Thursday, March 01, 2018

Mental Illness and Gun Fundamentalism

Los Intocables (The Untouchables) Erik Ravelo (2013)

Within hours of the latest mass carnage in a public space in America, one of the students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, his younger brother by his side, was interviewed by a CNN reporter. His affect suggested he might have been in shock, registering little visible emotion in the face of a blood-sodden atrocity. His voice lacked any inflection as he offered his response to the shooting in a virtual automaton state:

This is a problem of mental illness, not guns. 

Perhaps it should not be surprising that an event as overwhelming as this latest massacre would defy thoughtful response on the spot. But the loss of 17 souls to an act of home-grown terrorism surely merits more than canned talking points.  

Homes with Lessons, Rules and Guns 

The next day a friend of mine from high school posted an article on Facebook from the Florida Teacher of the Year on her own Facebook account. Recognizing that Facebook is by definition a form of social media and not formal writing, it's fair to note that her rambling response is not particularly well written. Even so, the thoughts of Kellie Guthrie Raley merit consideration.

Raley begins with a dualism which breaks the world into realms of light and dark: “OK, I’ll be the bad guy and say what no one else is brave enough to say.” Of course, holding a divergent opinion does not make its holder “a bad guy” any more than sharing a majority’s opinion makes one “a good guy.” That’s a rather childish form of reductionism which sums up complex human beings by a single judgment. Moreover, the fact that others might not share the speaker’s opinion does not make them timorous, it simply means they do not agree.

Raley said that she was raised in a household with guns, a household marked by strong parental control and expectations. She remembers her childhood as a process of learning “respect for human life, compassion, rules [and] common decency.” As such she said that she would never have dreamed of shooting anyone with her father’s guns.

Assuming such is true, her parents are to be commended. Teaching children compassion and respect for human life is vital to a healthy society. Learning to follow rules is an expectable childhood task even as those rules may need to be questioned once the child has matured sufficiently to inquire into their reasonableness. Such, indeed, is the stuff of “common decency.” 

However, Raley is perhaps unwittingly engaging in a common logical fallacy here that sees her own life experience as somehow normative for everyone else. It goes something like this: Everyone’s family is like mine or they ought to be and if they aren’t, there is something wrong with them.

The reality is that not all households with guns are marked by lessons in human dignity or rules that regulate the behaviors of its occupants. It is hard to know if Raley’s experience even represents the majority of gun-owning households in America - now only about 30% of the total households in the country - but the fact that so many of our murders and suicides arise from the context of armed households suggests that Raley’s benign experience is hardly normative for gun-owning Americans in general.

I also grew up in a home where we were taught respect for human dignity, compassion and the need to follow rules. It was also a household with several guns. My Dad and my brother were hunters. The guns were carefully stored and hidden out of sight of those who entered our home.

But that did not prevent those guns from being stolen when burglars broke into my parents’ home while they were on vacation. My Father bought new guns only to have them stolen in a second break-in a couple of years later along with the contents of their deep freeze. My greatest fear during those years was that my parents would come home while a burglary was in progress and die from wounds inflicted by their own guns.

Raley ends her post with this statement:

Until we, as a country, are willing to get serious and talk about mental health issues, lack of available care for the mental health issues, lack of discipline in the home, horrendous lack of parental support when the schools are trying to control horrible behavior at school (oh no! Not MY KID. What did YOU do to cause my kid to react that way?), lack of moral values, and yes, I’ll say it-violent video games that take away all sensitivity to ANY compassion for others’ lives, as well as reality TV that makes it commonplace for people to constantly scream up in each others’ faces and not value any other person but themselves, we will have a gun problem in school.

In addition to her critique of parenting and the lack of support for teachers – a critique that my own experience as a teacher and surveys of teachers nationwide would suggest is well-founded - Raley points to mental health care, degrading television programming and media modeling violent behavior as reasons why there is “a gun problem in school.” In contrast to the young man at MSDHS, Raley has identified most of the problem here.

But that makes even more striking her failure to name the elephant in the room - the role a failed gun policy plays in the context of the social pathologies she so readily decries. Why is that?

