In the week since a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, killing 50 people, the world’s eyes have been on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Faced with national tragedy, Ardern has demonstrated poise, compassion, and resolve.
Six days after the massacre, Ardern announced a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles, and high-capacity magazines. For spectators in the United States, the speed with which Ardern’s coalition government enacted gun control legislation was unfamiliar—and for our purposes impossible. Whereas New Zealanders don’t have a constitutional right to bear arms, America’s Second Amendment isn’t going anywhere.
But the lesson of Ardern’s response to the attack extends far beyond her legislative solutions; this episode illustrates how in addition to wise policy-making, democratic governance requires the mediation of public emotion to promote the flourishing of political and social life. In response to terrorist violence, the prime minister’s job was not only to address policy-related concerns, but also to address the hearts of the nation (and world) in a manner conducive to successful democratic politics. What’s remarkable is just how successful Ardern has been at this task.
In her recent book, The Monarchy of Fear, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that two emotions in particular are corrosive to democratic politics: fear and anger. Fear, Nussbaum writes, “is intensely narcissistic.” It turns us away from others and is easily manipulated by political leaders. She notes that a rational fear of terrorism can easily turn into an irrational fear of Muslims. When irrational fear runs rampant, the political climate will suffer from mistrust, division, and instability.
Anger, Nussbaum argues, is an offspring and accomplice of fear. Although not inherently irrational, anger has the potential to be corrupted into something retributive when fueled by fear. Public retributive anger contains “a burning desire for payback, as if the suffering of someone else could solve the group’s or the nation’s problems.” For Nussbaum, retributive anger is a problem because it “is a kind of irrational magical thinking, and because it distracts us from the future, which we can change, and often should.”
Behind Nussbaum’s arguments about emotion in politics is the understanding that rhetoric—especially the rhetoric of political leaders—matters in the mediation of public emotion. How leaders talk about crisis, tragedy, and injustice plays a decisive role in determining a community’s emotional response. Depending on a leader’s words, these emotions can either uplift or degrade the state of democratic politics.
Ardern’s response to the Christchurch shooting exemplifies an alternative to a politics of irrational fear and anger in times of national crisis. That alternative is grief and compassion. Anger and grief are both emotional responses to the pain of losing something valuable in life; but Ardern chose grief over anger in order to heal rather than infect the wound the Christchurch attack left in New Zealand.
On her first visit to Christchurch, Ardern donned a black headscarf in a sign of respect to the Muslim community. Moving videos of her pausing to hug and console the families of victims in Christchurch have been widely shared online. Ardern began her first address to Parliament since the attack with the Islamic greeting, “as-salaam alaikum.” In that speech, she vowed never to publicly say the gunman’s name:
He will, when I speak, be nameless. And to others, I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.
Ardern’s refusal to utter the gunman’s name is significant not only as an effort to prevent the spread of his white supremacist ideology, but as a rejection of what Nussbaum calls payback or retributive anger. As Nussbaum put it, “anger typically does contain a sort of strike-back tendency, and that is what differentiates it from compassionate grieving.” Ardern’s response vindicates the value of collective grief as an alternative to anger and fear because of its potential to unify rather than divide in the aftermath of disaster.
“One of the messages that I want to share to our young people in particular is that it’s OK to grieve. It’s OK to ask for help,” Ardern said on Wednesday, while visiting a high school that lost two students in the attacks. At that event, one student asked Ardern a simple question: “How are you?” Ardern responded: “How am I? Thank you for asking. I am very sad.” Not angry, not afraid—but sad.
For comparison, we need only look at the response of Australian Sen. Fraser Anning who, following the attacks, tweeted: “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?” In another statement released on Twitter, Anning wrote: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Following his statement, Anning was filmed punching a teenager after the teenager smashed an egg on the senator’s head. These remarks (and their retaliatory aftermath) are clear exemplars of the irrational politics of fear and anger as Nussbaum describes them. Ardern denounced him as “a disgrace.”
Ardern’s public emphasis on grief has led New Zealanders to engage in public acts and rituals of consolation and compassion. Across New Zealand, people have been performing the haka, a traditional Maori dance, as a sign of respect. Rival motorcycle gangs performed the haka outside the Al Noor Mosque, the site of most of the killings. The dance was also performed by students at New Zealand’s largest Muslim school. This morning, Ardern joined thousands for a nationally broadcasted call to prayer and two-minute moment of silence in Hagley Park, across from the Al Noor Mosque. There she remarked, “New Zealand mourns with you. We are one.”
Whereas fear manifests itself narcissistically and internally, grief fueled by compassion turns us outward. These public acts of consolation are evidence of how grief can promote and protect democratic ideals in times of crisis by fostering mutual respect and understanding, cooperation, and civic engagement.
Some may object that anger is a sensible and often necessary response to grave injustice; not only does outrage drive protest and progress, but it is a way for people to affirm their dignity and self-respect. They are no doubt correct that anger, in certain forms, can be productive. Ardern, in her first statement following the attacks, was right to issue a defiant denunciation of the attackers: “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.” Moreover, by many accounts, anger is itself a component of the process of grieving. Grief, in its most democratically valuable form, must be moderated by compassion and love to avoid the poisonous effects of untamed anger and resentment.
In times of crisis, the potential for anger and fear to be inflamed and corrupted by political rhetoric and in turn undermine democratic politics gives us reason to exercise great caution. What Ardern’s response in recent days has shown is that grief is a viable alternative to anger. Active grief, not vengeful anger, must be the foundation of change and the source for hope. When grief is fueled by compassion, it too can serve the purposes of uplift and affirmation; and it too can motivate the condemnation of injustice. It does so with the aim of easing rather than inflicting pain. And it does so while leaving the fabric of our democracy intact.