Anti-vaxxers. Climate change denial. GMO-crusaders. Anti-intellectualism. Widening income inequality. Open-carry activism. Religious extremism. Extremism in all forms, full stop. All of these movements have a common thread that profoundly puzzles me.
What could possibly unite these disparate notions, you wonder? I’ll tell you. We seem hell-bent on flirting with disaster. It’s as-if, as part of our biological make-up, we are drawn to stick our hands in the fire. With the recent measles outbreak, I have this sensation of stumbling upon a medieval time warp. Why yes, we ARE experiencing a disease outbreak that is entirely preventable via a safe, cost effective and readily accessible medical procedure (i.e. a shot), and has been almost non-existent for decades. And yes, people (moms, even!) are CHOOSING to put their own children and others in danger, based on belief rather than evidence.
I am baffled by this rejection of science. For almost all of recorded history, humans have been incredibly aware of and dedicated to understanding and advancing our understanding and connection to the natural world. And of course, many (probably the vast majority) still are. And yet there is this vocal and influential minority. It is a virulent strain within our population and the unifying theme seems to be a need to to find grand conspiracy in progress.
To my mind, progress, by definition, is a good thing. One can certainly narrowly define progress as forward movement toward achieving a goal, irrespective of whether the goal is good or bad, but to me- progress is a fundamentally positive concept. That’s not to say it isn’t without change or a destructive side. And perhaps that’s what the most ancient part of our brains react to.
Humans have evolved to be thinkers and planners. We have become increasingly focused on the long game. We consciously plan for the future and although we have been doing this for thousands of years now, the time horizon that we plan for has significantly lengthened through the combination of the written word, technological advancements, and the lengthening of our own lifespans. If you are anything like me, you have plans that extend out 10, 20, maybe even 40 or 50 years. Of course, Egyptian Pharaohs elevated planning for the long term to a never-again equaled way with the construction of the pyramids. I digress…..
And yet, there remains a part of our brains that is very focused on the present, the now, the uncovering of imminent threat. We are wired to be on the lookout for our own destruction and as the real sources of imminent threat are reduced, our brains are left sifting through what flows down our neural pathways for something to grasp on to.
Turns out the danger-o-meter in our brains just wants something to do. It wants to be useful. There is part of our brain that is a loyal guard dog, no longer useful in it’s present incarnation, but desperate to serve and protect. We still need our kidneys, livers, and lungs, but the part of our brain that kept us safe from immediate harm for so long… well, it’s going the way of the appendix. Progress is doing its thing- slowly, deliberately, destroying the imminent threats in our lives.
As a lover and student of history, I am constantly reading and thinking about events, patterns, cultures, leaders, and the shape that progress has taken through the centuries. As magnificent as our progress has been, and make no mistake- there is no time in the history of the world you’d rather be living in than RIGHT NOW, it is littered with absolutely hideous and atrocious events- on both the small and large scale. We can talk for days about genocides, epidemics, wars, and plagues, which have claimed millions and millions of lives, but there are an equal number of smaller tragedies that seem to sprout from our inability to manage the part of our brains that seeks to identify and respond to danger.
Since the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012, we’ve had 102 school shootings, eight since the start of 2015. It’s the beginning of February, people. How is that even possible? Mass shootings are an entirely (or nearly entirely) preventable event and yet, we’ve done essentially nothing to stem this tide. Instead of rallying to stop these tragedies from happening, through a wide variety of measures- common sense gun laws being only a part of the answer, we’ve somehow appeared to actually bolster and grow a movement that runs directly counter to the idea of making our communities, children, and world safer. High powered, high volume weapons in the hands of every person! Huzzah! Seriously, there is no way that this doesn’t stand in direct and flagrant opposition to common sense and safety.
But humanity needs a foil, a boogey-man to respond to. Right now, the lack of imminent and unifying danger has us running in all directions to seek and destroy *something* to protect ourselves. Global climate change, harbinger of mass extinction, just isn’t immediate or sexy enough to satisfy this part of our brains. We need to see our enemies. We want to slay dragons. This observation isn’t new, of course, but I do have this sense of the collective pressure building for us to have a worldwide crisis to galvanize us. You know what we need? We need an alien invasion. Or godzilla. Or a massive disease outbreak…. oh, wait.
So, how do we combat this tendency within ourselves and our communities? I wish there was an easy answer… and I actually think part of the answer IS easy, though as the business world knows- great ideas are a dime a dozen but good execution makes or breaks you. The most effective inoculation against this disease is to vigorously combat ignorance. If there is one single boogey-man out there that we need to go after, it is ignorance. I would posit that ignorance is as fundamentally bad as progress is good. One of the many by-products of ignorance is destruction. But unlike progress, which has a positive gravitational force, the destruction caused by ignorance pulls us backwards, pulls us downward, pulls us towards chaos. Destruction for destruction’s sake.
