Thanks to my friend Mark Heinz for catalyzing this post. I started out to reply to something he said on Facebook, only to realize that exploring the subject made for a post that was just too darn long for a Facebook comment thread. So, here it is on my Pretending to Look the Other Way blog site filed under Mashed Potatoes. And if you don’t get that reference, watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Mark replied to a post I made of the recent study from the American Public Health Association on the relationship between gun ownership and gun homicides in the US, by observing,
One thought regarding the subject of murder, suicide and culture, I think the U.S. might have high rates because, probably more than any place on earth, we have a competitive culture, as opposed to a cooperative one. Think about it; the word “competition” is cited and recited with almost religious reverence in our culture. Now, some might argue that’s been the driving force behind America’s success (however we might define that.) But, I think it’s clear it’s also come at a price. I would argue that, because our culture is so dogmatically and frantically competitive – even if you made every firearm in this country disappear tomorrow, Americans would probably still kill themselves and each other at alarmingly high rates.
What Mark was speaking to, in part, was the American culture of consumerism and materialism. Which is something that we export worldwide along with our philosophies about Life, the Universe, and Everything, some of which are constructive and beneficial, and some of which are destructive.
Materialism is a religion. Or at least it’s a placebo or body-double for the real thing. As some very vocal souls among us arrive at the conclusion that we’re just more evolved versions of our nearest animal relations (a quantitative, rather than qualitative difference) we find ourselves in a catch 22. We try to tell ourselves that material things are all that really ought to matter, but we find, often, that pursuing them is more satisfying than actually having them.
In short, we are a species in search of an identity. CS Lewis’ marvelous aphorism: “I am a soul; I have a body”, is countered by the materialistic, pseudo-scientific philosophy that we are just complex machines, or collections of chemicals and electromagnetic impulses, lacking even free will. It is also betrayed in myriad ways by theologies that are often diametrically opposed to the principles of the religion they claim to represent. Theologies that are, in their most virulent form, thinly veiled programs for reconciling animal desires for material gratification or power or control or unique identity (competition at its most essential) with the sacred Word. It’s a losing proposition when more and more people are actually reading scripture and thinking about its meaning—something I’ve heard religious leaders assure their flocks was allowing their minds to be the tool of the devil and anti-theist leaders mock as a waste of time.
What we come to is confusion over the answer to one of the most essential questions a human being can ask: What am I and what am I meant to do and to be? If we fixate upon competition for material things, and come to the conclusion that we are naturally and primarily competitive and acquisitive beings, we enter into a struggle between what we want and the effect on ourselves and others if those wants become the purpose of our existence.
Yes, we are a very competitive species and our competitiveness has historically taken the form of conquest or subjugation of one individual’s or group’s needs to another’s.
The good news is, we are evolving (thank God) and that our evolution, if we’re smart about it, will take us toward being more human and less animal. You may have noticed that most of us are really bad at being animals. Many of us care about harming others. We extend our “us” net ever wider and concern ourselves with the welfare of those of “us” we have not even met. We are concerned about the care of the animals we eat. We are conscious of not using up our resources (with, alas, notable exceptions). We view the sort of animal behavior exhibited by wolves or hyenas or even primates as heinous when exhibited by a person. We put some people who behave like animals in cages.
To be sure, there are advocates for the idea that we should throw off all those chains of limitation, which are thought to be superimposed on us artificially by Religion (and, yes, this idea does run into immediate conflict with the competing idea that Religion is a human invention, but that’s a different discussion.) Most human beings recognize that, as Bahá’u’lláh puts it,
All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth. (Gleanings CIX)
Humanity is at a sort of tipping point here—poised on the brink of adulthood, but still pimply and rebellious. This country, specifically, was born in rebellion and the rebellion had a huge materialistic component. Many of the freedoms our forefathers fought for had to do with what they would be allowed to take from the people who already lived here. They rebelled against the Motherland’s insistence that treaties be observed and that we conduct our relations with the native peoples with civilized decorum. They wanted land, resources, wealth and freedom to acquire those things, and they determined that competing with the First Nations for it was fair and fine and God’s will because they were materially and technologically superior.
