In which I show that I am perfectly capable of holding two seemingly contradictory ideas…
This post grew out of a dinnertime conversation about bullying, an on-line chat with a friend and former colleague and a personal struggle with my conscience about my own tipping point.
Last weekend, over dinner, some friends and I had a conversation about the laws surrounding bullying in schools. One of those friends is a fifth grade teacher, and one of them is a high school senior. I should say upfront that this conversation took place in Massachusetts and refers to Massachusetts state law, some links to which can be found here. In brief, the law now makes it a crime to defend yourself physically against bullying, even physical bullying: you may be set upon by one or more fellow students and cornered, but take one step towards them (even if that step is to try to break free of your attackers and run away) and you are considered equally culpable and a responsible party in the “fight”. “Self-defense” and “they started it” are no longer acceptable reasons for involvement. Similarly, bystanders may not intervene, even to pull one student off another – their sole contribution may be to call for a teacher. As someone whose only physical fight took place in kindergarten – and was in self-defense – I find this law troubling. On the one hand I completely relate to teachers and law-enforcement officers not wanting to be in the position of breaking up fights involving large numbers of students, but I worry about the lessons this law and laws like it are teaching. I fear that they are cementing ideas of victimhood and powerlessness, and I worry about the lessons children and adolescents are learning about right and wrong, respect (for others and the self) and the role of an active participant in society. Don’t we want to raise children who will stand up for the oppressed and bullied and face down their attackers, rather than saying, after the fact, “Well, officer, I saw them bludgeoning that poor boy but I figured there was nothing I could do”. Doesn’t that remind us of some historical examples that we’d all rather were never repeated? As will become abundantly clear later in this post, I am not in favor of violence. I have strong Quaker leanings when it comes to both non-violence and social justice and I would far, far rather that it never came to physical altercations, ever. I also wish that there were more enforcement of zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies early on. M has been bullied mercilessly all this year and much of last and the school’s response has been that the child doing the bullying is “having a tough time”. I know the child, I even like the child, and I agree that her situation is hellacious – but I don’t like the message being sent to any of the parties that having a tough time in your personal life give license to treat everyone around you like dirt. Sure, everyone has bad days when they snap and lash out at others, but usually one is expected to apologize for that, and not make a habit of it or use personal troubles as an excuse for repeated bad behavior. It took repeated parental involvement in this case to get the school to step in. My friend the fifth grade teacher told a story about a group of children who attacked others on the school bus – hit them, flipped them over. Their punishment? To sit in front near the driver where they could be watched. The incidents did not stop. My friend suggested that the children be given a warning and then be banned from the bus, but that was rejected because then it would be too difficult for the parents to get them to school. The outcome? The children who were attacked were pulled off the bus and their parents drove them to school. Again, what lesson is being learned here? That you’re not allowed to protect yourself, but that the people who say they will protect you aren’t going to do anything, either? That doesn’t make me feel safe as an adult, and as a child I would have been beyond confused.
So, now that I’ve written a piece that might be read as something that defends rights to self defense at all costs (including opposition to gun control), let me say that that reading couldn’t be further from the truth. Personally, I would like to live in a world with no guns whatsoever. They are things designed to maim or kill and I would like to see an international debate about them similar to the one about land mines. I never thought that I would live in a home with three guns (two antiques, one modern reproduction, the antiques are not capable of firing, the reproduction could be live-fired but there is no ammunition in the house), and let me tell you that this gives me pause every day.
In the aftermath of Newtown, social media has been flooded with posts, links, statuses and memes about the gun-control debate and possible gun-control legislation. Some of them have been vaguely interesting, like the definitions of “assault rifle” vs. “assault weapon” and some have been irritating, like the video that was making the rounds of British demonstrators admonishing the US not to “let them take our guns”. My issue with the video is that most US citizens do not know enough about British social history or the class system to understand the context of what is being said. I lived in the UK for seven years (2003-2010), traveled in many regions and met, lived and worked with many different kinds of people. The overwhelming feeling about fox hunting was that it is a cruel, out-dated upper-class sport that no longer has a place in modern Britain. And when the topic turned to gun control I was repeatedly asked why the US had such a fetish for gun ownership – a question for which I had no good answer once I’d explained that some people hunt for food, and some people live in places where it is completely possible to run into a bear when walking from one part of your property to another. I have also lived in Sweden, where many people hunt; and in Israel, which is a militarized society if there ever was one. And in none of these countries is the concept of gun ownership fetishized in the way it is in the US.