Fundamentalism Stops a Working Mind

I am currently reading a work by Episcopal seminary professor Pittman McGhee entitled The Invisible Church: Finding Spirituality Where You Are. One of the unexpected benefits of reading this work is McGehee’s insightful discussion of fundamentalist thought. I have long been a student of religious fundamentalism since my days in seminary. McGehee’s articulation of the cognitive processes of fundamentalism is very helpful for looking at the current questions regarding gun violence.

At its heart fundamentalism is inevitably a perversion of that from which it springs. It seeks to cast complex, multi-faceted concerns in simplistic, reductionist ways. In essence, fundamentalism is an attempt to avoid complexity and wrestling with ideas which prompt ambiguity, ambivalence and anxiety in response.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the discussion around what is clearly a failed gun policy in the United States.

Before the bloodstains of his classmates had even dried, the young man at MSDHS had rattled off on cue the same reductionist talking points of the NRA provided its paid agents in the halls of Congress and legislatures like Florida’s, and its mouthpiece in Fox broadcasting. In so doing, he unwittingly serves as a spokesperson for a fundamentalist approach, offering simplistic responses to complex issues which largely scapegoat negatively caricaturized individuals (them) while refusing to even consider any kind of social responsibility (us).

This fundamentalist slant is readily evident in the NRA’s construction of the Second Amendment. It was never intended to provide a self-imposed “right” to take guns into restaurants, churches and schools, to reduce our public sphere to an armed battle zone. It was never intended to require teachers to be armed body guards. Its Framers intended this amendment to insure an armed militia could protect a fledgling independent nation which at the time lacked a standing army. It was intended, in the words of the Preamble which precedes it, to “provide for the common defence….”

All fundamentalism operates out of a selective literalism. It avoids context like the plague and seizes upon selected aspects of complex understandings, taking them literally to the detriment of the understandings themselves.  Gun fundamentalists completely ignore the entire first half of the amendment and then claim it provides them an individual right to bear any arms they choose without regard for anyone or anything else.

There is no small amount of unacknowledged intellectual dishonesty in such tortured readings.

A Culture Which Breeds Mental Illness

My friend who posted the teacher’s Facebook entry said she was “[h]appy to see a respected educator "telling it like it is" even if the truth is not "popular!" While Ms. Raley has certainly offered her perspective of the situation, raising a number of points meriting  consideration, reducing gun violence to bad parenting and vague references to “mental illness” is na├»ve on a good day, deadly on most others. It is hardly “the truth,” in the sense of the oath taken in courts: “…the whole truth and nothing but the truth…”

But both she and the young man raise an important point. “The Truth” is that mental illness is an important part of this complex picture. And there is a good reason for that.

We live in a pathogenic culture. It is marked by hyper-competitiveness and hyper-individualism. We maintain an economic system that tends to benefit the few at the expense of the many. It is a system that destroys community while pounding us with notions that our self-value depends on the amount of material goods we amass.

As a result we experience ourselves as atomized individuals who rent identities with increasingly abbreviated shelf lives from manufacturers of consumer goods and services. Most of us have no idea who we truly are and prefer to remain far too distracted to find out. We live the unexamined lives that Plato long ago warned us were not worth living.

We also long ago traded in our roles as citizens whose informed decisions guided our republic for roles as docile, obedient consumers. This allows oligarchs and corporate magnates to make decisions for us regarding the most basic aspects of our lives from health care to internet access to criminal justice.

The truth is, our culture does not make us happy, it makes us anxious. Worse yet, we feel powerless to change it.

Such a culture breeds mental illness.

Do We Really Care About Mental Illness?

Even so, we should not be deceived by the talking points from the gun industry into thinking that those who point to mental illness as “the problem” really care about it.

Many of the same people who repeat simplistic talking points in response to the now expectable slaughters in public spaces are those who helped elect a pathologically narcissist president whose own rhetoric is riddled with violent, dehumanizing imagery. Among his first acts in office, he signed legislation making it easier for mentally ill people to purchase guns.

They have elected lawmakers who have gutted spending on mental illness at the state and federal levels insuring that many of the mentally ill end up on our city streets as homeless people. If mental illness were really a concern, it’d be a much higher priority in our spending than prisons, highways and ever more tax breaks for the wealthy.

