Friday, September 12, 2014

Why the Debate Over Guns Doesn't Make Me Angry - It Makes Me Sad

I've written plenty of blog posts about gun control over the last couple of years, including a number on the relationship (a complicated one) between guns and self-defense, and the toxic nature of the politics that surrounds the issue. Yesterday I saw yet another Facebook meme that pushed my thinking in a new direction:

It would be easy to lampoon this piece for its obvious logical fallacy. I cannot prove a point by finding a single instance of somebody who does something differently. Looking around the world, there is no obvious correlation between the number of guns and the safety of citizens. Australia banned many weapons a number of years ago, and remains (so I understand) a pretty nice place to live. The UK is so devoid of guns that half the time the cops don't even have them, but also seems to remain a civilized place. Somalia and Afghanistan are awash in guns, and I wouldn't want to live in either. Switzerland has military weapons in nearly every household (albeit under lock and key) and remains one of the safest places on earth.

We can go round and round with such examples; all we prove is that the correlation between "gun control" (however defined) and individual safety is weak if not non-existent.

But that's not what really caught my eye here - the internet is full of memes that don't make any logical sense. What strikes me here is the almost fierce joy with which the facts above are presented. The possession of half a billion guns is offered as something to be celebrated, a source of rejoicing. And that bothers me deeply.

In our argument about gun regulations and the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, we have lost sight of the main point: guns themselves. With a few exceptions, small in number overall (hunting rifles, shotguns), guns are devices designed and built for a single purpose: to injure and kill other human beings. They are, in fact, by far the most effective tools we have ever devised for that purpose.  They are small, portable, cheap, ubiquitously available, and lack the collateral damage problems of high explosives and nuclear devices. From a strictly technological and economic perspective, they are a marvel of engineering.

And that should bother anyone, at least a little bit. It is a sad thing - if not a tragedy - that one of the greatest achievements of the human species is our ability to devise such an efficient and widespread means of killing each other. And that killing - which takes place at extraordinary rates all over the world - is very nearly always senseless and unnecessary.

People of all political stripes and persuasions talk about leadership and the need for a vision. Ronald Reagan was famous for his "morning in America" speech; Bill Clinton had his "bridge to the 21st century". We know from almost all realms of human endeavor, from politics to business to culture, that people respond best to a positive, uplifting vision of the present and the future.

So what kind of vision is it that celebrates the possession of half a billion devices for killing other people? Is this what the NRA, or the "Right Wing" (the meme above was posted by a group called "Right Wing News"), wants to trumpet as the highest ideal of humanity? Is this what the "city on a hill" looks like - an armed camp?

In this regard, some of the comments posted in response to the meme above are nearly as instructive. Here are a few examples:

    "All you gun haters move to Iraq an try living there without being a target"

    "OK Pilgrim I think it's time to play COWBOYS & MUSLIMS" (accompanied by a photo of John Wayne carrying a rifle in one of his westerns)

    "First they take your guns, then they take your freedoms, then they take your life. Fools, stay armed and buy more guns."

    "America was built on God, guns and guts ... leave it that way or leave!!"

For me, this is why I cannot understand or find much sympathy for the hard-core 2nd Amendment tribe. I can understand logical arguments about guns as a necessary evil for defense (civilian or otherwise) in a dangerous world. And to some degree I can understand the pleasure of firing guns in sport (though recent events have shown that this can be a deadly exercise). But to celebrate the possession of large numbers of guns as good in and of itself strikes me as not so much politically problematic as both tragic and morally misguided - even fundamentally uncivilized. I wonder what vision of God allows such a close relationship between the divine and killing machines.

This, I think, may be why we have such a hard time having conversations about guns. It isn't because we disagree about facts, or about the analysis of those facts, or about policies, or even about the Constitution. It's because we have vastly divergent views about what human beings should aspire to, what the ideals of "civilization" should be, and what "good" looks like. The really difficult differences are not so much between Americans and foreigners (ISIS or otherwise) as they are among ourselves and within our own communities.

For myself, I value peace and harmony. I believe that the highest ideal of humanity is working together for the good of all - not because we are forced to by a central power, but out of love and mutual respect for one another. I recognize that many of the problems of the world are tragic obstacles to this goal, and that those problems call forth solutions that are less than ideal. But I also believe that nearly all of those problems can be overcome among people who hold to a similar ideal of peace and harmony. Whatever our other differences, if that is our common goal we will find common ground and the means to pursue it together.

If, on the other hand, your highest value is the possession of tools to kill other human beings than I am afraid we simply have nothing to say to each other. And I find that a very sad thing.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Blood on our Hands": Moral Responsibility and Modern Life

It has become characteristic of a certain kind of political protest to demand that some institution - the US government, a university, your local town, a company - take extraordinary steps to disconnect, divest, or otherwise disassociate itself from a political situation or conflict. Institutions that fail to take such steps are, in the eyes of the protestors, "morally responsible" for whatever atrocities or horrific crimes are being committed elsewhere. And since the crimes in question often involve a lot of bloodshed, this tends to lead to some pretty hyperbolic protest language.

A student at Ohio University treated her university, and the world, to an especially silly version of such a protest this week. You can read a full news account of the incident here. The original video has unfortunately been taken down, but you can watch the debate it set off on the OU campus here.

It is worth noting that the student body president did recant and apologize for her silliness and appears to have recognized the error of her ways. But I would guess that this is an argument that will linger for a while on the OU campus.

