Monday, January 17, 2011


I was recently in a conversation with someone about the problems of the world. Even though we both care very much about the problems of the world, and were looking for real solutions, the conversation did not connect. I tried to stay focused on the problems themselves, but the person I was talking with kept attacking me. I kept trying to find common ground, but the person I was talking with kept trying to exaggerate every difference into good vs. evil, with my position being characterized as representing the "evil" side. It was only later, when I had a chance to reflect on the conversation, that I fully grasped that this was the dynamic that made the conversation so frustrating.

Once I realized this, I was genuinely puzzled. First of all, why blame me for all the problems of the world? I am nobody. I have no real power. Secondly, I care about solving problems. I devote my life to teaching and writing about philosophy and peace, and, on the side, I try to create beautiful music to uplift people's souls. Why blame someone who is trying to live in a good way? Even if I am not very successful at addressing problems or even uplifting people's spirits, the worst that one can say about me is that I try in a pathetic sort of way and fall well short of my idealistic vision. But I don't do any damage. Rather than being a grave source of danger in the world, in truth I'm pretty harmless.

So, why was this person attacking me?

I realized that this person was highly influenced by much of today's media, especially certain well-known talk-show personalities. Their style is exactly this: to draw sharp enemy lines and attack. Fellow Americans who disagree with them are characterized as dangerous, even evil. I have trouble grasping what they think is gained by such an approach.

When the shootings of January 8 transpired, I, like the rest of the country, was horrified. But in the days that followed, I was glad to see that part of the response was to question the tone of political discourse in our country today. I welcomed the calls to civility, even though I knew it was unrealistic to think that things would change that easily.

What I would like to do to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is reflect on some of what I have heard in the ensuing discussions of civility and violence.

In particular, there are two strange objections to the call to civility that I have heard a lot that I wish to respond to. A third point I wish to respond to has to do with gun laws. While this third point seems to shift from questions concerning verbal violence to questions related to physical violence, it is still a point about communication, and represents a strategy that stifles conversation instead of facilitating it.

Three Strange Objections to the Call to Engage More Productively in Debates

Objection 1. Criticizing language use is a threat to the right of free speech.

My response: No, criticizing uncivil language is to question why people wish to use the right to free speech in this way. It is to ask: what is the aim of hateful speech, and does it accomplish that aim?

If the aim is cathartic venting, then maybe it accomplishes this aim, but probably only temporarily.

Isn't the deeper aim some kind of real improvement? Isn't it that we want to solve real problems in the world? If so, then it is highly questionable that hateful language ever actually accomplishes improvement. Instead, it draws and reinforces enemy lines, which tends to exacerbate (rather than resolve) conflict.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that," and also: "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."

Objection 2: Those who blame those who use hateful language are just as hateful.

My response: There is an important distinction to be made between language that attacks the being of a person or a group (either by wishing them dead or eliminated, or by casting them as irredeemably evil), and language that criticizes specific actions as being either morally wrong, or pragmatically not likely to achieve their intended effects.

The latter: the questioning or criticizing of actions, constitutes the critical inquiry that is crucially important to a well-functioning society, and is why we value the right to free speech.

It is only the former -- attacks on people or groups of people -- that can be called "hateful." I doubt that it ever accomplishes anything good.

Objection 3. Because people are mourning, this is not the appropriate time to discuss gun laws.

My response: That's like saying when someone dies from cancer, "because people are mourning, this is not the appropriate time to talk about the urgency of finding a cure for cancer."

But if not now, when? Some mythical time in the future when everything is going swimmingly well? Some unbelievable time in the future when people lovingly treasure their guns for their aesthetic beauty and for the fun of shooting at tin cans, and no one ever shoots other people with them (even accidentally), and no one is still alive who has ever suffered the effects of gun violence? Then finally it is appropriate for people to "objectively" decide whether it is appropriate for ordinary people to have their own assault weapons? And until then -- during this time when people do in fact kill other people with guns -- it is "inappropriate" to bring up the question, and the default should be to just let people have their guns? Why? Do we really think that gun owners' fears and insecurities (and gun manufacturers' desire to make money selling guns) are more important that gun victims' desire for safety?

Related: I am increasingly amazed at the mythology of guns. While the reality of the situation of January 8 was that (a) the gunman failed to kill his main target (even after succeeding in shooting her through the head), and (b) the gunman was taken down by unarmed civilians, we still hear people surmising that the whole incident could somehow have been prevented if only more ordinary people happened to have assault weapons handy!

I think it is highly unrealistic to assume that there was time for a person to identify what was going on, pull out a gun, and manage to kill just the person responsible (without accidentally hitting innocent bystanders) before the first gunman had managed to kill all six of his victims. I've seen estimates that it probably only took 6-10 seconds for him to shoot that first round. But, even if a second gun-wielder managed to shoot only the first, now imagine how this looks to everyone else: there are two gunmen shooting. In the chaos and confusion of the moment, is it realistic to assume that people can tell who is the "good" gunman and who is the "bad" gunman? Now imagine even more people with guns, all increasingly confused! I cannot believe that a situation of several gun-wielders shooting at each other in a panicking crowd would have been "safer" and would have resulted in fewer deaths!

But my main point here is that incidents like this should inform our discussions of gun laws. We need to consider the actual data of how guns are used. We need to take into account the fact that the United States has one of the highest rates of per capita gun murders in the world. This is relevant information that should inform our discussions. The claim that it is "inappropriate" to talk about this now is a rhetorical strategy intended to stop conversation at a time when gun-rights proponents are (rightly) worried that this latest incident raises important questions about the wisdom of our current laws.

Lessons for MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr., had a vision of not only racial equality and justice, but a wider vision too of economic justice and of people respecting each other across all lines of difference. He had a methodology of bringing this vision to reality by engaging the power of love -- a power superior to hatred and violence. He could see that hatred only creates enemy lines, which foster resentment and inspire violence. He could see that violence creates more problems than it ever solves. If we are serious about addressing problems and creating a better world, we cannot indulge in the temporary catharsis of hatred and violence while hiding in the illusion of safety created by walls and guns. That does not really solve the problems. It does not really keep us safe.

To solve problems, we must do the hard work of building bridges, crossing those bridges, and genuinely meeting those who are different from us. To solve problems, we must engage in the intellectually and emotionally demanding work of trying to understand issues and situations from multiple points of view. To solve problems, we must be willing to admit we might be wrong. But we also must be willing to stand up for what we believe is right. We must be willing to admit that others may be right. But we also must have the courage to respectfully call others out when we feel they are wrong.

Above all, we must listen, in an unending search for common ground, using that as the foundation from which to build new solutions -- new and better ways to live together and work together. Above all, we must look for the best in each other, and try to draw that out, and give it strength, for that is the material out of which we build a truly just world.

Happy MLK Day, everyone!

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