Monday, December 24, 2012

Monsters, Demons and School Children

Exploiting Tragedy for Political Gain

I have to admit I did not make it all the way through Wayne LaPierre’s statement Friday. The head of NRA spoke for about 15 minutes from a prepared text and was twice interrupted by angry demonstrators who demanded the head of the National Rifle Association “Stop killing our children!” From LaPierre’s statement, it appears he is both a very good strategist but, sadly, a man who is either incapable of or simply unwilling to engage in an honest, critical examination of the crisis in America arising from the guns his organization would protect.

What was apparent from the beginning in his statement was that any discussion of a failed public policy surrounding guns was off the table. LaPierre began by decrying those who would “exploit tragedy for political gain,” assuring America that his organization’s primary concern was “the safety of our nation's children.” So far, so good.

However, the focus on children was short-lived.

The pattern of NRA response historically in the wake of mass-shootings has been to initially issue a statement of condolences to those who have lost family members but to quickly follow that with an assertion that “now is not the time” to discuss the policy implications of that carnage. Of course, as in the popular song from the 1940s, Mañana, somehow the time for that discussion never seems to come, thus revealing this as a thinly disguised defense strategy to protect privilege through utilizing delay.

A second defense strategy the NRA has used historically has been the use of diversionary tactics often involving scapegoats. And one didn’t have to wait long Friday to hear that number warming up.

Monsters Driven by Demons

LaPierre identified his targets in striking terms:

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day.”

Indeed, they do, Mr. LaPierre. One wonders what kind of demons drive the vision of gun advocates like yourself who appear incapable of even considering the possibility that it might be their own attitudes and behaviors which create the carnage we all abhor. One wonders what kind of monster would take a podium in the face of the mass murders of 20 children and six of their teachers and argue that the unlimited privilege which gun owners have enjoyed and presume to be their right, rooted in a public policy which has clearly failed with catastrophic results, does not urgently require reconsideration. 

At the point LaPierre made that statement I found myself angrily screaming at my television, “YOU are the monster!” And yet it’s precisely at times like these that I realize that all of us have the potential to kill another human being out of anger. As Alexander Solzhenitzyn has so aptly observed, “[T]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.” Had Mr. LaPierre been present in my living room I no doubt would have attempted to strangle him myself.

And that was the point I stopped listening.

Anthropologies of Depravity

In all fairness I did come back to read the rest of his statement. It is infinitely easier to deal with the words themselves without having to watch them being delivered by a smug, angry white man observably fearful of losing his unearned privilege. It seems clear to me that the policies he advocates are, indeed, monstrous in their deadly results. But I also believe there is more to this man than that. It’s not terribly credible to presume that Wayne LaPierre gets up every morning and asks himself, “What monstrous things can I say and do today?” even as that might be the end result of what he ends up saying and doing.

His comments about being “possessed by voices and driven by demons” are very telling. Many gun owners operate out of a negative philosophical anthropology which presumes human beings to be dangerous, untrustworthy, perhaps even demonic. It is not a coincidence that many of these folks are also members of sectarian-spirited evangelical Protestant traditions, descendants of John Calvin and company. This religious vision has long focused on the radical individual before an angry, punishing deity and a human nature rendered utterly depraved by archetypal events in the Garden of Eden. When one begins from such a negative starting place, it’s not terribly surprising that everyone can and, from this theological perspective, should be seen as a potential enemy.

But fear tends to immobilize rational thinking. It also tends to neutralize the human heart, immobilizing any semblance of empathy for others. In all honesty, I saw little genuine concern for the children of Newtown in LaPierre’s words or affect Friday. Instead, what I observed was a white hot rage over the withering attacks his organization had sustained this past week and an overpowering fear. That rage was only slightly cooler but still palpable in the text itself as I read it this morning. The fear absolutely leaps from the pages.

Fear, False Dichotomies and Sophomoric Thinking

Mr. LaPierre has proved himself to be a master strategist in defending an organization that represents just over 1 out every 100 Americans but successfully advances its interests at the expense of the rest of the population at large. For that, he must be duly credited if for nothing else than the efficaciousness of his methods.

But his thinking evidences a pronounced myopia that appears to make it difficult – perhaps impossible - for him to even consider the possibility that the interests he advances might ultimately prove destructive to others. Such a reality would thus reveal himself as the actual monster driven by demons of fear and his statement Friday an unconscious - and no doubt unintentional - revelation of his own frightened inner state. Projection always tends to be at least as revelatory of the projector as his targets.

There is also a decided brittleness in LaPierre’s thinking which is readily revealed in statements like these:

“The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. ”

In introductory logic courses we teach our students about a wide range of logical fallacies. A very common fallacy is the false dichotomy: Either X or Y. Such arguments often reveal either limitations of conceptual awareness of other possibilities or, more often, the simple refusal to consider them. They also evidence a tendency toward simplistic thinking. We all want things to be as simple as possible, as Einstein noted. But as he also insisted, our considerations should not require a subject to be seen in a simpler manner than is possible. Beyond simple lies simplistic.

We expect some level of simplistic thinking from college undergrads, hence the description of such fallacious thinking as sophomoric. But when we begin to see an ongoing pattern of such thought in adults, stubbornly resistant to all attempts to consider other possibilities than one’s foregone conclusion and willing to actively ignore all evidence or arguments to the contrary, we begin to suspect this might be a deeper problem.

William Perry, a scholar of cognitive function, observed a pattern of developmental tendencies in human thinking capacities. He noted that the structure of arguments advanced often revealed the given developmental point from which they were being made. Perry found that the tendency to engage in black and white, dualistic thinking is common to all human beings at very early stages of our cognitive development. But as human beings mature and become better educated, our thinking tends to become more complex, nuanced, attentive to contextual considerations.

While confronting black and white choices offered in simple terms remains comforting to all of us, most of recognize fairly early on that most things in life just aren’t that simple, particularly hotly debated issues of policy. We also know deep in the back of our minds that even as we would reduce complex issues to simplistic terms, we tend to sacrifice intellectual honesty and ethical integrity for the comfort of an artificial certainty. This, in turn, necessitates the operation of repression to push such awareness from our conscious minds. The first person we lie to is our self. 

Complexity and Intellectual Courage

To his credit, LaPierre did point toward some of the complexity in this crisis yesterday when he spoke of the lack of mental health treatment in America (thank you, Mr. Reagan). He also pinpointed the feeding frenzy surrounding these issues practiced by a mass media which has learned that stimulating fear also stimulates viewership and thus exposure to the consumer advertising of corporate sponsors. And he noted the normalization of violence which feeds into this problem through entertainment media from video games to the carnage which nightly presents itself as regular television programming.

These are all aspects of the problem America must solve. And LaPierre is correct when he points to them as facets of a deep-seated problem. But where his arguments fail is the reduction of the options available to address our national crisis to either providing armed guards in schools or not. Not only is this a false dichotomy, it also evidences the intellectual dishonesty of refusing to identify the elephant in the room – the failure of the very gun policies which LaPierre is defending.

The reality is that we simply cannot deal with this crisis until we recognize all the factors which have given rise to it. And in our discussions of them, all the bluster of self-righteous indignation in the world cannot overcome fundamental problems of intellectual dishonesty and intellectual cowardice. If Wayne LaPierre wants to have any real intellectual or ethical credibility, he will have to come clean with his fellow Americans about the role that unlimited access to guns and the failure of a policy which has put them into the hands of two out of three Americans plays in this crisis. Until then, he is relegated to seeing the monsters driven by demons  in the other that so clearly appear to haunt his own soul.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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