Monday, February 25, 2013

Guns, Internet Memes, and "Thinking" With Your Gut

While the US budget debate has taken the front seat (this week, at least), the national conversation about gun control continues. There is more energy on this issue than there has been in years, and more of a sense that things might change (for good or ill, depending on your point of view) than at any time since the 1990s.

As is typical, much of the "conversation" isn't conversation at all - it's people talking to other people who agree with them, and making snarky comments about the other side. This has led to the increased use of the term "dog whistle politics", in which words or symbols that only have meaning to one side are used as a kind of rallying cry within the tribe.

In this context, I ran across this internet meme the other day:

It struck me as fascinating, in part because it has all the hallmarks of a bogus internet "argument": appeal to tribal labels (liberal, conservative), ad hominem and straw man attacks (in the same image!), a healthy dose of snark, a nice helping of sidebar unintended ignorance (do rapists choose their victims based on how attractive they are?), and just enough structure to make it superficially look like an actual comparative argument.

Reactions to this sort of thing, of course, are predictable. Everyone except conservatives will ignore it; self-identified "liberals" who are looking to get their heart rate up without going to the gym might dwell on it for a few moments just to feel their blood boiling. Self-identified conservatives, at least some of them, will smile and nod and say "Yeah, that's' right." Many of these will, of course, hit the ubiquitous "Like" button and/or send the image to their friends.

And it's that last response that really fascinates me. For folks that Like and re-post this kind of thing, what exactly is it that they are agreeing to? What does the dog whistle sound like to them, and why do they respond to it when the rest of us don't?

There's nothing intellectual in that response, of course. Like most political internet memes (of all ideological stripes), this one has enough logical fallacies to fill a philosophy 101 textbook. It doesn't appeal because people think about it; its appeal is because of the feelings these images invoke.

The feeling at the core of this particular image has two roots. One is revenge, the gut feeling that if given a chance, wouldn't it be great to shoot a rapist? This requires a particular point of view towards violence, one driven by the emotion that it's not only OK but good to mete violence out against those that "deserve it". I've blogged on this before with regards other, similar kinds of stories making the internet rounds.

The other pillar underlying the conservative "Heck, yeah!" response to the image above is an unexamined assumption about weapons and violence - namely that the more damage a weapon can do, the better it must be. "Never bring a knife to a gunfight" is a popular quote for this crowd. And since a gun can kill, whereas a whistle can't, the gun must be better.

This is the same kind of "emotional logic" that leads people to "think" that SUVs are safer to drive or ride in, even though data suggests otherwise. Folks get idealized scenarios in their heads, think about how they would want to solve that problem, and arrive at the "best" solution based on their idealized reality.

But is a handgun the best weapon against a rapist? Guns are best for self defense if you are beyond arm's reach - preferably far enough beyond arm's reach that you can fire a few times before the attacker gets to you. If you are already in close quarters with your attacker (which seems likely in many rape scenarios) and you draw a gun, you have introduced a dangerous wild card into the situation. You might shoot him. You might shoot yourself. He might take the gun away from you and then either shoot you or threaten you with it.

It is these other possibilities that folks who claim "guns are good for women, because women are weaker then men and need an equalizer" don't want to think about. If a man is strong enough to overpower you unarmed, he's probably strong enough to take the gun out of your hands if he's close enough - and once you draw it, you've given him a strong motive (survival) to do so.

Memes "work", of course, precisely because they appeal in a compact fashion to preexisting sets of beliefs. Much of the time, those beliefs are unexamined - just part of the tribal identity that people carry around with them every day. In this particular case, the beliefs in question are in serious need of examination on both moral and practical grounds. But that kind of examination, the psychologists tell us, is rare. And until it happens, we'll keep on happily dog-whistling to our friends and ignoring everyone else.


  1. Another highly persuasive post. Please keep it up - the world desperately needs more reason of this clear and insightful kind. Bravo!

    1. Thanks, Dan. Coming from you that means a lot! I look forward to reading more of your work.