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.