Tragedy response hurts everyone

When something tragic happens, it’s human nature to look for someone to blame.

Blaming seems to help us make sense of a senseless thing. If someone or something is at fault, it helps to explain the unexplainable. And, because tragedy makes us unbearably sad, blaming someone or something allows us to channel sadness into anger and gives us a target for our rage.

Even if we don’t realize it, we want to hurt who’s at fault, to make him feel as bad as we feel, because we subliminally think if he’s hurt, we might feel better.

Social media has made it easy to lash out, to blame, to hurt. It’s also made it way too easy for people who know a little, but not all, about a given situation to publish their feelings and opinions and for others to take what’s been published as fact.

But the feelings of sad, angry people aren’t facts. Sometimes those feelings aren’t even based on facts. They’re based on the opinions and feelings of other sad, angry people.

Social media platforms get the word out fast. But the word isn’t always reliable. Sad, angry people often don’t take the time to substantiate what they’ve heard or read. They don’t stop to separate fact from rumor or gossip. And they rarely, if ever, know the whole story.

When the victims of something tragic try to preserve their privacy, others are quick to assume.

That’s what happened earlier this week when news of a Houston High School student’s suicide went locally viral on social media. People who didn’t know the whole story were quick to assume and to blame. Most of the digital finger-pointing was directed at the school system for what the finger-pointers claimed was its failure to punish bullies and its supposed attempts to prevent word of the suicide from getting out.

Lots of posts on social media repeated those claims.

It doesn’t surprise us that people who don’t know the whole story would jump to those particular conclusions. Because too many youthful suicides nationwide (even one would have been too many and there have been many more than one) have been caused by physical and cyber-bullying, it’s not surprising that people would assume that all youthful suicides are the result of bullying. For more than a decade, televison dramas, national news broadcasts and grieving parents on the school lecture circuit have implored students to stop bullying each other and to report incidents of bullying when they see them. School administrators, including those leading the Hardin-Houston School District, have put in place stringent anti-bullying policies, and teachers and other school staff have attended training sessions to learn how to recognize and respond to bullying incidents among students.

But just because a lot of tragedies can be traced to a single cause, it doesn’t mean that all tragedies can be.

In the case of suicides, including those by teens, not all of them are deliberate. Sometimes, someone makes a misguided attempt to threaten suicide to get attention or to scare someone and it goes too far, past the point where it can be stopped. Is that what happened to the Houston teen? We don’t know.

Sheriffs’ investigations are ongoing.

What we all must remember here is that we don’t — and won’t ever — know the whole story. To assume that her suicide was the fault of her school is unfair to its staff and her fellow students — and to her.

And to accuse the school of a cover-up when there was no cover-up is also spreading false news. As soon as school officials knew what had happened, they brought into the building grief counselors and clergy to meet with any student who wanted to talk about the tragedy. That’s not covering anything up. But again, people who know just part of the story, were quick to assume that because those officials didn’t run straight to the mainstream media or the Internet with the news, they must have had something to hide.

It has been a Sidney Daily News policy for years not to report on suicides unless the victims kill themselves in a very public way. Families are wrenched into unbelievable pain when a loved one takes his own life. Our policy respects their privacy and their grief.

Social media posters who rant, rave and blame not only show no such respect but are guilty of the very bullying they accuse others of. In this case, they have bullied the school.

We are just as shocked and sad as everyone else by this tragedy. We send our condolences to this girl’s families and friends. We also send them to those who have been unjustly vilified by social media posts.

Social media does some great things. It connects us to family and friends with lightening speed and allows us to share what’s best in the human spirit. But we can never forget that it also allows us, with lightening speed, to share what’s worst. Repeating or sharing an untruth hundreds or thousands of times doesn’t make it true. When we take for true what hasn’t been substantiated by responsible journalists and investigators, it’s dangerous to the people who have been written about — and to ourselves. It’s a danger too great to ignore.