While dramatic (turning the Ice Bucket Challenge into a bucket of blood will certainly draw attention), the argument that this student made is a familiar one. It's worth noting her statements, captured in transcript from the video:
In the video, posted on Vimeo, Marzec states, "I'm sending a message of student concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state. I'm urging you, and OU, to divest and cut all ties with academic and other Israeli businesses and institutions," she said during in video. "This bucket of blood symbolizes the thousands of displaced and murdered Palestinians atrocities which OU is directly complacent in your cultural and economic support of the Israeli state."
Now, I assume that she meant "complicit" rather than "complacent", but you get the drift. Because OU's investment portfolio and international activities include ties to Israel in some fashion, the university itself has "blood on its hands" for all of those innocent Palestinian deaths.

There is a practical silliness to this, of course: OU could do as this student asked tomorrow, divest itself of every investment connected to Israeli companies, cut all ties of cooperation with Israeli universities, and not a single thing would change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, if every last university in the US did this, it still wouldn't change a thing. This seems like the opposite of the Peter Parker Principle - if great power brings great responsibility, shouldn't no power absolve one from responsibility?

But the real reason for such protests isn't the practical impact of the actions demanded (though protesters often delude themselves into thinking that they will in some fashion change the world). What these folks are primarily after is the self-righteous rush of feeling that, whatever evil happens in the world, their hands are clean.

This is, of course, an absurdity in the modern world, especially if your standard for "bloody hands" is "any financial connection to the perpetrators". Do you pay taxes to the US government? Do you participate in the international economy? The reality of modern trade and global production is that nearly any economic activity is likely tied, in some fashion, to some questionable behavior that you probably wouldn't like to be associated with.

It is the merging of these impossibly high moral standards with the obvious (if unintended) hypocrisy of those who promote them that makes the whole thing fall apart. What starts as impassioned moral protest degenerates quickly into cheap theater, screaming, and useless diatribe that accomplishes nothing.

If you are truly concerned about the great moral issues of the day, whether they are in Missouri or Israel, the appropriate response is much harder. Rather than trying (fruitlessly) to disassociate ourselves and our institutions from whatever side of a conflict we don't like, what we need to do is engage with the issues and the people involved. Talk to all sides and hear their stories. Listen to their humanity, their dreams, their aspirations. Understand their weaknesses and failings - and how little you may be able to change them.

You cannot end an intractable conflict by dumping blood on your head. But you may be able, in a small way, to heal some of the damage that conflict causes, even if it's far away from the bombing and the killing. And in the process, you will discover something far more valuable than angry self-righteousness. If you're lucky, you may just discover the peace that comes with connecting with another human being.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Are We Excommunicating Each Other?

I have written before on the corrosive effects of tribal identities in American politics. Far too many folks have adopted exclusive identities that increasingly shut everyone else out and label them enemies (often in dehumanizing and even violent terms). A couple of recent examples of such posts are here and here; you can also search this blog for the label "tribalism".

My hunch that this is an accelerating phenomenon was reinforced this morning by not one, but two stories in Inside Higher Ed:
Southern Utah Removes Senator's Name From Building
Public School District Drops Ties to Gordon College
The first case involves classic party labels. Utah is a pretty conservative state, dominated by Republicans. Apparently the fact that the one Southern Utah University alumnus to rise to the prominent position of Speaker of the House was a Democrat was too much for these folks, demonstrating that party loyalties outweigh alumni loyalties. The University claims that that's not why Harry Reid's name was taken off the side of a building, but I'll bet those local Republicans will crow about their "victory" in getting a hated Democrat's name removed from the public square.

The second case comes from the other side of the aisle, and appeals to the same tribes without the party labels. The president of Gordon College, an avowedly Christian liberal arts school in the Boston area, had signed a letter asking for an exemption from a new federal Executive Order on hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Like many conservative Christian organizations, Gordon College argued that it should be exempt from the law on the grounds of religious liberty. In response, a local school district which had partnered with Gordon for years ended their relationship - presumably because the school district disagrees with the college's position on employment discrimination and sexual orientation. Like the Utah case, no doubt there is plenty of self-righteous congratulatory feeling going around.

Both cases illustrate a fundamental tribal behavior: separate yourself from The Other as much as is humanly possible. Have nothing to do with them. Do not allow their names to adorn your buildings. Do not allow your students to mix with theirs. No cooperation, no compromise, and no recognition of shared interests. They are to be excommunicated, cast out, and considered Unclean.

Humans, of course, have been doing this sort of thing for as long as there has been human behavior. But there had been a general sense that, all other things being equal, the less of it we engage in the better we are. This drive to unite rather than divide is one of the founding principles and aspirations of American politics. It used to be that E pluribus unum was widely understood. Today it seems to be more often translated, "I'm right and you're wrong, so go to Hell."

These small acts of excommunication have very little practical effect. Southern Utah will raise money to build more buildings (with or without Reid's name), and I'm sure the school district in Lynn will find a source of student helpers. These are symbolic gestures - and that is why they are so important.

Are we as a people really so consumed with our tribal self-righteousness that we need to fight over whose name goes on a building? Can Harry Reid's life and contribution be reduced to a single label, overriding everything else he may have ever done? Are the students of Gordon College all the same because their institution's president signed a statement, and does that statement overshadow the good they might be able to do in a classroom?

In the end, of course, these symbolic gestures aren't really about their intended targets, whether they be House Speakers or college students. They're about the egos and identities of the self-righteous who want to stand on the street corner and trumpet their virtue to the world - or at least, to the members of their own tribe. They would rather beat their chests and shout their own praises than engage in real conversation with someone they might disagree with.

The real danger of such conversations, of course, is not that the participants will be made Unclean. It is that they might discover they have more in common with their "enemies" than they thought, and be forced to regard them as valuable human beings rather than as foils and talking points. I, for one, would rather live in a society of people than a Balkanized collection of warring factions shouting at one another.