The bottom line as to how seriously we take mental illness is most evident in how we have dealt with the events leading up to the Parkland slaughter. If we truly believed that Nicholas Cruz was too mentally ill to purchase a gun, he would never have had one.

A well documented history of run-ins with school, child services and law enforcement in South Florida reveals that we actually knew this young man was seriously ill long ago. Yet his needs went untreated even as he was permitted to legally purchase the weapon of war with which he decimated his former high school.

Now we will demand the blood of this same mentally ill man when he finally comes to trial. The fact an offender is mentally ill is rarely an effective barrier against a blood thirsty America which routinely confuses revenge with justice. We tell ourselves that killing our killers will somehow deter killing even as the states that kill their offenders continue to register the highest murder rates. How many more Nicholas Cruzs, oblivious to the potential for their own deaths as they carry out an atrocity, are out there waiting for a trigger event to set off a bloody rampage?

A Complex Truth Demands a Complex Response

If we truly want to look at “the Truth” we must look at all the aspects of this reality that confronts us. As Kelly Guthrie Raley has so ably observed:

·         It is true that we wean our children on a mass culture whose media teaches them that violence is an integral part of their lives and thus expectable.

·         It is true that we have often failed to teach our children respect for one another and for their teachers and schools.

·         It is true that our addictive social media with its disinhibiting anonymity encourages some of the worst of human behaviors in which concern for human dignity is lost.

·         It is true that we live in a society which models brutality and blunt force as the means of problem resolution at every level from our city streets to our prisons to our foreign policy

·         And it is true that even as our culture generates no small amount of mental illness in the process it provides little means of dealing with the same.

But it is precisely because we live in such a pathogenic culture with little means or will to address the mental illness it routinely produces that our current gun policies – which were always questionable in terms of their rationality – must be changed. And we must refuse to let fundamentalists set the terms– a phenomenon known as the Overton Window - for our discussions of those changes.

Fundamentalism often expresses itself in extreme arguments: If we restrict any guns they’ll all be taken away the slippery slope logical fallacy. We can either have liberty with no obligations to society or we can have a totalitarian statethe false dichotomy logical fallacy. Neither of those assertions - just two of many logical fallacies like it (see link below) - are defensible. 

This issue is far too important to resort to tired, fallacious non-arguments in dealing with it. Nothing worth considering comes in sound bites.

“The Truth” is

·         It is quite possible to designate weapons of war as off limits for the general public as virtually every modern industrial society on the earth has long since done.

·         It is quite possible to regulate the purchase of guns and ammunition in ways which insure public safety including waiting periods, permits and background checks.

·         And it is quite possible that even as we protect the rights of hunters and shooting ranges as well as the average owner of hand guns within the homes they would protect with them, we can regulate their use in terms of time, place and manner just as we regulate First Amendment rights such as expression and assembly.

This is called common sense gun control. It is the mark of a mature, civilized society. At the same time it honors a 200 year history of gun ownership in America, it reflects the context in which guns can and should be purchased and used today. And as the families and friends of the 17 souls lost in the bloodbath at Parkland now painfully know, it is an idea that is long, long overdue. 

But don't just take my word for it. 

Here are some columns that might shed a little more light on the subject. 

"The democratic principles of the Second Amendment have been replaced by market principles whereby gun ownership trumps human freedom. Owning the thing becomes that which we cling to while genuine erosions of our freedoms occur whether or not Americans own guns.  America's freedom fundamentalism impervious to death

A view from Australia, a modern industrial nation which rid itself of automatic weapons after the first school shooting:   Gun Fetish: Misreading the Right to Bear Arms

"Like its religious counterpart, gun-rights fundamentalism views society through a simplistic filter, populated, in LaPierre’s nauseating catchphrase, by 'good guys' and 'bad guys.' Antonin Scalia And The Clear And Present Danger Of SecondAmendment Fundamentalism

And finally, a list of 13 logical fallacies commonly used as responses to calls for common sense gun control. Of course, that does presume that reason actually has a place in this discussion. Thirteen Failures of Reasoning in theGun Debate

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018

1 comment:

Sue Cline said...

Well stated and researched, as usual. I was waiting for your take on the issue, one we have often discussed, even the place of guns in schools (well actually colleges, as I recall).