Tribune newspapers recently asked me to comment on what we could do about guns after Las Vegas. April Baumgarten, the author, did a nice job (thank you April!), but I knew that given space limitations, she could only include a small portion of what I said. Here is my elaboration—an extended explanation of what I was trying to say.
We are living in extreme times. Discussing the possibility that maybe someone might submit legislation to limit a gun accessory is now considered a major breakthrough. Republicans and the NRA are suggesting that they might be open to limiting the “bump stock,” an add-on that makes a legal semi-automatic weapon operate as if it were an illegal automatic one. This is good, I guess. I hope it happens. It is just that doing so is the legislative equivalent of curing gangrene of the leg by giving the patient a new sock. It does nothing to solve the actual problem.
As much as I hope for tougher gun laws, the fact of the matter is that culturally, we are not ready to consider meaningful change. Our gun fetishism is both a cause and consequence of national dysfunctions. We are not doing what we should be as families, communities, self-governors, and citizens of the world. We are failing our own democracy. We need to change the way we think, act, and speak politically before any solution can be genuinely proffered, let alone achieved. In this spirit, I offer these observations of what we, as a country, ought to emphasize.
Words matter. Intentional gun violence is generally described as being in one of two categories. It is either caused by “evil” or the consequence of “mental health issues.” Both of these terms share something in common. They are too ambiguous to mean anything; they encourage passivity. There is nothing to do about evil but to be good. There is no cure for poor mental health but to get better. There are, however, very specific things we can do about Sally the serial killer or John who suffers from schizophrenia. People who rely on the larger ambiguities are just trying to pass the buck.
These two terms are also disingenuous; advocates are not acting in good faith. The same people who claim that better mental health ought to be a priority are trying to gut the Affordable Care Act, leaving millions unable to get the mental-health care they need. The politicians who want us to just be good are often hypocrites who only support gay marriage when their own kids turn out to be gay, only want to fund hurricane relief when their own state is under water, work to ban abortion while simultaneously asking their mistresses to have abortions, and condemn homosexuality while going on vacations with gay escorts (many anti-gay activists turn out to be secretly gay).
“Gun control” is also an ambiguous phrase; it is used by its opponents to stall congress. While it is true that, depending on the poll, as many as half of republicans oppose it, the numbers reflect a much different electorate when specific polices are suggested. A significant majority in both parties support a ban on semiautomatic weapons and want background checks. The fact that these two restrictions are themselves gun control doesn’t matter. The phrase’s ambiguous nature prevents progress.
Yes, we should politicize gun violence. The common refrain of those who oppose gun laws is that politicians shouldn’t bring up government regulation too soon after a tragedy. Much has been said about this absurd position. Just this week, Dan Savage astutely recommended that gun-control advocates should claim not to be talking about Las Vegas at all, but Sandy Hook or Pulse. It isn’t too soon to talk about them.
But, there is a better response to those who claim we shouldn’t politicize these tragedies: they simply don’t understand what politics is. Of course we should bring politics into the mix; this is what politics is for. Politics involves life and death decision-making in the face of urgent needs and scarce resources. It is how we decide who lives and dies, which diseases get cures, and what cities get clean drinking water. It is the process through which we decide whether to go to war and whose rights are recognized. If there is no place for debate about gun policy in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacres, we have given up on the idea of politics itself.
We also have to accept that when politicians say, “I am praying for their families,” they are really saying, “I don’t care; I’m going to focus on something else.” God helps those who help themselves; praying is not enough. Praying is never the singular response when someone is diagnosed with cancer; the patient seeks medical care as well. It isn’t the only response when we are hungry. We eat whether we say grace or not. I don’t oppose prayer, I do it myself sometimes. But if prayer does anything at all, its consequences involve the divine world, not the material one. Whether there is a god or not, we simply have to act as if there isn’t. Morality and justice demand it. We have to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers while assuming that if God does act, God supplements but doesn’t replace our own actions.
We need to cultivate Empathy and the moral imagination. Commenting on how divided Americans are is so commonplace that it is almost trite. What is rarely acknowledged though, is how intentionally and how pervasive the media divide us. The vast majority of coverage on Las Vegas refers to the concert as a “country music festival,” not a “music festival.” This extra word signals which side of the divide the victims are on and tells us which community is expected to care the most about them: red state Republicans. Pulse was a “gay nightclub” not just “a nightclub.” Democrats were supposed to care about them more. Coverage of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church shooting almost always seemed to emphasize the blackness of the congregations rather than, say, their Methodist denomination. This too drew boundaries. These demographic details are certainly relevant if the shooter is motivated by prejudice, but this is the court’s concern more than the general public’s. It doesn’t change the fact that the victims were first and foremost music lovers, dancers, and worshippers.
