Monday, October 26, 2015

The Pro-Gun Argument Isn't an Argument. It's All Gut Feelings and Symbols.

One of my favorite definitions to quote to students comes from a Monty Python sketch:
An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
When we say that someone is making an argument in favor of something, that needs to include statements that lead via logic and evidence from one or more premises to the conclusion. Your premises may be wrong, there may be countervailing evidence, or your logical leaps may be too far. But this is the structure of arguments.

Much of what passes for political "dialogue" is not argument at all. There are no premises, there is no logic or evidence, there is only dogma couched as conclusions - usually framed in a way that they should be obvious to everyone, and that only the truly stupid could fail to see the "truth".

I have argued for some time that this constitutes most of the rhetoric from the NRA. It isn't logic or argumentation at all. Instead, the NRA appeals to tribal loyalty and bumper-sticker dogma that primarily relies on emotional symbols while denigrating anyone who doesn't agree with them.

I get a delightful range of things in my Facebook feed, including periodic reminders of this characteristic of the NRA. Here is one of the latest to cross my field of view:

This is the epitome of an emotional appeal. The "argument" here is that you're not a "man's man" if you don't own a gun. Why Mike Rowe gets to define manhood for everyone else I have no idea, but that's a separate question.

This is pretty standard dog-whistle stuff. Folks who are in the NRA tribe will "get it", and they can feel smug and superior towards those of us on the outside. Mr. Rowe has now given them license to question the manhood (whatever that means) of those who disagree. This couldn't get more petty if you set it on a kindergarten playground.

The tragedy here is that the more of this we see - the more this kind of tribal shouting becomes the only form of "communication" - the less possible it is to have an actual discussion. There's no room for dialogue here, no possibility of discussion, no acknowledgment that there might be other legitimate points of view. Mr. Rowe might as well just wear a shirt that says "We're Great, You Suck" and be done with it.

We were treated this past weekend to a visit from the bishop of our diocese. In a morning session before the service he concluded his remarks by noting that there are only two ways that people relate to each other. Either they try to get the better of each other - to advance their own interests and views at others' expense - or they interact in love and compassion. There are no other choices. The NRA has demonstrated time and again that it is only interested in the former, and that its vision of the world has no love in it. Which sounds like hell on earth to me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Faculty Facing Campus Gun Violence: We Don't Have To Be Afraid

In the wake of the Umpqua shooting, we are once again at the intersection of two of my passions in life: higher education and interpersonal conflict/self defense. Today's Chronicle of Higher Education has a very good piece on how the long string of university shootings is affecting faculty across the country:
As Campus Gun Violence Increases, So Do Professors' Fears
I've blogged recently about how one of the big impediments to a discussion of gun ownership in America is the failure of both sides to understand the others' fears. This article ought to be (but won't be) read by the NRA and anyone who wants to advocate for broader ownership and distribution of firearms, especially by teachers. You can't just hand these people guns and tell them, "There - don't you feel more safe?"

Arming students (or allowing students to arm themselves) isn't going to help either. There were students present at the Umpqua shooting who were armed - and, luckily for everyone, very well-trained. They kept their weapons holstered and concentrated on helping people get to safety. The presence of guns did not alter that course of events at all, even in the hands of "good guys" - although the heroism of some (armed and unarmed) did.

All of this is nothing new - I've written these same things, about different cases and in different words, many times. Here I want to respond to the faculty quoted in the Chronicle article above, because while I understand their fears I have a different perspective on them. Here's a quote from the article:
Many faculty members are thinking about such scenarios with increasing anxiety. They may crack a few jokes at a faculty meeting, or roll their eyes at the latest administration missive of how to stay safe in an "active shooter" scenario, but in the back of their minds there are questions. What would I do if someone walked into the classroom with a gun? Is that student who got angry about a bad grade potentially dangerous? Is my campus a safe place to work?
The overall tenor of the article is: isn't it terrible that faculty have to ask these questions, and isn't it understandable that they're terrified in facing them? My own response is: yes, it is terrible ... there are terrible things in the world, and this is one of them. And, more importantly, while it is understandable that facing these kinds of questions frightens teachers, that reaction is not necessary.

First, a reality check: we live in a world in which interpersonal violence is a possibility. We know from the data that the possibility is remote and, in our corner of the world, getting smaller all the time. That's good, and we should be working to make it an ever-rarer occurrence. We do that not by arming everyone to the teeth - we don't want a world of armed deterrence, we want a world in which conflicts are resolved in other ways. This will always be an asymptotic quest, but we get closer and closer to the zero axis all the time. So given a non-zero probability of being targeted by violence, we can and should declare violence a tragedy while not shying away from addressing it in every way possible.

Second, if we acknowledge that we live in a world in which violence is unlikely but possible then it makes sense to think about what we should do if it happens in our presence. I understand the psychological barriers to dealing with low-probability events, but we do these all the time in other contexts. Schools (in my part of the world, anyway) conduct tornado drills. My university is going to participate this Thursday in an earthquake drill, despite the fact that serious earthquakes in Ohio are almost unheard of. In driver's ed we teach students how to respond if their brakes fail, or if the hood of the car flips up unexpectedly - even though I've never seen either of those things happen in my life.

So we can and should learn to deal with the prospect of violence in our presence in a similar fashion. Understand what we can control and what we can't. Think ahead about the best courses of action. And practice. No skill read about in a pamphlet or listened to in a lecture ever worked. The only way we can be effective at anything is to do it, preferably a bunch of times.

I've written before about the benefits of martial arts training (including here, which remains my most-read blog post ever). I've also pointed out that self defense is a discipline, and as such must be studied and practiced like anything else. The benefit of such learning and practice is not merely that you acquire skills that can be used in an emergency. You also acquire a mindset of preparedness, which is far more important. Any good self defense class will tell you: your most important weapon is your mind.

The questions posed in the quote above, and throughout the Chronicle article, are questions I ask myself all the time. Most of the time when I walk into a classroom or a meeting, I take a moment to assess that space's defensive possibilities and weaknesses (especially in meetings, which often provide opportunities for the mind to wander). I consider approaches and alternative actions depending on various scenarios - who is the attacker targeting? What is he armed with? When do I hide, run, engage? I also evaluate people (students and otherwise) for signs of danger or instability.

For most of the faculty quoted in the article, facing these kinds of questions frightens them. I'm not frightened, not because I'm better or braver than my colleagues but simply because I've practiced. Fear in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder - while dealing with these kinds of questions is challenging, it is not necessarily frightening. We do not have to be afraid; fear is a default condition that can be changed.

There is a deeper level to dealing with this fear. I recognize that my modest skills and training do not guarantee survival 100% of the time in all situations. I may be able to escape, or I may be able to disarm or disable an attacker at close range. I certainly have a better-than-average chance of doing so, if only because the "average" here is very low. But I may also get shot, and I may also get killed. That's the reality.

How I would deal with that reality in the moment I don't know - none of us does until faced with it. But in the calm environment in which I live, I can at least contemplate my mortality. I can think about how I can influence and shape the narrative of events, even if the story includes my own death. "How do I want to die?" is not a question anybody relishes facing. But the stories we remember from some of these events are often from those willing to face that question - the veteran and father at Umpqua who was willing to put himself in harm's way, and while wounded kept repeating that he didn't want to die because it was his son's birthday.

I think there is a fear that thinking about such things will sully us, make us somehow worse people. But I think that's just the rationalization of fear - I think it makes us better people. The closer we get to the really big, important questions the more clearly we can see who we are and who we want to be.

So let us keep working to reduce violence at all levels. Let us certainly not do things - like arming swaths of our population - that will make matters worse. But let us also, in our everyday lives, stop and think about the realities of our world, prepare ourselves for what may come as best we can, and then move on. We will likely not see an end to violence in our lifetimes. But that does not have to rob of us of our peace, because fear is the one enemy we can conquer.

An Interesting Set of Facts About Guns and Violence Prevention

Amidst the American "debate" about responsible gun ownership in recent weeks, there have been some references from gun-rights advocates to Israel. It has been suggested, for example, that Israel suffers fewer shootings in schools (despite being surrounded by enemies) because they arm their teachers:

As usual, the facts are a little more complicated than the memes. It turns out, according to a Washington Post story in today's paper, that Israel has far more restrictive gun laws than the US does. Only about 3.5% of the Israeli population has a permit to own and carry a gun, and half of those work for security firms. The paperwork for a permit is far more extensive, and must include a justification acceptable to the state. Most Israelis would be turned down if they applied.