Ignorance fuels fear, intolerance, and violence. The primeval part of our brain rejoices when it can be so heavily utilized- for when ignorance reigns, it is in constant use. And I think there is a certain euphoria or “high” that comes from that. It’s why many people in the military or from war zones have trouble transitioning to a more pedestrian life. It’s why some people’s lives seem to be in constant self-generated chaos. It’s why thrill-seeking sports and activities exist. There is a powerful allure to use that part of our brains.
Luckily, combating ignorance also offers a certain euphoria- though perhaps not as intense, it is longer lasting. Learning, cultivating a sense of history, scientific discovery, plain-old curiosity, and the humble pursuit of wisdom- all of these activities are powerful, positive creative forces that we must value and dare I say, venerate, within our society as beacons that lead us away from ignorance.
Even though we seem unable to entirely escape our tendency to flirt with disaster, we do continue to make forward progress. Ignorance rears its ugly head on an all-too-frequent basis, but recognition of it is the most important first step. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, ignorance in any name, in any form, must be rooted out and prevented from spreading.
Thanks for reading! I love it when you join the conversation! Please share and discuss.
I was in my favorite place on earth, Winthrop, WA, a few weeks back to celebrate the 4th of July. Winthrop is charming, rustic, Western-themed town that today continues the tradition of being a hub for ranchers and farmers, and importantly has transitioned into a tourist destination for those seeking active getaways in a beautiful valley. On a busy summer weekend, every car on the street will bristle with all manner of outdoorsy paraphernalia from mountain & road bikes, to kayaks and inner tubes, to camping and hunting gear, bulging from Thule roof racks.
We were enjoying a break from mountain biking ourselves, strolling down the diminutive main drag, ducking in and out of the shops, without a care in the world- when it happened. One moment I was saying something to my 6 1/2 year old daughter, and the next moment I was staring at a gun. Now, it wasn’t pointed at me, but it was about eight inches from my daughters face, so to say my heart skipped a beat is an understatement. It was as out of place as if someone had walked up and slapped me.
The man in front of me was participating in the practice known as open carry. As in, I have a gun stuck in the back of my pants and I want you to know it. The gun was in some kind of fanny-pack (he’d call it a holster) and it was perched there like a flower stuck in a vase- a very deadly flower. My initial reaction was shock followed quickly by anger. Then, almost as quickly as he was in front of me, he was gone. He turned into the next shop and we kept moving down the block toward our destination.
However brief that moment was, it was a lightening strike. As bright and harsh as a fiery bolt of electricity, it illuminated in a flash why open carry is so harmful.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
Let me state emphatically- I am not opposed to gun-ownership and I am a supporter of intelligent gun rights. Please don’t read any secret agenda into that- I truly support the right to bear arms and given the chance, I’ll happily have a dialogue about the parameters that should be implemented to ensure everyone who wishes to, can enjoy and own guns safely. The comparison to car ownership and operation may seem like a cliched argument (and may not be enshrined in the constitution- because let’s be honest, it would be an amendment about horse ownership) but it is incredibly relevant and apt. I’ll come back to that in a little bit. In fact, NYT Opinion Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, just had some great thoughts about this idea.
Like most Americans, I have many friends who are hunters and frankly, if you are a meat eater, you are a bit of a hypocrite if you don’t support hunters. I admire the ability to dress a kill and have enjoyed the fruits of these endeavors (whether as jerky or steaks). When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll be glad to count these folks as friends. Further, I have many friends who enjoy owning a handgun and although we may argue about whether or not possessing a gun actually makes them safer- in many ways that’s beside the point, they have the right to own a firearm.
Not to mention, the United States has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, 97 guns for every 100 people; 50% more than the next two closest countries (those paragons of civil society, Serbia & Yemen)- so to a very real degree, regardless of your feelings on the subject- guns are here to stay. No one (at least not me) is arguing that fact.
What I do want to address is the impact of reducing the complex issue of gun regulation to a one-dimensional “all or nothing” argument. It’s ridiculous. We should feel embarrassed as a nation to allow that kind of shallow invocation to distract us from the real opportunity and need in front of us. We must find a way, both in terms of our laws and more importantly, in our attitudes and social mores, to ensure public safety and security. To do nothing is selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted. One place to begin is with a careful look at the impact of open carry on social dynamics, freedom of speech, and safety.
