16 January 2013

Guns, Schools & Violence, Part 7; Miss America Weighs In

Miss America pageant contestants are asked their views on the issues of the day.  Why?  Beats me.

At the pageant last weekend, the ultimate winner was asked her considered opinion about placing armed guards in schools. 

She replied, “I don’t think the way to fight violence is with violence.”

That’s the starting point for this discussion. This is not going to be a polemic or even criticism of Miss America. That particular winner is skilled and successful in a highly competitive environment which I barely understand and do not appreciate in the slightest. Fortunately, she does not require either my understanding or appreciation. She has taken innate gifts and worked very hard to develop them to meet the requirements of that competition.  Political/social thought isn’t on that list.

Beauty contestants have the right to have opinions just like all the other citizens. They have no necessary relevant skill. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if there is a shred of fairness in throwing out political pitches in a beauty pageant. I don’t know if some sponsor has some predetermined opinion or if it’s just the trendy thing to do. If the former, expecting some public opinion bump based on the opinion of a beauty contestant  is a bit silly.

This idea is out there, however, and has some legs: “Violence is not the way to fight violence.” 

So let’s go there. There are several important points to look at.

First and foremost, there is only one short and sweet truism in guiding public policy. Here it is: There are no generally applicable and dependable truisms. Everything, everything requires context, everything has conditions, limitations and exceptions.  Fact patterns are too complicated to develop hard rules.  Cute, pithy sayings have long been the least reliable basis of public policy yet the most common refuge of the intellectually lazy.

I’m remembering a history professor at Fairmont State College in the early 1970s. This guy was strongly opposed to the American presence in Vietnam and for that matter the American military generally. And so, he pronounced that “History proves that aggressors always lose.” The assumption, of course, was at the United States was the “aggressor.”. In doing so, this guy mistook an old tactical doctrine which technology had rendered partly obsolete and spun out absolute strategic blather. The reason? We all want the quick and easy way to prove that we’re right about what we already believe.

And I won’t leave the detour without a nod to the late Pete Zivkovic - not the stunt driver, the poet - He was my professor and was the first one to goad me into disagreeing loudly with HIM.  Accepting dishwater as champagne is stupid.  I can hear him now:  "Freshmen.  Hmph.  No guts."  Boy, I miss Pete.

The inboxes and the blogosphere are full of cute, quick & pointed posts going out to “the faithful” to prove what “the faithful” already believe. That’s the point of sending out trivial, thoughtless bullshit.

And yet no public policy discussion worthy of the name is short or easy. Nor is a responsible policy discussion a race to seize emotional ownership of everyone’s pain to support The One True Answer.

Emotional content of the guns in school shooting rage is overpowering. On Wednesday, the president announced his congressional aims and executive actions (mostly letterwriting) against firearms. He did so with a background audience of schoolchildren who had written him letters. How insufferably cutesy and intolerably irrelevant. Everyone wants a piece of the grief so that so that they can shortcut reason or discussion.  Emotion proves, doesn’t it, that  we must act and that mere reason or mere discussion is intolerable?

Let’s test “Violence is not the way to fight violence.” In short, it’s sweet, and sometimes it’s true. Indeed, there are instances where that particular approach has worked.

A couple of nights ago, I did something rare for me, watched a movie – the 1982 flick, Gandhi. We credit, accurately I think, a strong policy of nonviolent noncooperation with breaking the British colonial hold on India.

Therefore, nonviolence works. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Well, actually, no.

Specifically, nonviolence as actually applied under all the conditions which existed as to British colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent led to the result of the British leaving. We do not have data reference what any alternate method would have accomplished and when it would have done so. In that instance, under those circumstances, nonviolence worked well. That’s what we can say.

In that instance, the nonviolent noncooperation was sufficiently accepted by enough of the population (and sufficiently ignored by most of the rest) to work against a Western-style government. 

