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Looking For Explanations: Trauma, Politics, and Polarization

April 08, 2024
Lindsay Shingler interviews Thomas Beamish

Talking Policy Podcast

Why do some tragedies transcend personal experience to become notorious political events? And does widespread public attention lead to solutions or merely fuel political polarization? In a new episode of Talking Policy, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Tom Beamish, an associate professor of sociology at UC Davis, about his new book, After Tragedy Strikes. Beamish argues that public tragedies have become today’s definitive social and political events—with the power to both unite and divide us. This interview was conducted on March 27, 2024. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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Lindsay: Natural disasters, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, oil spills, pandemics. We are inundated with information and images about crises more than ever. And these tragedies increasingly galvanize and polarize the public with potentially far-reaching consequences.

I’m Lindsay Morgan, host of Talking Policy, the official podcast of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and I’m joined today by author Tom Beamish, whose new book, After Tragedy Strikes, suggests that public tragedies have become more common and increasingly associated with partisan political polarization.

Tom is a professor in the Department of Sociology at UC Davis, and he has done a lot of really interesting work on environmental risk and social and community movements, among other things. Tom, welcome to Talking Policy.

Tom: Thank you. Fantastic to be here.

Lindsay: So your new book, After Tragedy Strikes, is a deep dive into what you call public tragedies. So these are instances of mass trauma that can result in widespread public reaction and even political engagement. And when I was reading the introduction of the book, and when I think about really recent public and politicized tragedies here in the U.S., I naturally thought about the pandemic, of course. I think about mass shootings, the murder of George Floyd, all of these things that have had such an impact on our sort of public and civic consciousness.
So I’m really interested to hear from you, like, what is this book about? Like, what are you saying? What are you looking at? And what is the core kind of argument of your book in a nutshell?

Tom: So when I say a public tragedy, which is at the core of what I was interested in, it’s more complicated than being a mass trauma. Public tragedies are hyper-politicized and notorious crisis events. So these are events that sort of move past simply being about sort of material harm like just the simple aspects of a disaster, say, a hurricane that comes through town. They’re now defined, actually, in retrospect by a relatively predictable set of public reactions. These are not random. And these are typically things like accusation and harm, accusations of having been victimized, outrage, anger. Outpourings of grief, sorrow, protest and in response to those, because a core aspect of public tragedy is social blame, is a response to them, which is couched in denial, denunciation and counterclaims that then essentially become a contest, a sort of discursive or narrative or story contest in the public domain where people talk about these things, over sort of how the event, the tragedy will be remembered and in some sense seek to control over it.

So, these are not simply disasters or national crises. Right. Public tragedies are political events. Ultimately, they become political events. And public tragedies are ultimately, I’ll make the argument, political accomplishments. Once they’ve been achieved, they become stable stories about events in the world.

Lindsay: Yeah. Well, to get our listeners kind of up to speed, I mean, can you give us an emblematic example of what you’re talking about? Like tell us a story.

Tom: Okay. Well, I mean, you know, Katrina, Boston Marathon bombing, Deepwater Horizon, Pulse nightclub shooting, Stoneman High School, Harvey Weinstein, George Floyd. I mean, I can go with lists, but I mean, I think the pandemic really is, is when, when this sort of storyline and the kind of competition, you know, will strike most of us as right there in front of us. That the pandemic is a natural disaster in some regard, right? I mean, it’s a virus. What I’m interested in is how that became a story that explained what was happening to us. And that story as a public tragedy became a competition between on one side, those who claimed that the pandemic was in some sense victimizing people of a particular kind, because the government wasn’t doing what it could to save us from the peril. And on the other side, there were people saying that the government was actually overreaching and it’s threatening them, through its application of pandemic measures.

And so at this core, you have this argument about two sides being victimized by society in some regard in which either side claims that they’re the sort of innocent victims of a larger perpetrator who is subjecting them to trauma and suffering and is responsible for it.
And that becomes the sort of defining feature of the pandemic. It was about being sick, but it was really about the politics of being sick. And in some sense, who was to blame for it?

Lindsay: Yeah. It’s interesting thinking back. As you said, the pandemic is a thing that happened irrespective of how it came to be. It happened. There was suffering. But then the response to that suffering and the thing varied a lot. And there was this sort of bifurcation, as you said, of people who focused more of their attention on government mismanagement, or the perceived weak response on the part of the government, and then others who focused on kind of violation of rights. But as you say, a kind of clear and polarizing event.

Why did you want to write this book?

