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    « Christmas Gifts, 2012 | Main | The Great Fallacy: Part 1 »

    The Great Fallacy: Part 2

    "Respect your fellow human being, treat them fairly, disagree with them honestly, enjoy their friendship, explore your thoughts about one another candidly, work together for a common goal and help one another achieve it. No destructive lies. No ridiculous fears. No debilitating anger."

    --Senator Bill Bradley

    I was going to write about something different today. The fiscal cliff, maybe, and those Sisyphean talks that keep rolling up the Hill only to roll back down again. Or perhaps something about The Hobbit, and how I don’t see why I should have to watch an eight-hour movie spread over three Decembers just to revisit an old childhood memory. Something simpler, something less…dangerous. But Newtown still haunts. Newtown and its guns.

    Before the conversation fades away, we owe it to ourselves to realize that we will be unable to achieve any change if we don’t first recognize that the discussions we’re having are bathed in disrespect. We’ve lost the willingness to hear, trading reality for ideology in order to win arguments and to feel better about ourselves when we do. We’ve absolved ourselves of responsibility while remaining mired in stubborn stasis. This is no way to live, and no way to force others to live.

    And we are afraid….

    We’ve fallen into the habit of discounting, out of hand, the feelings of others. Earlier this week, my Middle Ground co-host, Eric Byler, and I devoted an extended show exclusively to a discussion of gun issues in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. We were fortunate to have callers from various backgrounds, people willing to forego hyperbole for a time and explain their positions coherently and informatively.

    One of the callers, Tim, lives in North Carolina and owns several weapons, including an AR-15 (essentially an M-16 modified for civilian use, and the type of weapon used at the Newtown school). He explained how he stores it, and admits, quite readily, that the weapon will not serve him in the event an intruder breaks into his home. It would simply take too much time to unlock the gun cabinet, then get the ammunition (which he stores separately), load the gun, and take action. However, he says, he has a handgun for that kind of defense (also properly stored), and keeps the AR-15 for a different reason. “[Newtown] has really made me question my values,” Tim told us:

    [But] the world we live in is an imperfect world, unfortunately…I felt it would be naïve of me to believe that our world could not change in a rapid manner, say if there was some sort of energy shock, or a financial collapse where, say the food supply was cut off. I’m not…a prepper or survivalist, but just that one-in-one-billion chance that something like that might happen and people were to get desperate, I felt I would be doing myself and my loved ones a disservice by not being able to protect them and myself.

    Later in the show we heard from another caller, a self-proclaimed Tea Party member from Texas, who echoed Tim’s sentiments.

    Neither caller raised their voice, nor did they become stubbornly insistent that I accept their points of view. Still, in both cases my instinct was to fight back against the argument, to declare it invalid. (On the internet—where this particular “one-in-a-billion chance” argument is not at all uncommon, the responses are often dismissive, if not categorically rude.) I held back, though, and listened to what they had to say.

    It was during another segment of the show, though, that I realized how easy it is to act dismissively and disrespectfully--because I did it myself, this time failing to hold back…

    An argument that has surfaced repeatedly since the tragedy is that the shooting would not have occurred if only the teachers had been armed. Teachers wielding weapons, some say, would make any perpetrator think twice before choosing schoolchildren as a target. Responses to this idea are often harsh, like this one from a post on MediaMatters:

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. If a gunman goes on a rampage in a hospital tomorrow, are we going to require doctors and nurses be armed at all times? If there is a rampage at a concert, will musicians be required to drop their guitars and pull their glocks out of their spandex and bustiers?

    When the subject came up on our show (not as a proposal, but as an example of a common gun rights argument), my response was similar. “There are certain conversations that I just refuse to engage in,” I told my guest:

    Engaging in a conversation about why it’s not a good idea to arm teachers is a dead end. It’s just NOT, [for] the same reasons that we don’t manufacture meth in high school chemistry labs. It’s because it’s stupid, because it makes no sense…Arming teachers is… just… it’s Bizarro world….

    The kind of divisiveness, the kind of rudeness that I engaged in is wrong for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was uncivil. But more importantly, my response was dehumanizing. It assumed that the people who claim such views don’t have the same goal that I do—the desire to keep our children safe. By my out-of-hand dismissal, my refusal to even attempt understanding, I eliminate the responsibility I have to acknowledge that we all share a similar fear and a similar purpose, and that it is our answers that differ and not our concerns. Not allowing someone to address the question just because I don’t like their answer is wrong.

    I said earlier that we are afraid, and it’s true, perhaps truer than it has ever been. We don’t trust our government to protect us—we’re not even sure that it any longer has the ability to perform its basic functions at all—and our imaginations are stoked every day by media and punditry that benefits when our emotions are engaged. That fear is inexorably boxing us into our own little corners where we sit with our arguments and our opinions and our decisions—along with an unfair readiness to belittle the arguments and opinions and decisions of others.

    Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “[t]he best thing to give to your enemy is forgiveness; to an opponent, tolerance; to a friend, your heart; to your child, a good example…to all men, charity.” His words ring a simple truth, one we forget in our fervor to fix what is broken, to scream at injustice. We shouldn’t lose the desire to fix, nor necessarily dampen the scream. And we don’t have to agree—certainly we often won’t. But the only way forward is to listen, and to respect the fact that we all want similar outcomes. There is a great fallacy in believing that “we” are right and logical and smart, and that “they” are not. There is an even greater fallacy in believing that we don’t all share common concerns, concerns about our children and our schools, about our freedom and our rights, about our future and our safety. The vast majority of us do care, and we should express that care with respect even when our opinions differ strongly.

    [Photo originally from the Los Angeles Times]

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    Reader Comments (1)

    I think you're being too hard on yourself. I listened to your show that night. For what it's worth, I didn't think you were rude. Quite the contrary, I thought you were exceptionally civil.

    Is it just me, or have we already arrived at a point where thoughtful, rational, and intelligent people simply can't dismiss wrong and bad ideas outright and immediately?

    Making meth in high school chemistry class is a good example of an idea that ought to be dismissed outright and immediately. It's a stupid, bad, and wrong-headed idea.

    Arming teachers is another one.

    I think we'd all agree that there are lots and lots of reasons why our national discourse has so often been reduced to mostly shouting from opposite ends of the spectrum. We're all painfully aware of the presumed need to fill up the 24-hour news cycles in order to collect advertising revenues. We all know that we can Google absolutely anything and find plenty of sites to support any claim or position.

    And who could have dreamed that, in the 21st century and in the most advanced civilization to have ever lived, we would be electing and re-electing politicians who not only believe in Creationism and want it taught in science classes but who also deny climate science and want to apply ancient social norms selectively in order to discriminate against certain types of their fellow citizens?

    The list goes on. Is it any wonder there's so much shouting and rudeness and divisiveness? No, it's not, and I have a theory about how it happened and how to stop it.

    We have opened the door for extremists to usurp every important discussion of our times. We only have ourselves to blame. We allow that to happen, IMHO, when we're too willing to treat every and any opinion, view, and idea with equal attention and merit. In my (not so) humble opinion, we've been reduced to hyperbole and shouting because the rational among us - and I graciously count myself among the so much more calm and rational people like you and Eric - have made the mistake of letting just a little too much crazy into the discussion.

    We seem, in varying degrees, to have rolled over on the notion that there are always two sides to an issue. While I'll stipulate that that's probably a "technically" true statement, sometimes the ideas on the other side are just plain bad. Why can't we just that and move past them toward real solutions?

    Believe me, I'm not against giving competing ideas attention and consideration. I'm not so rigid that I can't and haven't been convinced to change my mind. What isn't necessary is giving *every* side and *every* idea equal time, an equal voice, and equal merit. I would not, for example, be willing to hear out a segregationist no matter what. Likewise, I have absolutely no room at the table to include the Fred Phelpses of the world in any sort of conversation whatsoever.

    I would never dream of taking away their First Amendment rights. The speech that requires the most protection is always the speech we find to be the most offensive or disturbing. But, just because they have that right doesn't mean they're worth any time, attention, or consideration. To do so only serves to make getting past the extremely bad ideas and finding real solutions harder.

    Arming teachers is an extremely bad idea. It is the kind of idea worthy only of disdain and outright dismissal. It's only a good idea if we're willing to buy the NRA's latest extremist position about the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun.

    The NRA won't be happy until every man, woman, and child is armed. What better way to accomplish that then to have kids as young as 5 or 6 seeing one of the most influential people in their early development carrying a firearm every school the classroom, in the school cafeteria, on the playground. Hell, why not at the grocery store, the hospital, the theater? Why not everywhere? We never know when and where a bad guy with a gun might suddenly appear.

    I can name every teacher I had in elementary school. I'll bet that you can, too. I can talk at length about the influence each of them had on me. Having read your work, I'm quite sure the same is true for you. What I can't bear the thought of is a generation of children who are already living in a society as violent as ours growing up in a world where they just take for granted that being armed is as natural as going to school, playing on the playground, or visiting a sick loved one in a hospital.

    Nor can I bring myself to attach any merit to the notion that the answer to our gun violence problem is more people with more guns.

    So let me say it as I'm pretty sure that you're too kind to ever say something like this.

    Arming teachers is stupid. Period. End of discussion.

    If that's the idea someone wants to bring to the table, then they simply ought not to be invited to a seat at the table. They can wait outside with the climate science deniers, Creationists, and the members of Westboro Baptist Church.

    December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Russak

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