"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]