The tragedy of absurdity – on Holmes and the Batman shootings

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Last week’s shootings in Aurora, Colorado brought to mind the power of absurdity. Amid all the speculation regarding what motivated James Holmes to open fire on a crowd of moviegoers – killing 12 and injuring dozens – we can safely assume that there at least was a motivation or a reason. But it might not be something we can relate to, and in at least one sense, it will be absurd.

Much of the speculation as to Holmes’s potential motive is of course also absurd: from pastor Rick Warren’s claim (edit: he claims misinterpretation) that the teaching of evolution is somehow to blame, to the equally idiotic assertion that the killings are the result of the teachings of Christianity. Most if not all armchair psychologising about cases like this is little more than an opportunity for people on the sidelines to air their fears or prejudices.

Without speculating on his motives, then, we can still say that some set of deliberations led him to plan and execute this attack. And the narrative underpinning those deliberations would have been absurd, because whatever he thought the act would demonstrate, or whomever he thought it would punish, it would inevitably fall short of succeeding in its goals.

To wit: If he intended to kill people of a certain demographic or class, the quality of his targeting was clearly absurd, in that the victims were essentially chosen at random. If he meant to send a message, we’ve not yet been given to clue as to what it is, nor are we inclined to being persuaded by messages delivered in such a fashion.

The only long-term effect on the world from actions such as these is to inconvenience future cinemagoers, who will most likely soon have to pass through security checkpoints to get into the theatre. Minds won’t be changed, whether that of a lover or a god you intended to impress, or those of a set of politicians or bankers you wanted to chastise. In all these cases, the act and the motivation for it will be absurd.

And of course, a heavy price is paid for such a vanishingly small or nonexistent reward. This is the power of absurdity – we define the groups or ideologies we belong to abstractly, to the extent that our political or religious identities become unfalsifiable or irrefutable. Sometimes, we kill, fight and die for ideas, even those that we think will only manifest in an afterlife.

More broadly, communal commitment to the same set of beliefs, whether absurd or not, deepens trust and galvanises group solidarity. We demonstrate our commitment in our actions; and the more elaborate and apparently heartfelt those actions are the more convincing and persuasive they appear to an audience. This can in turn grow the audience or the community, in that they are attracted to the sincerity and solidarity they observe.

When the Pope washes the feet of worshippers, for example, the gesture is costly because it sacrifices power and ego. It’s intended to be a hard-to-fake symbol of commitment to higher powers, or to a shared set of beliefs – this is part of what makes those commitments or beliefs more likely to be adopted by an audience.

Holmes’s gesture was more costly. Clearly so in the case of those who were injured or lost their lives, as well as their families and friends, but also for Holmes himself, who faces certain loss of freedom in one form or another and even potential loss of life (capital punishment is legal in Colorado, even though the last death sentence was handed down in 1987, and then finally executed in 1997). It’s tempting, therefore, to speculate as to some grand motive, because the motive needs to be grand enough to allow us to reconcile these costs.

But perhaps the speculation is always more for our own comfort than anything else, given that you can’t explain the absurd. That is partly the point of these gestures and narratives – they are designed to be un-interpretable and outlandish, because that’s how they perform the task of separating “us” from “them”. We distinguish between cultures not only on the grounds of things like language, but also through ritual, and if the rituals are too easy to fake they become less useful tools for doing so.

To some extent, we now have what one might call universal religions or cultures – things like democracy, human rights and so forth – and various commitment devices that indicate our membership of these religions or cultures. As with all religions, costly gestures indicate greater commitment. If it is inconvenient for you to cast your vote, yet you still do so, you’ll appear to care more for democracy than someone who can’t be bothered to vote. If you spend 27 years in prison, you’ll appear to care even more.

We can’t yet know what religion, culture, or identity Holmes was demonstrating commitment to, and perhaps we never will. Perhaps he was doing nothing of the sort, and we’ll later discover that this (ex) PhD student in neuroscience should himself be a case-study of a certain sort of brain abnormality which predicts this behaviour better than any speculations as to his hypothetical beliefs could do.

Or, more worryingly for those who’d like to take comfort in a narrative – any narrative – that might bring something resembling sense to this tragedy, events like this could simply be a reminder that those universal religions many of us take for granted aren’t yet as firmly rooted in modern cultures as we’d like to believe, and that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.