Like many people out there, I’m having a hard time thinking about anything right now but the horrible massacre in the elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. No, massacre isn’t the right word. Slaughter, might be. I don’t know. What kind of language is needed to describe the endless pain and horror that has happened and that will result? What words will describe the feelings of the parents who are breaking into a million pieces right now? I would ask a poet for help, but poetry is inherently beautiful, and nothing in this scenario is. I probably shouldn’t even be writing a blog now since I’ll only risk getting myself in trouble, but what else can I do? I’m a philosopher. I think out loud.
At this point, we don’t know any details. Obviously, the mass-murderer was crazy (I won’t use the term gunman; it is too romantic), but we don’t know the motive and we don’t know anything about the gun(s) used. [The news just reported the name of a suspect] Anything I can say about the incident, other than grieve, is pure speculation. Nevertheless, the internet is already awash with vitriol about gun control, for and against, with as many four-letter words as people can muster. I’m willing to forgive many of them. As parents of kids that age, especially, many of us are struggling with fear. And as obscene as it seems to quote Star Wars right now, fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate. Yoda was not wrong.
The first thing to acknowledge then is that the dominant emotion in this country right now is not sadness or grief, but terror–terror for our children who leave our sight every single day and terror for our children who live in a world that we cannot even begin to control. Non-parents feel this way too, of course. Adults were victims and there are no doubt people who lost spouses today, not to mention children who lost parents and best friends who lost lifelong companions; the possibilities are too awful to enumerate. And out of my own fear, the anxiety of someone with a child in an elementary school as I’m writing this, I want to argue that parents feel all of this more acutely than anyone else (we shouldn’t forget that the adult victims had parents too), but nothing good ever came from ranking suffering. Horror and pain are not competitive sports. [The news just released what sounds like the total number of victims. What do numbers mean and how can a number signify 26 lives of infinite possibilities?]
So, we must acknowledge that what is really happening on the internet is a mass outpouring of terror that is manifesting itself as anger about gun policy. And, as a result, people are asking, and will ask for the next week, at least, when the right time to talk about gun control is. Here’s the only answer that I can come up with: the proper time to talk about gun policy is when having the discussion has the possibility of changing people’s minds
Let me explain. The purpose of a national conversation about any policy is to move people to a point of agreement and, perhaps, compromise. If no agreement can be found, then no changes can be made. Sometimes this conversation is virulent; it certainly is when people talk about gay rights. And sometimes the debate is resolved by court fiat, as it was with desegregation, or by a tiny majority, as happens with many elections. Nevertheless, it is still the case that in a democracy, the goal of the conversation is to get people to alter their positions, even somewhat, to get something accomplished. I am convinced that my position on gun control is the right one, but if there is absolutely no chance at all that I will ever change my mind, even just a tiny bit, then maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t be allowed in the discussion. I don’t mean, of course, that I should be willing to change my fundamental position, but perhaps I ought to reconsider nuance, or a timetable, or give something up for the sake of making this country progressively safer and more just.
Can we therefore imagine a circumstance when people who reject gun control and people who are in favor of it can get together and have a real discussion that might alter their perspective just a little? If we can, it will have to be a pretty controlled debate, one where emotions are kept in check and evidence is required for positions. It would have to be an event, with many installments, over time, and it would have to be massive. Perhaps we need a series of televised debates with experts and we need to devote as much time as the Republicans did to the primary. Perhaps there should be town hall meetings and small-group study sessions. But it shouldn’t be pundits on news channels yelling at each other; that only makes things worse. The fact of the matter is that if we think anyone can and will ever change their mind, then we need to actually have the conversation. Those who don’t want us to engage must be assuming that a debate will get people to disagree with them. They resist the discussion because they are scared that they are wrong. But that’s not the way to govern a country and as naive as it must seem to read this right now, we still, as citizens in the U.S., govern ourselves.
Contrary to many these days, I do think people change their minds on central issues, and I have known quite a few who have changed their political parties after life taught them certain lessons (often the hard way). I also know, as a teacher, that students can be affected by a class, or a movie, or a book, or a conversation. It is possible to get people to reconsider but only when you treat them with respect. This is why pundits are no help. They don’t respect the opposition, or at least, they act like they don’t for the camera. This is going to take time and it’s not a job for the people who make their living getting ratings on television. I wish it were.
So, here is what I have to say: we must all recognize that right now, people are being governed by their emotions and that this reaction is natural. And while have to prioritize the love and care of the victims and their friends, we will, eventually, have to talk. No matter how hard it will be to do so, we need to talk. To one another, to people we disagree with, to our government officials, to our neighbors, friends, and even enemies. We need to talk.
The New York Times just released the name of the mass-murderer and reported that his mother was likely the teacher of the kindergarten class. So I will add that we need to talk about caring for the mentally ill in this country, as well. We need to talk about the isolation and alienation of our teenagers and young adults. We need to talk about justice and dysfunction within families and the desire to be famous at all costs. All of these things, I am sure, will be related to today’s horror. But in the end, we will need to talk about guns.
No matter how hard the discussion will be, no matter how long it takes, no matter what political careers it endangers, we have to start talking now. And if this too scares you I’ll simply remind you that talking is better than destroying people through our silence. And sadly, we’ve destroyed a lot of people lately.
ADDENDUM, 12/15/2012: I have added a follow-up post starting the conversation I ask for.