Tom: So after 9/11, I began to notice the sort of hyper politicized crisis events begin driving the news cycle. So I just began to notice like every couple of weeks… back then, it was every couple of weeks or even months. You’d have these just jaw droppers. Just like, wow, that is horrendous.

Lindsay: That’s how you felt back then. Think about where we are now!

Tom: Yeah. Right. Think now, because we’ve become used to this. Like every week there’s a new one, right? But I began to realize, I’m a sociologist, so I began to kind of look at these analytically, these are curated stories of a kind, right? So the striking thing about these curated stories was, initially it’s about how many people have been harmed or whatever. It really quickly afterwards, striking is the political aspect begins to define them. It’s about whether you’re going to get money to help, who’s the one who’s not helping what, what political group is advocating for them. You know, so forth and so on.

But I begin to realize that they take a very specific shape, the way these events are curated online in news and so forth. In real life, they begin to take on a shape that really in the 20th century they didn’t very often. I’m not saying they’re completely new or novel, I’m saying it’s become an institution in our society when something tragic happens and it’s framed in the way I’m talking about, which we’ll get into in a minute, the trauma script.

It’s like an industry. And in fact, a colleague of mine, Joel Best, in 1997, called it the victim’s industry. And he wasn’t being critical. He’s just saying there’s an enormous proportion in the late 20th century of academic, news, law, non-profit, etc. that are committed to exposing wrongdoing of one kind or another, and that this has driven an entire industry focused on people and places that have, in some sense, suffered, and exposing it.

In my book, I actually compare Hurricane Harvey to Hurricane Maria. One of them is a public tragedy. The other one is a success. Harvey was, for all its destruction, the second most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, was and is considered by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, as a successful response to a hurricane. Hurricane Maria is a nightmare. It’s a total flop that thousands of people died and so forth and so on. These are very similar instances. They both involved amazing amounts of harm and yet they’re considered completely differently as they’re approached and understood.

Lindsay: So I want to ask you: what here is actually new, and what isn’t? Of course there have always been horrible things that happen. One of the things that comes out in your book is the role of technology in accelerating the speed and the scope of information about these events.

You give an example in your book about the Johnstown flood in 1890, you know, that didn’t generate significant notoriety or public attention like what we would see today. But I mean, that was a really long time ago. If you think back to the second half of like the 20th century, and the Vietnam War, the assassination of MLK, the Iran hostage crisis. There are lots of examples of galvanizing events.

So what is new now? What is different? How much of this is about technology? Because we are all talking about technology all the time and how everything’s different now because of technology. And that might be true. Is it just about technology? Is there something else going on?

Tom: So that’s not just technology. So it’s technology and also changes in the way that that technological change has pushed the way we interact and communicate. It also reflects a change, which the period you mentioned the sort of 60s and 70s were pretty integral to change in the way news itself was created.

So, the way professional journalists communicate what’s happening in the world changed dramatically after World War 2. Professional journalists began to see as their calling exposing institutional excess. So the idea that you exposed Watergate, or you exposed the military adventure somewhere, or you exposed a political or even corporate excess, this became a guiding principle amongst journalists. And it’s now baked in. It’s a moral imperative. If you look at the way journalists tend to think of what they do, they kind of think of this as a fourth estate and so forth. Their job is to uncover the excesses of the other three estates plus the commercial sector. And then in 1990 you actually have 24-hour cable television created by CNN and you have the first coverage of a war. The first Iraq war by CNN, which was 24/7. Now you’re not just doing an hour or two in the evening. You’re doing 24 hours of news, and you need something to keep people fixated and interested.

Because news is not news, news is entertainment at this point, if it ever wasn’t. And one of the ways you make people stick is by outraging them. You make them feel fearful, vulnerable, angry. These are key emotions that keep people plugged in, okay?

And finally social media emerges around 2006, so 10 years after the cable news kind of just spirals up. And that just creates another venue where there needs to be content, where there needs to be comment, where there needs to be, you know, fill.

And what this all leads to, and this is the communication part, is a new communication ecology, and that communication ecology is a process by which information, news, and entertainment is dispersed. And it’s a completely different animal than it was 20 years ago.

Lindsay: Mhmm. Yeah, yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, there’s always been news. But the degree to which it’s in our face all the time and based on these algorithms that feed off of attention, which is generated through outrage, generated through extreme view. Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting and a little disturbing.

