Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Brad Has Some Good Points

I was going to post this in the comments section, but then it, well, got too long. If you haven't seen the comments that my friend Brad Hoehne left, you should check them out. My response:
[ Brad writes: ] I've just finished scanning the BBC website's coverage of this tragedy, and can't find anything that would merit a sarcastic jab. It seems pretty neutral to me.
Oh, the BBC story wasn't what I was jabbing at at all (by being sarcastic). I thought it was a pretty level delivery of news. I suppose I was just foreseeing a knee-jerk anti-gun reaction to the news that this kid had gotten the firearm from his (cop) grandfather when I said "I guess that means that cops shouldn't have handguns."
It is a debatable point whether or not guns lead to increased or more deadly violence in our culture- and perhaps there's a taint of that that in the overall coverage (I'm uncertain, but the fact that Candada has more guns per capita and less gun deaths would imply that it is not guns, but something else, that is at the heart of the problem.)
I agree with you. I think that it is too simplistic to say that having a large number of guns automatically means having more violence, and that having fewer guns automatically means less violence. I believe that cultural values have a LOT to do with it: look at Switzerland, which high levels of gun ownership and low levels of crime, and look at Japan, with low levels of gun ownership and low levels of crime. Or Britain, with low levels of gun ownership and high levels of crime. There is much, much, much more going on here than a simple guns = violence equation.

I think it's even more difficult, in the US, to talk about culture and cultural values, because we aren't just one culture. This isn't going to come out very well, I warn you in advance -- the best I can do is refer you to Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age", in which he talks about culture as "shared set of values", which doesn't necessarily have to do with racial or ethnic or historical backgrounds. It's a much broader interpretation of the term "culture" than we usually use. In "Diamond Age", world governments have fractured into franchised "countries", and there are several very powerful political entities known as "phyles" which are based on shared values (and sometimes, but not necessarily) there's an ethnic component. For example, "New Atlantis" is a tech-savvy group which takes its values (and fashion sense, and decor, etc) from Victorian-era England.

The reason why I bring this up is because I -- woefully uneducated in social sciences, mind you, so I am no kind of expert -- could easily point to several different "cultures" in the US who have different definitions of "success", both personal and cultural, and acceptance of the means to same, and opinions regarding the use of violence and the need for laws. There is an inner-city culture, not limited to race or gender, that values the acclimation of stuff ("bling") above all else. You are not successful unless you have snow-white shoes, a fabulously expensive car, and enough gold to ruin an economy hanging around your neck, as well as a large group of hangers-on. And it's perfectly okay to steal, sell drugs, or otherwise break the law to be successful, as long as you're not caught (and even if you're caught, that too is a status symbol). Violence is acceptable, because it shows you're a tough badass, and everyone NEEDS to know what an absolute badass you are. There is the culture of my parents, which is middle-class college-professor-type culture, which holds that personal success is very important, but that it isn't necessarily tied to having a large amount of stuff and/or money (although that certainly would be nice); breaking the law is not acceptable here (the rule is: be successful within the framework), and it would RUIN one's career to be caught breaking the law. Adherence to violence or value of material goods isn't related to the amount of money you have, either; there are several "cultures" (to use the word loosely) which values earning your own way, within the law, no matter what (the first thing that springs to mind are certain hardscrabble Appalacian cultures who are poor, but self-reliant and proud).

Anyway, my ultimate point is this: violence against persons, and the willingness to commit same, is a factor of cultural, personal, and family values towards these questions

  1. how much does that culture, person, and/or family value the life of another human being?
  2. What is the relative worth of that value as compared to the value of success?
Guns make the application of these values much, much easier in every way: if you do not value human life and view violence as an acceptable way to gain and show success, then guns make it much easier to be successful. Alternately and even more importantly, I think, that if you value life and believe that a measure of success is the ability to defend life and deter violence, guns make it much easier too. Which is why I think that cops should NEVER be without guns, nor law-abiding citizens, either.

For what it's worth (not that you suggested this, 'cause you didn't), but I'm not sure it's useful to use a case such as the Red Lake case to determine widespread firearms policy (it just seems that a clarion call goes up every time something like this happens, and I agree with you: it seems odd, though I am thankful for that, that it doesn't happen more). Anyway, as the news stories come out, it becomes much more evident how very troubled this young man was, and the rather extraordinary circumstances he was in. Not completely uncommon, but unusual: it would not be beneficial, I think, to create policy regarding guns around him. I recall reading a news article (sadly, I don't remember where) about other cases where similar rampages were planned, but stopped, because students knew about it and spoke up. The point of the article was that in every single incident like Columbine and Red Lake, someone -- usually multiple someones -- knew that it was going to happen, and didn't speak up for various reasons: fear of being "a snitch", or fear of getting too involved in a student's home life, for example. The article supports what many teachers in the articles suggested: that it is more important to change the school's cultural values that discourage people from speaking up and getting involved than it is to come up with more bandaid measures such as banning guns. Treat the cause, they say, not the symptom, and I think that's a good idea.

My take is that well known movies describing similar events (like "if..." or "The Basketball Diaries") didn't evince a similar response because they weren't real. A real event, taken seriously by the media, and drilled into kids heads by our culture, has far more import.
I think that this is a very interesting, and very good point. These events are real, are taken very seriously, and get an incredible amount of attention. Just the panacea for a kid who can't get the attention he feels he deserves otherwise.