Resolving gun violence with passionate polemics wont work


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.

8 thoughts on “Resolving gun violence with passionate polemics wont work

  1. Well said David. I always enjoy your posts. I completely agree that there are many angles to approach the problem. I don’t feel like I am very talented at reaching out to get to know someone new or building friendships. That might be something you could blog more about in the future, as anyone who knows you is aware that you are very gifted at reaching out and establishing sincere and respectful friendships with many different kinds of people.

    I would mention though that I am not totally persuaded that getting to know people leads to less violence. Othering is certainly a justification for violence, but most crimes, murders, and kidnappings are done by relatives. And marriages are not exactly the most peaceful situations (and can be volatile). I’ve written some about this in an essay you may remember (Falling on a Mission). I’d be interested to know your thoughts. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Josh. I agree that knowing someone else is not sufficient. But we can’t have compassion without first knowing, or at least recognizing sameness/sharedness.

      I’m seeing now that this line of thought is related to two of my earlier posts (Radical Education Reform and the Simplistic Sexuality one), that similarly deal with issues I see in rhetoric and where we turn to address problems.

      One more thought: I’m sure Brian could add something here about Levinas–maybe something about how it’s not about sameness–that we can’t in fact overcome otherness–but about how we respond in the face of the Other.

  2. In fact, that is one of the things that came to mind as I read your post. But Levinas’s position is not that the differences between others and ourselves is what creates the ethical demand on us: it is the Other, not the Other’s otherness that directly commands our ethical responsiveness. One’s identical twin would exert the same force as a person from another planet. Still, it is true that there are differences between any two people–that they are all Other to each other. Recognizing those differences cannot be wrong, nor can it be necessarily wrong to treat others differently on the basis of those differences (one of my points in my equality essay). What is wrong, I think, is the withholding of love on the basis of those differences (or any other basis that I can think of).

    1. Thanks, Brian. I should have linked to that earlier post–it fits nicely, I think. We can recognize difference and treat others differently on the basis of those differences, as you point out, and still “feel their pain.” Compassion (our loving response to the Other) not equality (elimination of otherness) should be our aim.

  3. “Resolving the violence in our society will not stem from passionate polemics, but from compassionate conversations.” I love this idea and I’ve seen its truth in some of my online conversations with those who hold different viewpoints. When I become frustrated with someone’s misunderstanding or faulty logic or mistaken priorities, I’ve lost sight of the person to be loved (if not agreed with).

    Also loved cacophonic. Yes.

    1. Thanks, Dia! And online conversations, especially mostly anonymous, comment-section ones, can be the worst for this. Something about how the impersonal environment allows for easier dehumanization.

  4. I think the line Dia pointed out might serve as a good title for the essay (maybe slightly shortened: Resolving violence in society will not stem from passionate polemics but compassionate conversations). I think this essay has potential to be an important and widely read piece. What if it was tweaked a little–mainly given a new title? I would re-post it on my Facebook wall. . . I think the title and picture right now aren’t drawing people in. Just a thought.

  5. How does one begin an invitation to “the other” about peacefully discussing ideas that you don’t agree on?

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