You mentioned FEMA, which is the Federal Emergency Management Administration. So yeah, I want to ask you about how government at various levels are responding to this new environment where I mean, on the one hand, I could imagine this environment, where tragedies of any kind are given more exposure through media, that this could actually stimulate government to intervene where they actually need to intervene. And it could prompt something positive. Do you see examples of that in your research, where that sort of spotlight has prompted the government to make changes that they needed to?

Tom: I mean, I think as a society, we have done amazing things when it comes to responding to crisis. I mean, Americans, frankly, have a sense of entitlement they didn’t for most of our history. I think generally, and I know this is borne out in polls, they think the federal government should intervene to save them from any kind of risk.

At the same time, the American public is also incredibly cynical about the willingness of governments or commercial firms, corporations, or others to do so. So it’s a kind of an ambivalent feeling. But I think over time, if you look at the history I mean, if, if you’re in a flood in the Mississippi Valley in 1927, man, you’re on your own. I mean, it was you and your local network that were going to save yourself for nothing. And at this point in history, that’s just not the case.

So yeah, I think on par, I think we are safer now given what the government does on our behalf than we have ever been. Now, how’s it playing out right this very minute? Well, because of the things we’ve already talked about right now, it’s become extremely partisan. So what’s happened is that as we’ve moved into this kind of polarized society, based on the politics I’m trying to articulate, things that used to unify us as a society now actually divide us. In other words, these tragedies become zero sum. They don’t become bases for coming together. Do you remember when the pandemic started just before that, when Trump was in office and there was just so much, so much political intrigue. And I remember a number of pundits said, you know, maybe what we need is a national crisis to bring us together.
Well, we had one. It didn’t work.

Lindsay: Right. We got one. No, it didn’t work. Didn’t work.

Yeah, that’s what’s so interesting about your book. I mean, there’s something really counterintuitive on the one hand, we expect crises like 9/11, right, to bring us together. But on the other hand, what you’re showing in your book is that increasingly, you know, they are just dividing us further along the lines that we were already divided.

Tom: Because the very logic of the story means it can’t be unity. The trauma script pivots on a basic binary, and that binary is victims versus perpetrators. So when you’re harmed, and it’s a public tragedy, you’re essentially saying something, or someone, caused that harm. That means that there’s a victim, somebody who has been harmed, and then there’s the one that caused it, whatever that be, whether it’s the government or whether it’s the culture or whether it’s whatever.

So it’s blame versus the blameless. You have innocent people, the victims, and you have those that are blamed for it. Okay, it moralizes that harm. So that, that blame is not just neutral, it’s good versus bad. Either you’re bad or you’re good. This becomes the basis for extremely polarized political discourses. It’s us versus them, once you settle on this storyline. And this storyline started as authentic, say, a way of explaining harm, whether it’s domestic violence or whether it was racism…

But now this discourse is not connected to anything. It is a political discourse that can be used by those who are authentically harmed, or it can be used by people who are simply like Donald Trump trying to motivate his base. And he uses it a lot. Remember, he’s a president who claimed to be targeted as a victim in witch hunts, and so, I mean, he uses the trauma script repeatedly to characterize his own persecution.

Lindsay: I guess you know, what you’re saying about polarization feels so vital and so relevant to our experience right now, like this kind of pulling apart of our society. We are all so aware of it right now. And I guess, you know, the question is we keep hearing about the acceleration in the U.S. of polarization and the corrosive effects that this has on us.

But I mean, why, like, what exactly is going on? Is it simply that the politic has become more polarized and extreme and that’s reflected in social media and 24-hour news cycles on the internet at the same time that we have a lot of anxiety in the U.S. about all kinds of things and these things are converging into this like frenzy where everything that hits us, whether it’s Israel/Gaza, Ukraine, the upcoming elections, winners and losers, the pandemic, another shooting… I mean, what is going on? I think we’re all thinking about this all the time and your book is hitting at exactly this issue. What’s happening to us?

Tom: Okay. Well, I think here’s the important thing too. So, when I say script, I don’t mean it just in a kind of offhand way. I mean, a script is like, if you’re an actor in a play, and you’re reading from a script, it’s telling you kind of what you’re going to do, okay? So, once a script is institutionalized, that is, once it becomes conventionalized, it’s common knowledge, it’s what people use to understand situations, it isn’t something they actually are necessarily totally conscious of, like, oh, I’m using the trauma script.