Were the United States to adopt Israel's laws on gun ownership the NRA would go ballistic. Yet Israelis understand what some of us don't seem to want to: having lots of untrained people running around with guns makes everyone less safe, not more. Perhaps Wayne LaPierre and his colleagues should take a trip to Israel. They might learn something useful.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fear, Anger, and Hatred: Our Never-Ending Suffering Over Guns

Lots of stuff has been written in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Oregon. My good friend Steve Saideman has been carrying lots of water on this issue, as have many others. Newspapers are filled with both stories and commentary. The President speaks, people opine, tempers flare, dogma is repeated. In the words of the late, great Yogi Berra: it’s déjà vu all over again.

So why write anything at all? I have no illusion that my words, read by relatively few, will change the world. But if there is any purpose at all to writing it is simply to continue the conversation. I don’t know whether things will get better or not. I do know that without the ongoing conversation, however painful, they definitely won’t. So here’s my 2 cents.

Regular readers of this space will know that I’m fond of borrowing a line from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to explain conflict dynamics. It’s simple, powerful, and easy to remember:

Fear -> Anger -> Hatred -> Suffering. This is the cycle we repeat, over and over again, like some nightmarish version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day.

I want to apply this dynamic to one of the most painful dimensions of the current discussion: the tribal shouting match over restrictions on firearms. The pain of every broadly-publicized mass shooting is amplified by the fear, anger, and hatred of this “discussion”, experienced over and over again with each new tragedy.

So what’s really going on here? Let me try to reflect on the dynamics of both sides. In so doing, I will freely admit that being closer to one side of the divide, I probably understand one point of view better than the other. I will nevertheless try to be fair to all, starting with two assumptions: that none of us thinks of ourselves as evil and that we are all flawed human beings deserving of compassion, dignity, and respect.

So what happens in the wake of each new gun-related tragedy? I believe the cycle of fear-anger-hatred is triggered in both “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” tribes, but because neither understands the other or regards the other as legitimate, we remain locked in a painful stalemate from which there is no clear way out.


Highly-publicized shootings trigger fear in both camps. For pro-gun folks, the fear is simple but also deep: they fear having all of their guns taken away. This is less of a practical fear than it is an emotional one: many in this camp see guns as culturally positive and would regard losing them as a loss not only of freedom but identity. Folks who don’t own guns have long ignored the depth of this feeling, or tried to argue it away on practical grounds, at their peril.
Full disclosure: I’m guilty of this myself. I’ve written any number of pieces (here, here, here) about guns and their realistic application to self-defense. For most folks to whom such arguments might be directed this misses the point, which is that guns make folks feel safer regardless of their practical impact. We can make fun of that feeling if we like, but it’s no less powerful for our attempts to denigrate it.
For anti-gun folks, public mass shootings also trigger fear. For some, it may be a visceral fear for their own lives or the lives of their loved ones – the sense that “if this happened there, it could happen anywhere, even in my community.” Given the low probability of such an event, I suspect that for many the fear is more diffuse: the dread of living in a nation that has lost its soul. The evil of these events is palpable in the innocence of the victims, but it is magnified many times by the angry responses of pro-gun forces who, in the wake of yet another tragedy, call for yet more guns as the solution. Put simply, mass shootings remind many people that they fear an overly-armed society with lots and lots of guns. Pro-NRA folks ignore this fear, or dismiss it as ridiculous, at their peril. You can repeat “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” all you want but the reality is that guns frighten people and the public shooting of innocent victims heightens that fear.

Public shootings make both camps afraid, but of very different things. Neither side understands the others’ fear, and both think that the fears of the other side are absurd. At worst, each thinks that the others’ expressed fears are really window dressing for something more nefarious – idol-worship and radical dog-eat-dog individualism on the part of pro-gun conservatives, totalitarian government-controls-all Orwellian fantasies by anti-gun liberals.

Anger & Hatred

Given that each side mocks the others’ fear, it is any wonder that attempts at “dialogue” quickly lead to anger? Folks in favor of more stringent gun controls want to see the possibility of change, and get angry when they see people on the other side not only blocking that change but mocking it in ways that appear to denigrate the victims of mass shootings (Bush is going to pay for that “stuff happens” comment for a while). Folks in favor of more widespread gun ownership get angry at what they perceive as an ongoing plot to deprive them of their rights, possibly as the first step towards a more totalitarian society. Both of these contain an element of the ridiculous, but the anger is no less real for that.