It seems important to note that governments almost always want to do the effective, expedient thing and almost always want to believe that they’re doing the moral and ethical thing. Of course, opinions differ on whether they are actually moral and ethical. Moreover, governments act collectively, if slowly. The “slowly” part was significant in the Indian situation. It took several decades of the nonviolent approach to terminate the Raj.

So, does this lead to a conclusion that “Violence is not the way to fight violence” is a truism which will be effectively applied to the orgy of interpersonal violence? As an absolute predictor, hell no.

Beyond that, we have to apply reason and reasonable people differ. I’m thinking that adopting nonviolence as a response to greater personal violence has some problems.

There is evil in the world in the person of those who do violence. They do so sometimes for logical (if selfish) reasons – for example, a robbery. They may do so for irrational or just poison-mean reasons  – such as school/theater/drive-by/whatever events.

I think it is evident that the persons who use unprovoked violence against others have little compunction in doing so. Moreover, they tend to use weapons and other methods of overwhelming violence rather than risk “a fair fight.”  That is logical in its own way because that reduces risks to themselves.

Broadly, what can our responses to violence be?

We can decline to resist and hope for the best. I’m not familiar with a lot of historical examples where genuinely evil people have suddenly experienced remorse or some collective attack of conscience and thereby turned away from violence.  Jesus may have said to turn the other cheek, but people who do get their asses beat a lot.

We can adopt a defensive posture, locks, avoidance, fortifications and so forth. Inasmuch as avoiding violence wherever possible is wise (and indeed is strongly taught in concealed weapon permit courses) maintaining a defensive posture is a good idea. There are those, however, who are not deterred by barriers and who “keep coming.”. 

Finally, on this very broad scale, we can respond to violence with violence. We know that can be immediately effective. Evil people have selected force because they believe in it. They believe that force will be effective to gain whatever rational or irrational ends they may have. They believe that others will give in or simply be defeated, and then the evil people attain whatever and start looking for.

Using force (violence) against wrongdoers first and foremost is believable. They have already decided that it works. So in some instances, the expressed willingness coupled with a demonstrated ability to respond with force deters the violence. This is not well documented at least in part because fights avoided don’t make the news and largely don’t get reported. If the threat of force doesn’t work, sufficient violence directly to those who start violence can end the threat and safeguard those who have been acting lawfully.

And so, in some circumstances, violence is the most effective cure for violence and all in all a great idea.

However, if we try to disguise “good” violence as being something friendly and benign, we are not only shallow and confused, we are lying. 

Violence is not friendly, no matter who does it. Violence causes harm. We make a value judgment as to whether the harm or the risk of harm is doing some good which justifies it.

A couple of weeks ago, a couple of nitwits in Portland, Oregon, took their AR-15 pattern rifles and took a walk around town. Those are black “military style” rifles and they were carrying them quite legally. The point they were saying they were trying to make was that nice guys do carry guns and that doing so is legal, safe and “normal.”

Here, too, we have people doing something quick and dirty which I think makes a point. Okay, they think it makes a good point, rather than accurately making the point that they are shallow and arrogant.

Rifles are not normal. Rifles are not safe. Neither are handguns. Neither are knives, clubs, or any other weapons. Weapons were intended to cause harm to people. They are not friendly and fuzzy things. I approve of weapons because there are lots and lots of people out there who are willing to break their covenant with their fellow citizens and harm them. But if we start looking at weapons is something other than dangerous and deadly things, we are every bit as unrealistic as a citizen who expects the police to appear out of midair when something bad happens.

Violence is unpleasant. Violent injury is a terrible thing to see. It is not to be sought and it is not to be glorified. 

Sometimes, however, violence works when other things don’t.

1 comment:

Joshua Patty said...


Thanks for your careful thinking through this -- much more helpful than the dreck that passes for "discussion" right now. And thank you for properly contextualizing Gandhi's non-violence, which is too often mistakenly elevated as the solution by people who fail to appreciate the unique reasons for its effectiveness. (Of course, I probably have too many Machiavellian instincts to ever take pacifism as seriously as I should.)