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.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, this is an excellent and thoughtful post. I, too, was concerned about the article in the Chronicle and the misperceptions out there that these threats are greater than they are. Great analogies here to earthquakes and brake failures.