After San Bernardino, there was a bit of a backlash on the whole ‘thoughts and prayers’ culture. That’s only logical. I think the Orlando numbers and context are terrible, but … Sandy Hook is probably the worst thing to happen in America in the last five years (in some respects) and basically nothing happened as a result of Sandy Hook — aside from, you know, Peter Lanza speaking to The New Yorker for a long profile.
When Obama made a statement on Orlando, it was the 18th time in his Presidency that he’s had to make a statement following a shooting. That’s basically 2.25 times/year. This stuff doesn’t happen 2.25 times/year in other industrialized, first-world nations. In some nations, it basically never happens.
The thoughts and prayers culture that has come up around these events is, of course, total bullshit. We all know it. But it’s also super logical from any type of basic human psychology standpoint.
Where does the ‘thoughts and prayers’ culture come from?
I think this one should be fairly obvious. The range of human emotions really isn’t as wide as we’d like to think. There are a lot of things we can’t process very easily, or well, but we want to feel connected back to the issue — after all, we are social beings. Being social beings is basically what makes us human.
So we see something difficult, but it’s hard for us to really do anything — we’re not necessarily Orlando-based EMTs, cops, FBI members, or journalists. We need to do something, so we toss something up on social media. Then, it becomes a network effect. Other people you know are doing it, so you go and do it. Thoughts and prayers. It’s so easy, and it’s your little slice of doing something. It makes you feel good, connected, and involved.
Now, if you’re a politician or someone with theoretical decision-making authority around access to guns, saying ‘thoughts and prayers’ as opposed to diving into action can ring massively hollow.
What’s the real deal with ‘thoughts and prayers?’
Here are the two things we should all be realizing about the thoughts and prayers culture, IMHO:
Money: This is predominantly tied to money. Decision-makers acknowledge shootings — that’s what ‘thoughts and prayers’ is, basically — but can’t actually make decisions or take action, because if/when they do, it hits them in the wallet. You need money to stay a politician, and staying a politician keeps you close to the perks of your community and around the business owners of your community. It’s really that simple; it’s people looking out for №1 while trying not to step in №2, which shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s how we structure most office environments in America, too — some target-chasing ass monkey becomes a manager of others and repeatedly throws them under a series of trains while chasing a fatter bonus for him/herself, then gives speeches at all-hands meetings talking about culture, vision, purpose, and mission. 10 minutes later, he’s back in his office bellowing at a subordinate over some revenue stream issue. People chase the dollars in a capitalism, because you need the dollars to move forward with your own stuff. But you can’t always be out in front of people saying you chase the dollars. At work, that’s why we invented the concept of “employee engagement.” It’s a way for senior leaders — predominantly focused on money — to make it seem like they’re focused on overall well-being and happiness of employees. Often, they’re not — and could give about 0.12 shits about that. Thoughts and prayers is the bad thing happening equivalent of that. Say it, it sounds OK, but you’re really chasing the money and your own future.
Social Media and 24/7 news cycles: In that contextual world (which is the one we currently live in), thoughts and prayers is a good way to get your message in front of a bunch of people quickly. Now, I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole about social media — the fact is that only about 58 percent of Americans are even on Facebook. It might seem higher to you because all your friends/family are on it, but it’s really only 6 in 10 people. (Still a lot, but not everyone.) Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, etc. — way less, and obviously it varies by age. So assigning any aspects of any tragedy to social media is fraught, but the fact is, social media has made basic human communication very strained in some respects. It’s a comparison engine on steroids, so if you can’t have kids, you feel like shit — and, conversely, if you see 19 of your friends post ‘thoughts and prayers,’ you probably go do it too. Social media is also really easy to throw one-offs at — i.e. platitudes, etc. — so ‘thoughts and prayers’ fits very well into the equation of how most people post there anyway.
The 72-Hour Arc: Usually after a mass shooting, people spend the first six hours doing ‘thoughts and prayers’ stuff and watching the news. They spend another six hours posting about it, discussing it with people, and doing research. After those first 12 hours or so, it down-shifts — unless you had a direct, specific connection to what happened. By about Hour 30 after an event, you’re back to sharing pictures of something you ate on Instagram. By Hour 68, forget about it. Time to post some thoughts about a TV show or something! So, in less time than most people spend on business trips in Topeka, you’ve gone from ‘thoughts and prayers’ to ‘Meh, now my life is more important to showcase than that shit which happened a few days ago.’
Look, in any aspect of life or society, this is the flow chart you need to follow for things to happen. This applies in relationships, at work, anywhere:
Idea or Event — → Thought Process or Decisions — → Action
The way we do it off mass shootings and other catastrophic violence is more like this:
Event — → People post ‘thoughts and prayers’ + People claim ISIS or anti-gay or 187 different other things + People scream at each other + every website runs an article detailing what Trump tweeted about it + more thoughts and prayers — → Time passes — → No one cares, nothing really happens — → Wait about 7 weeks and it happens again
You ever have a boss at work who constantly claims they care about X-thing, when in reality you know they couldn’t give two shits about it and all they’re doing is lip-servicing it until they can go back to focusing on the thing they actually care about? Or a friend like that?
Well, America is that boss or that friend. Thank you, thoughts and prayers culture.
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.