It’s that the contents of the trauma script now demand a particular reaction from people. Okay, so when your side is, and a story about your side is framed, that is some tragic, horrific circumstance occurs, and it’s framed according to a storyline that says people like you, that you feel sympathy for, and are interested in, and believe in, and are more community with, have been subjected to this kind of harm and that they’re innocent in an out of control world and they’re being harmed by a perpetrator who’s doing it on purpose. I mean, can you see how you’d feel like it’s us against them?

And when everybody’s using that, when it’s very common to use that… Now, I want to say this too, there are other stories. It’s not the only story. There are other stories competing to explain events in the world that happened too, like individual responsibility.

What’s happened in the 21st century is the news, political elites, and social movements have begun to use the trauma script to frame events where they want to manipulate public sympathy. They want their sympathy, so their cause is attended to and supported. Okay, because we’re all in social media and in the news and all it’s all motivated by sort of gaining acknowledgement, attention, and support. And the trauma script right now resonates with the American public.

The structure of a feeling of our time is one in which vulnerability, precarity, a feeling that things are out of control. These are all across the political spectrum, right to left. This is the way people feel the trauma script is a script, is a storyline that resonates with people who feel like the world is coming apart.

Lindsay: I mean, I think what you’re saying is what’s bad here, potentially, is that people are being kind of manipulated, which is, is also kind of as old as time, I’m assuming to a certain extent, and maybe much easier to do today, given all the tools at leaders’ disposal. But I guess it kind of feels like you’re saying that publicity and like politicization of these events, and there’s so many different kinds, so there’s a lot of nuance here, but that it’s bad.

But on the one hand, I mean, why wouldn’t it be appropriate and helpful to publicize and politicize events like George Floyd is a great example of a horrible thing that has, like, implications and causes that are system wide.

And so, why not politicize it? I mean, that word has a pretty negative connotation that you’re manipulating something for a partisan, sectarian end. But politics is what determines policies, and policies drive systems and systems cause things like this, you know, all the way down on a street corner. So why not, why not publicize and politicize stuff?

Tom: I don’t think publicize and politicize is necessarily what’s wrong. I think the problem is that the idea is that the trauma script, as I mentioned, when I talk about this kind of perpetrator versus victim doesn’t let any room for negotiation. There’s no place in there to actually deal with reality.

I don’t want to get into the details of George Floyd’s case. That’s not where I’m at. I’m not going to make that argument. I mean, that’s not where I’m talking. I’m talking about where the discussion of George Floyd happens. At the national political level, when it comes into how politicians create policies and how money is spent and how campaigns are run and how the general public begins to understand issues like the police, policing, African Americans and their relationship to policing. Those are big issues that don’t, you can’t bring that all the way down to George Floyd through the trauma script. The trauma script is about motivating an emotional response. That’s not about a thoughtful policy or political response.

The problem is if you don’t know that you’re using the trauma script, how could you ever begin to deal with that process after you’ve created that storyline? Again, you have perpetrators and victims. You have blame versus the innocent. You have good versus bad. Christian Luker did it with abortion politics. It’s going to be the same thing for race relations. It’s going to be the same thing for gender relations. You cannot mitigate those through binary “us versus them”. It’s more complicated than that.

Lindsay: You talk about the idea of victimhood. I think back to September 11th when Americans were thinking of themselves collectively as victims. And that almost uniformity of experience at the time is part of what helped pave the way for the war that would come, the invasion of Afghanistan and many, many years of war. Are you worried about this phenomenon putting us on a war footing today? And, you know, it’s interesting. I mean, yeah, we talk about China and stuff and there’s external threats, but a lot of the conversation is about what’s happening here with us internally.

I interviewed Barbara Walter about a year ago on her new book How Civil Wars Start. Very provocative book about, you know, could the U.S. be heading to civil war? But, you know, insofar as this victimhood narrative at a collective scale can sort of beat the war drum. Are you, are you worried that we might be beating the war drum, like against each other?

Tom: I’m not as concerned about that. I think the kind of analogy I’d use now it’s more like an engineering idea of a centripetal versus centrifugal force. I think what this discourse has done is that we’re spinning away from each other faster than we’re spinning towards each other.

In other words, to have a society, to have solidarity as a sociologist, you have to share something, whether it’s public school or whether it’s ethics or whether it’s a constitution. I mean, it has to be something that ties you together as a society or you’re not a society. And I think if anything taught us in the 20th century, markets are not that. Markets are not the glue that binds us. They’re self-interested as constructed by economists. They make us compete and so forth, and that we need other things to keep us whole, to be as a people. And I think what’s happened in the 21st century, is we’ve opened, and we’ve valorized this idea of victimhood and then we’ve set it against each other. So the sides in our political debates now each consider themselves equally the victim of the other.

