A place for new ideas to settle.

12 July 2014

God, guns, gays, and 500lb. gorillas


Robin Koerner, a liberty-minded Brit whom I heard speak at last year's Washington State Libertarian Party convention, has a new article out at Huffington Post called Your Problem With Guns or Gays Is Not Political. Given my moderate bias against guns, shockingly, I kind of agree with him. But I also think this is a case that nicely illustrates how the personal is (sometimes) political.

I recommend that you go read the whole thing, but I also want to excerpt some juicy quotes. First, Koerner describes his own British noncommittal stance towards guns. As he puts it, "guns feature nowhere in British culture." I expect that most Americans would in practice find "taking tea" a bit odd, even though we academically know what it is from various imported movies and television shows, and many Americans like tea. But then Koerner gets into the meat of his point:
Many decent people who have no interest in guns simply can't imagine what it must be like to be someone who is passionate about something whose primary purpose is to kill people. Although the gun debate is waged using words, logic and fact (by both sides, to different ends, of course), the arguments constructed using these three tools are not what brings people to their pro- or anti-gun position. Rather, most people are emotionally or intuitively committed to a position first and deploy these tools retroactively in defense of their position. Despite what we like to think, we form most if not all of our political views this way. Studies show, time and time again, that David Hume was right when he claimed:
[A]s reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.
What most anti-gun people are really feeling (rather than thinking) is that there has to be something strange about you if you like guns. I mean, why would you get turned on by something whose primary purpose is to kill people? If you do, you can't be like me. You are sufficiently different that I am suspicious of your worldview, or your motives, or both. You are culturally "other." [Highlighting and hyperlinking added.]
If your primary intuition about guns is "guns are designed to hurt or kill things," and you are separated from gun-loving people by vast inferential distances (in other words, a cultural divide), then it's easy to fall prey to the correspondence bias: You must love guns [which are designed to hurt or kill things] because YOU MUST LOVE HURTING OR KILLING THINGS OH MY GOD YOU'RE AN EVIL MUTANT!


Having pleaded his case in a sort of rightish way, Koerner pivots and accuses right-wingers of doing the exact same thing with respect to the LGBT "subculture"!
Just as gun owners form a kind of (albeit highly porous) subculture, the LGBT community does so too. Some people who have been brought up in a socially conservative or religious subculture simply can't imagine being able to do (let alone actually doing) the things that those in another subculture (LGBT) do as a matter of course. Again, if I can't even imagine your experience or desires, then we are deeply culturally separated. Just as gun-control advocates feel a twinge of disgust, or at least condescension, toward the culture of gun owners, some of our religious friends feel similarly about the LGBT subculture. Of course, "disgust" is a very strong word, and most of us sublimate it deeply, but it captures the sense that the division among our "political" subcultures is more visceral than rational. Reason is applied later to justify in the conscious mind the position that the subconscious makes us emotionally comfortable with. [Again, highlighting added.]
N.B.: At this point it's probably crucial to make a distinction here. Koerner is not as far as I can tell, saying that "being gay is (merely) a lifestyle choice." But the LGBTQ community, as a community, gives rise to a spectrum of certain lifestyles and cultural attitudes. That's the similarity being pointed out.

Koerner goes on to share a nice anecdote about his friends, a gay couple, and their adopted daughter. His friendship with them makes the argument that children need "a mom and a dad" absurd, in his mind. Similarly his friendship with Rob, a member of Whatcom Libertarians and a proud open-carry advocate, makes strict gun-control arguments absurd.

Overall, he says, we should work towards breaking down these tall cultural barriers and bridging the long divides. That will moderate our culture a bit, and thereby moderate our politics. It's a nice sentiment, and I've even argued as much on this blog. But Koerner is committing, I think, not a false equivalence but a false... qualification? Let me explain: while he seems mostly right in identifying the nature of the divide (namely, it's cultural, born of separation), Koerner has ignored the vast differences in quality between the two subcultures. It may even be illustrative to use a third example to compare against: (Protestant) Christianity.


Doctrinal differences aside, there's a noticeable Christian culture in America, to the extent that my saying so is beyond obvious. Anyway, I want to consider how this culture expresses itself, especially outside of churches. Many Christians (#NotAllChristians disclaimer applies) are positively ostentatious with their show of faith. You've got, beyond the usual Ichthys bumper decoration, lots of pious-bordering-on-smug bumper stickers, and ridiculous displays of privilege. Going deeper, there's a faith-based subculture in America, where somehow you can't be a good person unless you believe in a Higher Power, no matter how much any two Higher Powers must necessarily contradict each other. Somehow it's less objectionable to even a fundamentalist Christian if you're a Muslim, than if you're an atheist.