The problem with anger, of course, is that it clouds judgment. Angry people are even worse than usual at evaluating information, assessing options, and drawing conclusions. Anger focuses on people rather than facts or issues. The conflict becomes the problem rather than the problem being the problem, with both sides blaming the other.

Eventually, anger turns to hatred. Instead of gun violence being a problem to be solved by people working together, it becomes the battleground on which we fight. We call our opponents names, we denigrate their intelligence and their parentage, and we congratulate each other within our tribes on how clever our put-downs and insults are.

Some anonymous fellow left a comment on this blog a while back calling me a “special kind of stupid”. He (or she) and I have never met, and likely never will. It was a small action of hate, made in a moment of passion. I have little doubt that, in the back of his/her mind, this person was driven by fear and compensated for that fear by lashing out in a small way. C.S. Lewis reminds us that hatred is “often the compensation by which the frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear.”

Those moments and actions, these little compensations by which we assuage our own fears, add up. For some, the anger and the hatred become all-consuming. They define the limits of what someone sees. Gun violence is no longer about gun violence, it’s about them: NRA apologists with blood on their hands, fascist liberals ready to take everyone’s guns and throw us all in concentration camps.

Because hatred is a powerful motivator, those who experience it most are most motivated to act. In this regard, my friend Steve is right – politicians generally listen to the folks who are most mobilized, and in this case that has been the folks on the NRA/pro-gun side of the debate. Their hatred, their anger, and (I suspect) their fear are simply deeper and more lasting than their liberal counterparts. As long as the rules of the game are based on these things, they will continue to win the battle – but not the war. They will continue to suffer along with the rest of us.


Gun violence begets two tragedies with every new shooting. The first is the tragedy localized to that particular time and place: the victims of that particular shooting, their family members, and the community in which they live and move. The suffering of the people of Umpqua Community College and in the town of Rosewood, Oregon, is theirs. The rest of us can share by sympathy from afar. We may feel some of its echoes, but attenuated severely by distance.

The second tragedy is the one we inflict on ourselves: the endless, frustrating, fear-anger-hatred-fueled shouting match that occupies the landscape where “public discourse” should be. President Obama gave voice to some of that in his response, albeit from one particular side. NRA adherents and spokespeople have also taken to the airwaves and the internet, their fears heightened, their anger on alert. Let the ranting resume.

To be fair, there are players in this drama largely untouched by the suffering. Not everybody is driven by fear, anger, and hatred. Gun manufacturers in particular profit from all of this. Every time the national tragedy is renewed, their gun sales go up, ammunition sales go up, and they make out like bandits. Their support for the NRA and similar organizations is predicated simply on business calculations.

For the rest of us, we are confronted with these two tragedies: the local, periodic, unpredictable shootings of innocent people, and the national festival of bile and rage that ensues every time a random mass shooting occurs. We will not solve the first without addressing the second, and we will not succeed in the latter without breaking the cycle of fear, anger, and hatred. We inflict this suffering on ourselves, but we don’t know how to stop. And so it is indeed déjà vu all over again.

How do we go about this? Here I don’t have a lot of good ideas. My years of studying conflict tell me that moments of heightened anger and hatred are the worst times, not the best, for trying to resolve things. We need to have a dialogue, not right after a shooting but in the in-between times when people aren’t frightened and angry. We need to talk to each other honestly about our fears – without mocking, without snark, without denigration, but in respect and compassion. Over time, that’s the conversation that is likely to produce results.

This is not easy – in fact, it’s far harder and less likely than passing some new gun control legislation in the wake of a shooting. Fear is a powerful short-term motivator, and righteous anger feels good on all sides. There are many who benefit from our anger: not only gun manufacturers, but also politicians, pundits, and “professional interest groups”. What would happen to the NRA if we had a real national dialogue that produced a real national consensus? Donations would plummet, people would stop paying attention, and Wayne LaPierre’s salary and staff would be slashed. For him and many others (on both sides) who use the national shouting match as a means to their own ends, there is little interest in resolution. The battle itself is what they want. It pays their salaries, garners votes and volunteers for the next election, and keeps the whole system going.

If a real conversation is ever to take place, it will be in spite of those who now wield the loudest voices – the politicians, the pundits, the NRA and others – rather than because of them. We cannot expect leadership from any of these “leaders”. We have to do it ourselves.

That’s not a prescription, much less a call to action. I know well the powerful forces blocking such a path. I only know that the path is there, for anyone who wants to try it. I expect that few will, but I hope that some might.