The problem is everybody feels like they’ve been wronged and so we’re in this situation where we, we seem to be again, spinning away from each other as we follow these understandings of our experiences and our politics. So, I don’t know if it means civil war. Somehow it means disengagement, or… I don’t know how this plays out. I don’t have that crystal ball.

Lindsay: Yeah, yeah. Well, okay, we don’t have too much time left. And I want to ask, you know, this happens a lot in these interviews with social scientists who study these phenomena, it can kind of feel a little depressing. Like, okay, this stuff is kind of a bummer.
But I’m curious. I mean, as someone who has looked very deeply over many, many years at this sort of nexus of issues. I mean, are there stories, is there an example that you can share where it’s not all doom and gloom? Where, you know, tragedies can inspire reactions that actually do work towards the interests of cooperation, of peace, or of societal transformation that makes people better off?

Tom: I’m actually going to say that all public tragedies can end up in also good outcomes as well. I mean, I think public tragedies aren’t necessarily simply bad. Again, that’s an oversimplification. I think they lead down a hyper politicized polarized road, but I think, you know, the Pulse nightclub shooting is horrific. And yet, it totally opened people up, like, man, they’re targeting LGBTQ people, and this is not okay. I mean, those, like you said earlier, you know, they are events that get publicity. They are events that open people up. So I don’t think I’m willing to say they’re just bad things. I think the point of my book is to point them out as something, in the words of a colleague of mine, I’m denaturalizing them.

I think people think they’re just true. It’s not true. It’s a storyline. It’s a particular way of organizing response. It’s a particular way of understanding catastrophe, tragedy. I could make any one of those tragic circumstances understandable in a different way if I used a different story to explain it. Individual responsibility. Oh, fate, like the Johnstown flood in 1890. Two thousand people died because robber barons made a pond they wanted to fish on, the dike blew and the water came down and washed away a town. They understood that as divine providence. That means it was nobody’s fault. What do you mean? It was like the Carnegie’s and the Vanderbilt’s. They did it because they wanted a recreation pond, but that wasn’t the way it was collectively understood. It wouldn’t have been until now, ‘cause we think of it differently.

Lindsay: And this is actually some progress then. I mean, I think understanding that as fate is the wrong interpretation, frankly, and assigning some blame there would be appropriate. So this, this actually feels like a potentially positive evolution, at least in some respect.
I want to ask you one more question before we have to go, and I just thought of it. Did you have data to show that when something happens like a mass shooting, for example. Do these events ever challenge people’s preconceived ideas or do they simply cause people generally to kind of retrench into their preexisting ideas?

Tom: No, that’s not the lesson from the trauma script. The trauma script actually leads to retrenchment because it’s built upon preconceived conceptions of who’s like you and who’s not.

So in Marshall High School, when 17 kids were shot and four killed the reason why that didn’t take off, is because when the initial kids, cause just like Stoneman High, the kids at Marshall High School were going to organize social protests against the fact there wasn’t enough gun control, right? They were shut down by locals who said, no, teachers should have had guns, and this wouldn’t have happened. And so there was no consensus in Marshall, Kentucky, about what was the cause for the mass shooting, and so it devolved and there was no protest.
Two weeks later, Stoneman High School happened. And that exploded because there was a consensus. Because the kids, and the parents, and the community in Parkland, Florida had a consensus about who was to blame and what was going on. And they targeted the Florida Assembly, and they targeted the federal government, and they went on, you know, that summer they went around, and they protested like they should have. But they didn’t change anybody’s mind. And the NRA came out and gun rights advocates said, you know, we need teachers with guns, and they retrenched.

And so I think the main lesson then is it’s not negative. It’s that if we’re gonna denaturalize this narrative, and if we want to get past simply binary “us versus them” approaches to these problems, we have to figure out a way around this dynamic.

Lindsay: Tom Beamish, author of After Tragedy Strikes. Thanks for being with us on Talking Policy.

Tom: Thanks a million. I appreciate it.

Lindsay: Thank you for listening to this episode of Talking Policy. Special thanks again to our guest, Tom Beamish. His new book, After Tragedy Strikes, is available April 9 from University of California press.

Talking Policy is a production of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. This episode was produced and edited by Tyler Ellison. To ensure you never miss an episode, subscribe to Talking Policy wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about IGCC, visit


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