We are competitive and acquisitive. We are taught that wanting stuff and doing whatever it takes to get it is virtuous. But that belief quickly comes into conflict with other things we also claim to believe—the Golden Rule, that we are not mere animals, but are created in God’s spiritual image, that we should be supportive and caring of each other as Bahá’u’lláh and every other Claimant to the station of Prophethood has proposed. The tension between these diametrically opposed ideas about human identity creates conflict on just about every level of human existence.
When that conflict erupts, humans express it using whatever tools are at hand. On an institutional level we use resources, politics, fear, hatred, prejudice and ignorance to achieve sometimes ill-defined goals that boil down to control of the herd. We even use what many of us claim to believe is sacred—religion—to accomplish these things. On an individual level, we will use fists, baseball bats, hockey sticks, legal maneuvers and guns when someone stands between us and something we want or trespasses on our turf (physically, emotionally or intellectually) or offends our sense of identity.
Here’s the reality: without the guns, far fewer people would die. This is obvious, and the reasons for it should be obvious, as well. Just the logistics of time and distance alone would mitigate the circumstances that lead to homicide. Killing someone in close contact is not easy. It’s messy. It takes time and effort and sustained and overwhelming rage or a cold detachment from the suffering of another human being. The sense of gratification for causing suffering must outweigh the danger, the effort, conscience, fear of being caught. Guns make it easy to kill in a highly impersonal way from a great distance. Murder becomes as simple as point and click. No muss, no fuss, no blood on one’s hands.
Add to homicides the accidental gun deaths (which are rampant in places where access to guns is quick and easy), and it’s hard to credit the argument that less access to guns would have no impact on the number of deaths overall.
I posted a series of gun death incidents a while back and challenged readers to take each one and replay the scene without the gun. I restricted it to situations in which the act had not been plotted and planned, but was triggered in some way. For example, a couple of friends—one of which is armed—sparring verbally. One pretend slaps the other and he responds by pretend shooting her, with the gun. She dies. Without the gun, she does not die. Or consider the road rage incident last week in which one woman—for reasons that are impenetrable—stopped her car and accosted a woman and child in the car behind her on a country road. She terrified both the mother and the child, sticking her hands in the car and trying to grab the woman’s cell phone. The mother stopped the attack by rolling up her window. With only her fists, the angry driver beat on the window for several seconds, yelling obscenities, then walked away. Is there reasonable doubt that if she had been armed that terrified woman and possibly her child would be shot and maybe killed?
Whatever our level of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, selfishness, arrogance, ignorance or stupidity, a gun in the hand can turn even the most trivial altercation into a lethal exchange. Not just can, but HAS—repeatedly. You can pull a punch, but not a bullet, once it’s left the chamber. Bullets cannot be called back. They cannot be ameliorated with a sincere apology.
I am not saying that all guns should be gone from society. There are places in the US where owning a gun makes sense and may even be necessary. There are also situations in which it makes no sense whatsoever. And there are situations in which the presence of a gun or guns is deadly to people innocent of aggression, competition or acquisition.
What I am saying is that we are suffering through an adolescent identity crisis. Like a teenaged human being, humanity as a species is in the throes of trying to decide who it is and what it wants to be when it grows up. For a variety of reasons, that crisis is manifesting itself in America, in part, through the “gun debate”.
I’m also saying that we need to figure out who we are and what our shared goals are when it comes to the sort of world we want to inhabit. Do we want our technologies to help make us better humans, or do we want them to make us better predatory animals? Do we want to live together in fear of each other (an armed society being more polite, supposedly) or do we want to live in support of each other? Do we want our world to be an armed camp, or a family that deals with its inevitable problems with reason, compassion, and unity of purpose?
That’s all up to us. But the first step, I think, is to decide who and what we are. Self-knowledge is crucial to our success and progress as a species. This is true of no other species on the planet. It is so crucial that Bahá’u’lláh has made it a primary tenet of faith.
The first Ṭaráz and the first effulgence which hath dawned from the horizon of the Mother Book is that man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty. — Bahá’u’lláh / 4. Ṭarázát (Ornaments)