Neil deGrasse Tyson is, to a certain generation of people in this country, something of a demigod. He is an astrophysicist, author, director of the Hayden Planetarium and one of the chief pop-science figures of our time.
He is pervasive across all forms of media, weighing in on all manner of scientific topics, from the origin of the universe to the nature of the exoplanet Pluto. He is on talk shows, stars in documentaries, is interviewed for books, and is all over YouTube. The guy is everywhere, and he is beloved, particularly by pseudo-intellectual hipster liberals who think he embodies the zeitgeist.
Until this past Sunday afternoon.
Over the weekend, the United States was again horrified to see not one but two mass shooting events, one in El Paso, Texas and one in Dayton, Ohio. They were — as these things always are — awful tragedies that shock and sadden us all.
Of course, after the events happened, the country began tearing itself apart again. The recrimination began. The arguments that go nowhere. The vile cesspool of internet conversation descending into a toxic sludge.
Tyson, a scientist by trade, decided against his better judgment to weigh in. Not on gun control, free speech on the internet, or any of the other things that everyone else was busy yelling at each other about. Rather, he felt it was worth talking about the human propensity to emotionally react to the sensational, rather than the mundane.
“In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings,” he began on Twitter. “On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose 500 to Medical errors, 300 to the Flu, 250 to Suicide, 200 to Car Accidents, 40 to Homicide via Handgun.”
He concluded, “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”
Tyson was making a reasonable, and completely fact-oriented point. He began his message with a statement that made clear he thought the mass shooting incidents were horrific. And his overall point that human beings emotionally react to spectacular events far more than those that are routine is entirely true.
Ultimately, he was trying tell you that you should stop. Stop emoting first, and thinking second. Stop reacting without considering. Stop obsessing over the shiny object, and think deeper about all the lesser noticed things happening around you.
As rational, logical and thoughtful as his point was, it was never going to be allowed to have been made without a savage eruption of anger. The reaction to his tweet was immediate, and overwhelmingly negative.
Very few people decided to stop, think about what he said, and fairly judge Tyson. No, on the internet — particularly on Twitter — the impulse is to react as quickly as possible, with as hot of a take as you can come up with, and pray for likes and retweets.
And every time this happens, it is only a matter of time before the person in question publicly flogs himself and apologizes in a desperate attempt to appease the mob. This, in turn, empowers the mob to act like emotional basket cases all over again the next time, knowing that their reaction can make a public figure bend the knee and beg like a dog for forgiveness.
And, rather predictably, Tyson not only apologized but actually thanked the torch-wielding maniacs on Twitter for “educating” him.
“What I learned from the range of reactions,” he said, “is that for many people, some information — my Tweet in particular — can be true but unhelpful, especially at a time when many people are either still in shock, or trying to heal – or both.
So if you are one of those people, I apologize for not knowing in advance what effect my Tweet could have on you. I am therefore thankful for the candor and depth of critical reactions shared in my Twitter feed.”
I couldn’t help, reading that groveling nonsense, thinking of a scene in the Academy Award-winning film “American Beauty,” where Colonel Frank Fitts flies into a rage and begins to brutally beat and lecture his son Ricky.
As he lays on the ground, bloodied and swollen, barely able to speak, Ricky desperately sought to simply end the conflict the only way he knew how.
“Yes, sir, thank you for trying to teach me,” he says, cowering in the corner. “Don’t give up on me, Dad.”
In that final surrender, he pretended to actually appreciate the brutal savagery he was subjected to, while telling his father that he was right to hurt him. It wasn’t true, but in Ricky’s mind it was more important to stop the beating, even by lying, than it was to stand up to his brutal father.
Which is the exact same calculation Tyson made.