caused the gunman to commit this crime. This of course is a metaphor (Causes are Forces). We don't actually think Homophobia is a force out in the world like the wind is a force, but we conceptualize it this way because it makes sense to link the two.
Think of the shooter standing in an open field. All of the casual forces are pushing against him, like giant gusts of wind. Which force is the strongest? Is it homophobia? Is that what "pushed" him to do it? Or is it Radical Islam? Forces aren't the only elements in this equation though, because we also metaphorically conceptualize "will power" as the ability to resist these forces. That's why we talk about someone having a "strong moral backbone" as opposed to someone who is "spineless" or a "push-over". One of them can stand and resist the forces swirling around them. The other cannot.
The power of the forces, and our ability to resist them, is important because it affects how we assign blame. If a particularly strong gust of wind comes along and picks the gunman up in the air and throws him into another person, the wind is possibly to blame. If forces are conceptualized as overpowering an individual, we tend to blame the force itself. If the individual is perceived to be in control and only affected by these forces then we tend to blame the individual. Is it the gunman pulling the trigger or is it the force of Islamic Extremism? Is it the gunman pulling the trigger or is it the force of Homophobia?
In mass shootings there is a deep desire to want to know "why", and so we look for notes, we look toward the person's own words as the best possible information to alleviate our suffering of not knowing. Often we are left without this information, but even when we do know, we can still question whether what they describe is what really motivates them. A person who says the reason they killed is because their talking dog told them to, is not a trusted source of information, and many people, especially ones who kill, should not be trusted to describe the truth of their situation, though their description does give us a wealth of information, i.e. someone who listens to a talking dog is obviously mentally ill.
Finally, a problem that occurs after events such as this is to decide how to use these events to further our own future visions of the world. If we imagine a world without guns, one where fewer people are killed, this event may give our argument "more weight". Arguments with more weight have a "larger impact" on "pushing" us towards where we would like to go. This utilitarian approach, that horrific events can be used in this way, bothers some people who see the appropriate response as grieving, without wanting to "use it" for a means to an end.
This brief essay is of course doing just that. I have a particular issue that I'm trying to communicate, that people jump to conclusions about the causation of events and overly simplify them, and I've used an event that resulted in the deaths of 50 people as a reason to make this point, as I hope it may possibly help this problem I've focused on. How much force do I give this essay? Very little. Do I think it diminishes the humanity of the 50 people that were killed? No. What I do hope is for people to have a humbleness about their ability to come up with a singular reason for why events occur, and to be aware that their emotional intuitive reaction is likely skewing their narrative toward something that fits into what they already know. I'm not interested in blaming or making people feel bad about their responses. Just be open to rethinking and re-contextualizing your narrative as more information becomes available, and be humble. Remember as human beings, we only really know so much.