It's worth pointing out, too, that this faith-based subculture is pervasive in America. To my knowledge there simply isn't anywhere in the country where you can say "yes, this is definitely the atheist part of town." Whereas, even if you're not part of the specific religion, there are houses of worship all over the place. And, thanks to the recent SCOTUS ruling, religious corporations. So there's that.

Similarly, the smaller but just as fervent "gun culture" is pervasive in America. Less so in the big cities (or at least it takes on a substantially different form within gang culture) and more so in the rural areas, but still obvious, to the point where people make a big deal out of "gun-free zones." (Can you imagine if someone actually tried to make a "God-free zone"? Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth!) Moreover, it's legitimately a culture: there's a prevailing belief that ownership of guns validate one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

Compare to faith-based culture: belief in god* validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by a sincerely-held belief and profession of belief in god.

[*"god" in lower case as a placeholder for any sort of higher power. In America, biased towards monotheism, "god" is the first choice for that descriptor.]

This is the sign of a robust, mature, and confident culture, but perhaps too much so. This sort of cultural attitude can lead to a sort of cultural singularity, a death spiral wherein groups of hardcore fundamentalists form within a soft milieu of moderate sympathizers. Sam Harris acerbically leveled this "moderates shield extremists" critique at American Christians in his Letter to a Christian Nation, but it has much wider applications, as the cult attractor seems like a fundamental component of human social behavior.

Needless to say, this is very bad for civilization! The death spiral is especially likely to kick in when the culture is threatened. After the initial shock, maybe some of the less-committed members leave... but that means the average member is even more committed to the cause, and the lack of voices urging restraint only pushes the entire group deeper, into extremism. This may explain the behavior of right-wing Christians who make a big deal about "[their version of] Christianity under attack" or right-wing gun advocates who make a big deal about "[their version of] freedom under attack"... pity the right-wingers, the 20th century gave them several big blows about the head on this stuff. Comparatively, the left-wing only had the failure of communism and the apparent hegemony of capitalism for big bone-deep shocks.

What I mean is that you see, where once it was never so extreme, fans of God or of guns making big, showy statements signaling that they're out and proud, as it were. There's been a recent surge in super-preachy Christian films, for example. Rick Perry's pray-the-drought-away event. The anti-abortion movement, from what I've read, has deep roots in a loss of purpose among conservative Evangelicals during the 1950s and 60s. That one guy in Florida burning a Koran because why not? Legislation against Sharia law in several states, which would be unconstitutional anyway. And those are just the examples that come to mind.

Similarly on the gun angle, the open-carry-AR-15s-to-Chiles movement. Or the "cowboy cosplayers" at the Bundy ranch (though that's a fascinating confluence of all sorts of animus). Or, indeed, open-carry at Pride parades, as the Whatcom chapter of Washington Open Carry is doing in Bellingham. (N.B.: As Koerner notes in his article, it was by invitation of the Pride coordinators.)


You may be tempted to write this of as unique to the right wing, or at least the kind of "tears" expected of privileged tantrum-throwers. But remember, the cult attractor knows no ideological boundaries. I think a bit of the same behavior is cropping up in the LGBTQ community, which if allowed to metastasize probably won't end well—it's true, contra right-wing conservatives, that LGBTQ folks don't actually have wide cultural cachet and power, whereas Christians and gun-owners kinda do.

Whence the cult attractor? Well, as you might have guessed by now, I see hints of it in the social-justice community. Fortunately, the really bad craziness is still fringe, and the mainstream LGBTQ acceptance movement is advancing apace. We have anti-gay-marriage laws falling like dominoes all across the country, and Pride parades are a roaring success—even attracting pro-gun advocates, who know positive publicity when they see it!

What would we expect, analogous to "ammosexual" gun culture, or faith-fetishizing god culture? Side by side:
GUNS: Ownership of guns validate one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

GOD: Belief in god* validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by a sincerely-held belief and profession of belief in god.

Ergo, LGBTQ: Identifying as gay, lesbian, trans*, or queer validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by adopting a non-binary identity.
Notice that this, as far as everyone understands the meanings of terms in the same way, is highly radical. (And yet the other two statements don't seem as radical in comparison! Maybe they should.) The mainstream opinion is that being gay (e.g.) is simply not a choice, and positions that claim otherwise are (sensibly, I think) relegated to the far fringe.