These divisions prevent Americans from engaging their moral imagination. We have lost the skills necessary to vividly put ourselves into the perspective of others and divisive terminology saps our energy to try. (An argument can be made that we never had this ability in the first place, but I do think we have been better and worse at it at various times.) We are constantly told how different we are, but not how to imagine other people in the face of that difference. The best we do is suggest that, as humans, we are all the same. But if we are, then we can safely assume that other people’s stories are just like our own. They are not.
This destruction of the moral imagination is cultivated on every level, but it is most felt in in education. My own university is decimating the humanities, shrinking the opportunities for literature, philosophy, art, foreign language, and history classes, the very tools that teach us how to see and through other people’s eyes. By treating education as simply job training, we are forgetting that empathy is learned and cultivated. The humanities are a human necessity, not a luxury.
[Note: the only misquote in the Tribune article citing me calling for “humanitarian” rather than humanities education. This unintentionally hides the deterioration of civic education in our college and universities, but I do think that more humanitarian education should be a component of the curriculum. So, I am not particularly bothered by the error.]
We should stop thinking about identity as branding. Popular culture misrepresents the nature of democracy. Its stability is not built on the relationship between the government and its citizens, but on people’s trust. Civil society—the community created by people’s common interests, informal relationships, and civic organizations—is where people learn to understand that others have pain too. They discover that their neighbors and bosses aren’t two-dimensional ghouls who want to destroy the American way of life, but are really people who, like them, are doing the best they can. Our virtual communities mask this. We curate our lives to emphasize only those aspects we want to reveal, relying on algorithms to connect us with like-minded people. We become advertisements and avatars. We become a brand instead of an identity.
The problem is that the branding overshadows the person. Labels direct us, not the other way around. Consider political-party loyalty. We are told by our social studies textbooks that people have political beliefs and choose a party based on them. This, it turns out, is backwards. In reality, people identify with a political party first, based on their desire to be associate with or rebel against their family and friends. They then conform their political opinions so to be seen as a loyal member of that party.
There are many Republicans who are quiet about their second-amendment trepidation because they want to be seen as a “good Republican.” There are likewise many Democrats who hide their ambivalence about abortion because their friends might not consider them real Democrats. This push towards party purity isn’t constructive. It hinders empathy, political understanding, and even the words we use. Using phrases such as “pro-choice”, “pro-life,” or “forced-birthers,” signals, instantaneously, who one’s friends and enemies are. Once this is established, people know whose opinion they can disregard.
We need to recalibrate our tolerance for violence. I went to see Doctor Strange and Wonder Woman with a middle-schooler. I was told many times by multiple people that they were not violent movies. In each instance, the child I was with wanted to leave in the middle. The movies were simply too violent for her. Stephen Strange’s car accident is so graphic that it made me uncomfortable and Wonder Woman strove for a kind of realism about war that makes for good art, but demands a level of brutality that seems inappropriate for a comic-book movie advertised to children.
As has been well documented, Americans are horrendously prudish about sex and tremendously tolerant of violence. From Law and Order to Game of Thrones, the escalating level of violence blinds us to what is a normal level of gore and explicitness, and pushes away the notion that difficult incidents should happen off screen. No where is this truer then with sexual violence. There is, after all, an entire series Law and Order S.V.U. created to make rape victims prime-time entertainment.
This escalation colors our experience of gun violence, not because violent media causes people to be violent—there is not a lot of evidence to support this notion—but because it makes us inattentive to incidents when they happen. There was a mass shooting in Lawrence Kansas, the same day as the shooting in Las Vegas, but only three people died. There are, nationally, an average of two mass shootings a month. Most never see substantial media coverage; they simply can’t compete. Media outlets across the political spectrum celebrated the Las Vegas shooting as the “worst in history,” and I use the term “celebrated” intentionally. Americans love a contest. We love escalation. We love surprises, excitement, and intensity. Our tolerance for gun death has become so high that we don’t even blink where we hear a single person was killed, unless, of course, we know the victim. Then the universe stops, and that’s the point. Every death is momentous, not just the people who die alongside dozens of others. Popular culture helps push this escalation. Children see massive amounts of death before they even reach puberty. A 2014 study showed that animated films actually show more death than R-rated films. We need to recalibrate what the very word violent means.
To sum up. I recognize that these are difficult recommendations; they are all abstract. We can’t legislate empathy or force politicians to use certain words. We can cultivate the moral imagination but we can’t force people to turn it on. And we shouldn’t excise violence from our art or entertainment. It is certainly a part of life. I make these observations because I want to point out that gun violence is not about the availability of guns per se, but rather that the availability of guns is the direct result of some of the worst aspects of our society. We can’t have the necessary political discussion about guns until we understand why we can’t. Our failures are much more than legislative.
Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein