The Hallelujah Effect

There is a scene in the Captain Underpants movie…

All right. First, let me get this out of the way. I only went to see the Captain Underpants movie because my kids love the books and were dying to see the movie. It is a movie that is (by design) without the slightest appeal to parents, and is only useful for this conversation because of, as I said, this one scene.

So in the Captain Underpants movie, the two elementary-school jokesters that are the heroes of the movie find out a salient fact about their sadistic science teacher. His name is “Professor Poopypants.”

And once they find out this information, a heavenly light shines on them, and the strains of Handel’s Messiah plays, and the two heroes warble the “Hallelujah Chorus,” because they have just been handed the ultimate weapon to use against their tormentors.

What I am calling for the purposes of this essay “The Hallelujah Effect” is essentially a combination of surprise and shock crossed with schadenfreude, the invaluable German word for the joy that one feels at another’s misfortune. It is that moment when your view of the world — whatever view that is, colored by whatever political biases that you have — is vindicated in some alarming way — particularly one that makes your political opponents look bad.

Most people, I expect, have experienced the Hallelujah Effect at one time or another. If you are a Democrat, you may have felt it when the news came out that an intolerant Republican Senator had been caught, literally, with his pants down in an airport bathroom trying to solicit anonymous sex from another man. If you are a Republican, you may have felt it when the news came out about Hillary Clinton’s clandestine e-mail server. The opportunities for the Hallelujah Effect seem to have expanded in recent years — and thanks to the rise of social media, each of us now has a greatly enhanced ability to share our feelings with the rest of the world when the Hallelujah Effect strikes.

And that is almost always a mistake.

A caveat, first. I believe absolutely in the right of free speech. You are of course free to say whatever you like about whatever you like. You are free to engage in horrible forms of speech, like, oh, let’s say, making the sequel to the Captain Underpants movie. I am not going to stop you. But tweeting or Facebooking or commenting on matters political while you are experiencing the Hallelujah Effect is not a good idea, and I hope to dissuade you from doing so, for three reasons.

First, whatever is going on is most assuredly not about you. This is especially true if the event that triggers the Hallelujah Effect is a tragedy. To use the all-too-familiar example of terrorism, when someone detonates a suicide vest at a concert, slaughtering young concertgoers, the issue of whether the terrorist shouted the name of Allah before his dastardly act is not perhaps the most pressing issue. And of course, the terrorist did turn out to be an Islamist, and that may very well validate whatever points out want to make about Islam, or immigration, or radicalization or what have you. But at the moment, what happens in Manchester, or London, or Boston is not about you. You may very well have a perfectly valid opinion that deserves a wider audience. Shut up anyway.

Secondly, you have to realize that the Hallelujah Effect is very often an illusion. If it turns out that the actual facts (as opposed to the reported facts) are different than what you supposed, openly celebrating the Hallelujah Effect in public may prove to be an utter embarrassment. This can occur in spectacular ways, such as the liberal mavens who managed to convince themselves that a Tea Party activist was behind the Arizona shooting that severely injured Representative Giffords, when the actual shooter had no political leanings to speak of. Davy Crockett famously said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” During Hallelujah Effect moments, the urge to go ahead rather to be sure that one is right can be overwhelming. It is wise to resist it.

Finally, if your purpose is to convince someone else on the other side of the issue that he or she is wrong, well, good luck with that. There is a point to be made, I think, that the increased use of inflammatory and incendiary political rhetoric on the left may have inspired the Alexandria shooter. But even if that was definitely, provably the case (which it is not), pointing this out will not convince even one person on the left that they should change their behaviors. Similarly, I think there is a point to be made that perhaps more could be done to identify potential mass shooters and decrease their ability to obtain deadly weapons. But do you think making that point will change the opinions of any National Rifle Association die-hard? It will not.

This is depressing. Life is depressing — as P.J. O’Rourke reminds us, more depressing than anything except the known alternative. The only corrective that I can suggest is seeking one’s Hallelujah Moments in areas outside of politics.

Leave a Reply