Curiously though, there's a dedicated sub-subculture on Tumblr (and other social media) that actually does seem to hold this belief, and (as is typical of online social-justice "discussions") rhetorically tars and feathers anyone who disagrees. In a place where you can proudly come out as a 250-personality "multiple system" of various sexualities, genders, kin types, and even fictitiousness, experimentation is sort of encouraged.

Those examples are just for the curiosity factor more than anything. There's also an apparently serious contingent of Tumblr users who believe that trans men should identify as nonbinary instead (because it's "more fun"), that you can invent as many new genders as you have computing power, and that everyone should maybe try out a nonbinary/queer identity once in a while.

I should point out that I have no idea how serious or widely held this sentiment is, as three Tumblr posts does not constitute hard evidence. But it's fascinating how similar in form they are to the guns or god crowd, even though the respective cultures are moving in opposite directions: the LGBTQ community is expanding, while the gun and god communities are (at least in their own minds) contracting.


So what's a movement to do? This is where I think Koerner is spot on (and again, I've said as much): we need to live together and be kinda boring. That sort of continuous, everyday exposure changes the culture, moderates it and makes it more tolerant, and we could use a healthy dose of moderation and tolerance in our increasingly polarized and strident politics. (And no, to your radicals out there, I don't think that's a bad thing!) Who knows, we might even sit down and get things done, like cool-headed adults.

The LGBTQ movement, by and large, has embraced this strategy. A series of tactical coming-outs, ever more people realizing that friends, family, and neighbors have a spot on this spectrum of identities, and generally eroding the authoritarian aspects of gender roles that so often cause more anxiety than harmony.

But there's always the danger of cultish extremism when faced with criticism—for their part, LGBTQ folks have weathered the storm admirably. In the other place is American gun culture, which in the minds of many is way past the safe zone and slouching towards cultishness. I can't say I have any deep knowledge of this, but I've shot guns before—pistols with my grandpa, .22 rifles at Scout camp—and yeah, target shooting is fun. I can intellectually tolerate hunting for food or population control too, although trophy hunting strikes me as part of the problem. My good friend Quinn is looking to inherit his grandfather's extensive collection of antique guns, and while he has a degree in history he's not ashamed to admit that firing them is awesome.

I still don't understand the anxiety and frustration of some conservative gun owners. Don't they know that yes, many liberals also own guns, and would be just as affronted if Obama came to take away their guns?

I do understand the "last recourse" argument for unfettered gun ownership—that in the event of a tyrannical government, the citizenry must be able to give armed resistance in defense of liberty. Okay, sure; there are several good reasons to think that shooting back would work, even when staring down tanks and drones.

But ultimately this strikes me as a kind of motte-and-bailey defense, where the most vocal gun advocates retreat to this argument when pressed about gun rights, but then actually use guns to threaten government officials or immigrants or black kids. In other words, they act in accordance with that toxic gun-culture belief—ownership of guns validate one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

One great irony is that the same conservatives who loudly express their Second Amendment liberties, are also the first to loudly express their fear that LGBTQ people will openly flaunt their gayness/queerness/transness(?!) in, say, a Chile's or Starbucks. Maybe LGBTQ people should start trying the argument that nonbinary sexuality and gender identity is our last line of defense against technologically advanced but cripplingly homophobic aliens.


Joking aside, the larger point I'm trying to sketch out is that not all expression is created equal. There's the good-neighbor sort of expression where everything becomes "normal," and then there's the loud-and-proud aggressive expression. I don't want to categorically say that one is bad and the other is good. But we should be careful evaluating each strategy for maximum effectiveness. Loud-and-proud is often accompanied by righteous anger, which has its own potential problems. Good-neighbor is maybe too slow, or ineffective in the face of an active political assault. Somehow I doubt that the abortion debate will be settled by enough good-neighbor activism, for example.

We should want to move past normalizing and into boringizing. For something to be "normal" we often imply that it's good and even desirable. I'd rather that these sorts of sociopolitical issues become boring. That clears the agora of ideas of a lot of clutter and rubble, so we can sit down and discuss the real issues like adults. And yes, maybe some of these are "real" issues! But at this point it's a mess of posturing, signaling, and cultish death spirals, so we'll never know.