Just because it might be possible to compose the right words for a given feeling, event, or situation doesn’t mean it is easy to do so. Not everyone is a speaker, or a writer, and even those who pursue language as a profession aren’t very good at it. It’s hard.
There’s a name for this plight, in religion, philosophy, and literature: ineffability. The ineffable is that which cannot or should not be uttered. Sometimes ineffability is cosmic: Judaism prohibits writing or speaking the name of the Lord to distance God’s essence from His human kingdom. Other times, it is cultural: Vulgar words are ineffable for social reasons. And other times still, it is carnal: A feeling of tenderness or sorrow can well up from the gut as if to produce speech, but then evaporate.
When faced with the ineffable, it’s a cop-out to give up. To say “There are no words” isn’t the same as saying “I have no words.” At least that move would show some belly. No, there are no words makes an existential claim. What just happened cannot be processed by human cognition and transformed into artful utterance. Forget artful, even. To say “There are no words” is to say that nothing can be said. And to say that nothing can be said is to imply that nothing can be done. It is, in essence, no different than “thoughts and prayers.” It is a message laced with indifference and despair.
Pichai’s and Wojcicki’s technology-industry colleagues also offered up perfunctory tweets in response to the YouTube tragedy. “I can’t imagine what our friends at YouTube are feeling and dealing with right now. We’re here for you and your families and friends,” wrote Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (immediately followed by an admission that his platform appeared to be spreading dangerous misinformation about the incident). Tim Cook sent “sympathy and support” from Apple. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos lamented the “horrible and truly tragic day,” and wished those affected “all our very best.” Quoting Pichai’s “there are no words” quip, the Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella offered “Our hearts are with everyone at YouTube and Google today.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi likewise sent “support” and “gratitude to the heroic first responders.” Khosrowshahi was alone, among this august group, in also making an appeal to policy, even if somewhat weakly: “Another tragedy that should push us again to #EndGunViolence,” he concluded.
There is nothing wrong with these sentiments on their surface. They are what society has come to expect from its leaders in a moment of crisis. Platitudes that tick the box of necessity, carefully constructed to minimize offense. They’d cease to be necessary if, instead, those leaders said or did more substantial things later on.
Perhaps it’s the context that feels different. This act of gun violence struck Silicon Valley in its heart, on the bland, corporate campuses that house thousands of workers. The shooter, 39-year-old Nasim Aghdam, apparently had easy access to a courtyard where employees ate lunch al fresco, enjoying the largesse of tech-job perks amidst the mild, Bay Area spring. Revenge appears to have been Aghdam’s motive: After having had her YouTube-channel earnings all but eliminated after recent changes in corporate policy, she became incensed with the company. In other words, this was also an attack on Silicon Valley’s business model, the very core of its economic power.