The Reality of Open Carry
Back to that moment in the sun in Winthrop. Recall, the open carry individual and I didn’t even make eye contact, though my first impulse was to reach out and tap him on the shoulder. I wanted to ask him, “What the HELL are you thinking?” How dare you introduce that kind of threat into our peaceful afternoon? What if my daughter had tripped and instinctively reached in front of her to catch herself? What if I had tripped (a pretty common occurrence) and stumbled into him? What if he thought I was a threat? An unarmed person, even one spoiling for a fight, would do no more than push me, but this guy- who’s arrogance and slavish devotion to belief puts every member of the community at a very real physical disadvantage. He could shoot me. He could KILL me. In front of my daughter. And he might even successfully claim it was self-defense. That’s the reality we invite when we tolerate open-carry in the public sphere.
It’s important to note that in Washington State, open carry is legal (even without a permit), so this man wasn’t legally doing anything wrong, but he was in a very tangible way, impacting every person around him, by destabilizing the dynamics of power, community, and freedom from fear that our society relies upon to function.
Critics may move to dismiss my assertion as hysterical or naive, but that’s the lazy voice of misdirection. The crux of the issue is this: when one person has a gun and another doesn’t, the person without a gun has less power, less voice, and in point of fact, can be under threat of death in an instant. Standing eight inches behind that open carry person as a pedestrian, I was “safe”. However, I have no doubt that I could have provoked the guy into shooting me (perhaps with words alone) and that is not okay. It is not okay that my ability to speak and move about on a public street was limited because one guy had a pointless point to make. The other lazy answer to this is to arm *both* people. But we know that’s a violence multiplier, not a violence reducer. It’s bananas to think that any rational person would want to live in a society where we all walk around armed.
Cars vs. Guns
Back to the cars vs. guns analogy. Although the right to own a car is not in the Constitution (again, it would be a horse amendment), US car ownership is on par with gun ownership; particularly with respect to other nations. We have the highest level of car ownership in the world. Car ownership and what it represents in real terms and psychologically, is vitally important to America and yet, we have a whole body of comprehensive laws that folks are more or less happy with and abide by. It is not only against the law to drive on the sidewalk in the US, but it’s also socially unacceptable. You may laugh, but that’s NOT true in all other countries. Social norms in Kenya (where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer), dictate that cars can drive wherever they can fit- sidewalks, center dividers, into on-coming traffic- whatever they can get away with. Through enforcement of our laws and our social norms, we have made car ownership a reasonably safe and regulated prospect. Insurance, training, safety features, consumer protections. Remember when seat belts weren’t mandatory in cars? Okay, me neither- the law was changed in 1968, but I DO remember when it became the law to *wear* a seat belt in California in the mid ’80’s.
Only someone grossly out of touch with reality would *ever* suggest we abolish cars in the United States. It’s not even a serious conversation, BUT it is a good discussion to talk about ways to continue to improve safety, efficiency, affordability, and alternate methods of transportation. The same holds true for gun legislation. Criminal background checks for gun buyers has overwhelming popular support among Republicans and Democrats and yet it becomes Kryptonite the minute Capitol Hill goes near it. And it’s true- no one piece of legislation will be a silver bullet (see what I did there?), but again, that’s beside the point. That’s like saying that seat belts don’t save ALL the lives, so let’s just forget them. We must take some moderate, common sense steps toward improving the safety and security of guns for the benefit all Americans.
Our Collective Responsibility
Changing our attitudes and laws takes courage and it will, ultimately take trust. So I am taking a first step, gathering my courage and showing trust. It was difficult for me to write this post. I had to consider whether someone might decide that my voice, my words, would be considered a threat to their “security” or “freedom”. In writing this, do I put my family at risk? As a parent, this is a sickening question to ponder. But the answer is- if I don’t speak up, if I don’t advocate for common sense, if I don’t call for the nation to join together in support of safety for all, in conjunction with (not at the expense of) the rights of the individual, who will? There are many individuals and organizations doing this, but we haven’t seen the groundswell of moral conviction and support that must be present to change, not just the laws, but our society itself. Again- it’s crucial to reject the urge to marginalize or derail progress by sounding the “slippery slope” alarm. It’s a specious cry and one that Americans must step up and prove that we are smarter than.
So, my call to action? Share this post, comment on this post, write your own post. Get involved. Add your voice. Conventional wisdom would say call your senator or representative, but maybe it’s time to expand our approach. Contact your local gun store, contact your local NRA chapter, your hunting club, your shooting range. Contact the gun manufacturers- tell them you will support the makers and sellers who are committed to responsible gun ownership.
As for my encounter in Winthrop? It was a grim reminder of what we are allowing to become “the norm” in the public sphere.