The shootings in Newtown caused a kneejerk reaction, certainly on social media. Apart from a relatively small minority calling for a period of mourning unmarred by political jockeying, the reaction on the left was to call for immediate gun control reform and the reaction on the right was to predict political maneuvering by the left to call for immediate gun control reform. There is even the hopefully marginalized “Newtown was a government hoax” movement, which I find so revolting that I cannot even begin to discuss it here.
What I have been seeing recently are posts by people who feel that their rights to own guns are being unfairly attacked. After all – they are not violent criminals, they are not mentally ill, and they want neither to be tainted by association nor to risk losing their second amendment rights.
I understand feeling personally attacked and perhaps misunderstood and voiceless in a debate raging in the media. Frankly, I feel that way every time I read or hear a report about how President Obama isn’t representative of Americans in terms of background and life experience, but that is the topic for another post. What I don’t understand, however, is the lack of self-examination.
The sentence at the root of it all is: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
At the time the second amendment was written, you were doing well if you could fire three rounds a minute. It would be stretching a point to argue that Jefferson was able to predict the future invention of weapons capable of firing 40-50 rounds a minute, to say nothing of a thousand. I am not a lawyer, nor a Constitutional scholar, and I am sure that every one of those 26 words has been parsed, interpreted and picked over, but with the specter of 20 dead kindergartners confronting our nation’s conscience I would say that this is the time for conversation about why, why we can’t have a civilized debate about this.
Now there seems to be some movement towards demonizing the mentally ill, demanding that we find some way of keeping guns away from “them”. First of all, I think the mentally ill in this country have enough to deal with without being stigmatized as potential mass murderers. Let’s talk about actual support and treatment instead of focusing on restrictions. Secondly, I think that people who wish to buy weapons should have the same psychological evaluations that armed peace officers have to undergo, as part of either the purchase or licensing process. Why not? Someone who is completely sane and has anger management issues – wouldn’t you rather that person learned to control their anger before they walked out of a store or gun show with a handgun or a rifle?
Ainsley Hayes, a Republican lawyer who ends up working for Democratic President Bartlett’s administration in television’s The West Wing, challenges Democratic senior staffers by saying “[…] you don’t like people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that […].” As I said earlier in this post, I would prefer to live in a world with no guns. I don’t like them. But I do know and like people who like guns, and I would like to go on knowing and liking them. If I am going to make the compromise that living in a world with guns is a fact of life, and not fight with everything I have to get them banned completely, however, I would like to suggest a compromise that could come from those who do not agree with me. Why is it a bad thing to require a wait-and-check period for gun and ammunition purchases? Under what situation is delayed gratification such a terrible thing? Why is it so unacceptable for there to be controls in place to make sure that someone about to buy something designed to kill or maim is not, in fact, so unbalanced as to go out and use that weapon to kill or maim? And is responsible enough to take precautions to secure something dangerous? If you are calm, cool under pressure, have a gun safe and trigger locks, keep your guns locked up and unloaded, with the ammunition separate, then you should have no problems. I’ve heard the arguments that other people can get access to properly licensed guns. I’ve heard the arguments that criminals have guns and you need them to protect your family. And I’ve heard the arguments that this is a Constitutional right and is therefore not open for discussion (since nothing about the Constitution has ever changed, which is why I still can’t vote and an African American is worth 3/5 of a white person. As I recall from history class those changes weren’t universally popular back in the day, either). Why is it so difficult to say “I know that this thing that I like and own is dangerous, and that you are made uncomfortable by it, so let’s talk about how we can both get some of what we want”. If we want to claim to be a free democracy we need to be able to talk about the hard questions. We need to be able to say “I see a little bit of what you are saying” and have someone with an opposing view respond in kind. If we cannot do this as citizens we have no right to complain about partisan politics.
* “Tipping Point” is a phrase coined by Malcolm Gladwell to express the idea that small things can have an impact on big issues. For more on this idea and the research that comes from it, please visit the Tipping Points project website at Durham University, UK.
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