I am sobered and frustrated by the news of recent shootings, and headlines cacophonic to the carols we sing at this time of year. And although I believe there are conversations to be had about gun control, I am also frustrated with the rhetoric from both sides of the debate because they so often employ alienation. Arguments laced with othering terms like “stupid liberals” and “clueless conservatives” may seem benign, but perpetuate the alienation that is epidemic in our politics and communities, which fertilizes seeds of hatred that eventually sprout in blossoms of bullets.
“Alienation” derives from a Latin word that means “to make other.” When you feel alienated, you feel separate, apart, and different. When you alienate someone, you act as though they are fundamentally dissimilar to you—inhuman and unknowable. (There are obviously degrees of alienation, but each level ultimately leads here.) Alienation precedes and undergirds hatred and violence: the perpetrator feels alienated by and/or alienates others—usually both; they are almost always bedfellows. For all but the most sociopathic, we cannot hate people like ourselves. We do not act in violence toward our similars. This seems innately human, and is manifest in our universal disgust for patricide, intrafamilial child abuse, and treason, which seem somehow more evil than other forms of violence and betrayal. These crimes are so appalling because the perpetrator acts toward his family and fellow citizens as one can only possibly justify acting toward distant others. But even in these cases, I believe the perpetrators convince themselves of their victims’ otherness. And alienation is fertile ground for bitter herbs and strange fruit. When we employ alienation in our rhetoric against gun violence, we perpetuate the very thing we mean to undo.
“Compassion” derives from a Latin word that means “to suffer with.” When we are truly compassionate toward others, we know them, can take their perspective, and understand them well enough to “feel their pain.” Resolving the violence in our society will not stem from passionate polemics, but from compassionate conversations. The root of the problem is social alienation, not public policy. (This is not to say that the policy should not be addressed, but we should not grant it primacy.)
So, in response to yet another tragic shooting, I commit to do the following—and I invite all readers to join me: Before entering any argument about gun control, I will connect with someone who is distant from me. That distance can be literal or figurative—physical, political, ideological, religious, socioeconomic, cultural, etc. This may include eating lunch with a homeless man, calling to talk with an estranged family member, attending church with a friend of another religion, or sending a kind email to a coworker with annoyingly different political perspectives. As a society, we must bridge the distances that separate us. Ironically, the more we feel each other’s pain, the less violence there will be.