Child and the water-gun

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Short version: With the US gun-debate in full-swing in the aftermath of the latest mass-shooting (Connecticut 2012), I find myself wishing it would become less of a gun-debate and more of a cultural-priorities debate.

Longer version: Having just read yet a few more essays and articles [1], [2], [3] about the gun-situation in USA, I felt even more need than usual to add my fourpence to the blogosphere. Sometimes when the “left” and the “right” sides of an argument have locked horns so tightly that it feels like an impasse, you need to step back and find a broader definition of parameters, rather than bouncing disagreements back and forth ad nauseam. You need context.

I am lucky in that I am a New Zealander who has spent most of my adult life living in different countries (on every continent except Africa) and ended up spending the last decade living in Greece. One of the best lessons these experiences have taught me has been that extreme opinions about any subject (both for and against) are 95% of the time both just plain Wrong. Another important lesson has been that law and politics are ultimately just conceptual frameworks. Enforcement of them is just an attempt to shape a culture around those frameworks. The only way to change the real lives of people (in a way which is more than just blowing hot air) is to steer the very culture of those people. The only way to do that in a lasting fashion (i.e. fairly) is to incrementally reach consensus on cultural issues, so that The People steer the culture of The People. None of this gun debate is dealing with that because almost everyone is myopically focused on knee-jerk reactions (both for and against) rather than dealing with the less vote-winning/emphasis-friendly, less immediately intellectually “rewarding” and more uncomfortable subject of how to reach a consensus on ways of steering the culture out of an addiction to the “you’re for us or against us” mentality – from which gun addiction (as well as state obsession with control) have both organically, and unsurprisingly, sprung.

For a parallel example, two of the biggest reasons I stopped living in the UK are also two of the main reasons I moved to Greece:

  1. to get away from the culture of binge-drinking
  2. to get away from the undercurrent of day-to-day violence and frustration

Of course this is not a racial issue, because in both cases there are oases in the UK where these things are not so prevalent, but of course those are exceptions to the cultural “rule”. Also, the laws and the politics in both countries (about drinking and violence) have some variance but overall are not that different. The difference is the cultural momentum, changes to which are not measured in years or even in electoral terms, but are measured in lifetimes (of course I could conversely make similar arguments about aspects of life in which Greece look tarnished in comparison to the UK, etc). My point is that the gun problem in USA (<rant>United States, as opposed to “America” which is an entire continent, by the way</rant>) is not as much a political problem, or a legal problem, as a cultural problem. I would go further and say that it is merely a large side-effect of an even bigger cultural problem. By the way, if you think I am making some racial generalisation – I would add that some of the most advanced thinkers and wisest people I have discussed this issue with over the years have been good friends of mine from the US. Interestingly, all of them have lived in many countries, and gained context that many of the most vocal players in this debate inside the US could never dream of having. Those friends have learned to live with the discomfort of not being so “certain”, of avoiding “confirmation bias”, and always looking to test their own beliefs – i.e. the opposite of how the US has decided its “leaders”, and trained its “enforcers” for the last few decades at least.

I am not going to preach on about my own personal opinions regarding the specific cultural problems which I believe are causing this gun-violence crisis, because I think those are easy enough to discern (especially from other rants of mine [1], [2], [3], [4]), and anyway people would then just nit-pick (straw-man style) on those opinions to distract and detract from the bigger point I am trying to make. If you want to have a fruitful debate, shift at least some of the debate from nit-picking over symptoms, into a debate about causes – about how you define and uphold your own cultural identity. What do you represent in universal human terms? What do you deem important in life? Who are your true heroes? How do you make it possible for your people to keep learning throughout their lifetimes, rather than be brainwashed with a limited set of accepted behaviours during the first few years of their childhood? etc…

As this picture comes into focus the debate about guns eventually becomes as relevant as the debate about how quickly a fish can climb a tree (yes, I did obliquely reference a famous Einstein quote on purpose). Until then of course some short-term measures must also be taken to treat the violent “symptoms”, just like a doctor might need to treat an AIDS patient’s pneumonia (for example), but just as for the doctor – if you are too focused on the present symptoms and ignoring the underlying cause:

  1. there will always be new symptoms anyway
  2. eventually the “patient” (cultural and national identity) will collapse, no matter what you do

Ask the Ancient Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, British, Egyptians, etc…

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