2. Gun Culture
There are approximately 100 million gun owners in the U.S. and 300 million firearms. The role of experienced vulnerability due to fear of crime is known to play a major part in the decision to purchase guns. For many such gun owners, owning a single firearm appears to be enough to quell their fears. But for the 20% of gun owners who own 65% of firearms, something else seems to be going on.
According to biologist, humans evolved to live in small groups (50 to 90 max) of individually know others. (This is not true of wildebeest or bears, for example, but is of wolves.) This, of course, implies that there must be some survival value associated with such grouping. That further implies that there would be some vital costs associated with being excluded from the group; costs of which we would have some experiential knowledge. That is, we won’t like to be expelled from a group; we will find it aversive.
Our nation has a long history of defining groups of people as other, not us, not fully “we, the people.” Examples include Native Americans, slaves, various immigrant groups, women, gays, etc. When a person comes to see that they are, or are seen as being, a member of one of these excluded groups one of the effects is that they also come to realize that they are, to some degree, on the other side of the police force barrier. They “get” that the power and firearms of the police is less likely to be of assistance to them and more likely to be directed at them. While many in America have been oblivious to this reality, the recent videos of police interactions with African Americans vividly demonstrate this fact.
Not being within the perimeter of police protection and, instead, being part of that which is being protected against inherently increases actual existential vulnerability. Each person’s self-defined identity regarding their degree of membership in or out of the dominant culture determines perceived vulnerability to the forces of chaos, and the degree of protection or threat they can expect from the police. How we see which “we” we are a part of and which we are not is a fundamental determinant of perceived vulnerability.
This self-definition, though largely subjective, is almost always powerfully influenced by how we are treated by the people we live and interact with. This fact is extremely important because any of the myriad ways we denigrate and mistreat others may become the basis of isolation and eventual alienation. We, like all peoples, have innumerable “causes” to reject others. Obvious examples include “race,” gender, ethnicity, religion, income, and sexual orientation. Subtler ones include virtually any difference we can perceive between people: physical ability, intellectual ability, appearance, beliefs, and material wealth.
The essential point is that any of these differences can become an axis along which social, family, interpersonal, and intra-psychic forces can propel a person from “in” and “us” to the periphery, and, eventually, to ”out” and “them”. Shorn of identity, connection, and social support, and individual’s perceived vulnerability may increase dramatically.
Let me use one example to illustrate the process. Suppose you are a white male, who, by virtue of even mildly neglectful or abusive parenting, has a lessened sense of personal power, that is, your own ability to get what you want in a manner in accordance with social norms. If “merely” average in intellectual and athletic abilities, you may find yourself gravitating towards the lower status groups in school, the crucible of much of identity. With college not an option, for whatever reason, your options are severely limited and you take a low skilled, low paying job. You get married but, like half of marriages, it fails. Like is not going according to your dreams. At some point it becomes understandable how even such a person, who could see himself as born-into-it member of the in-group, instead comes to see himself as an outsider. Shorn of the group, the protection of being in the group, he comes to feel diminished in status, in power, and, maybe, beating on the barriers to consciousness, an increased experience of vulnerability.
Obviously, what’s possible for a white male is even more likely for members of any group that’s discriminated against, seen in any way as other by the dominant culture. Once again, remember that people abhor the experience of vulnerability and everyone will look for some way to decrease it. Fortunately, for them, the wide availability of firearms in the U. S. means they won’t have to do a hell of a lot more than I did in Vietnam to pick up a gun.
There’s much more that could be said about how “othering” people leads to increased vulnerability and increased propensity to possess firearms but one point is critical: It is an inherently shaming process. As one comes to see oneself as on the outside, unwelcome in the larger, “in” group, it is impossible not to feel shame. It may not be acknowledged as such but it will be experienced. And that’s vitally important because one of the ways we have of dealing with shame, one, attack others, is the chosen path of many who are most likely to come in contact with the police.
Shame is such a searing, painful emotion that it’s tolerated even less than vulnerability. We all learn mechanisms to quickly and effectively minimize our experience of shame by moving in one of four directions. We can withdraw from interaction and/or society. We can try to avoid shame by presenting and conducting ourselves as though the very possibility of shame is unthinkable. We can attack ourselves, berating ourselves, thereby accepting a smaller portion of shame in hopes of avoiding being the target of more. And finally we can attack others, through blaming, criticizing, put downs, and violence.
I think all of us have some familiarity with sting of shame that happens when someone with more power than us says or does something diminishing. Imagine, then, the impact on the dispossessed when they encounter the police who treat him/her with indifference, contempt, or violence. They will feel shame that this happens to them , shame that they can do nothing about it, and shame that others see this happening will course through them. Rather than the police providing protection, they get assaulted, and further expelled to “not us”.
Given this othering, is it so hard to see the attraction of a gun? Of a lot of them? Can you imagine the relief of finding like-minded others, a group to be a part of? Can you feel the attraction of someone to blame for all this, some group that, all agree, must be stopped by whatever means necessary?
Section 3: Guns and Us
Although I’ve portrayed three distinct groups-“us”, police, and “outsiders” I’m hoping you see a bigger picture. I’m hoping you see how all of us are connected to and interact with each other through the issue vulnerability. All of us are always at risk for death, disability, and loss. All of us employ psychological and actual barriers (fences, locks, etc.) to ward off our experience of vulnerability and it’s overpowering fear. How we do that, however, can not only fail to protect us, but also perversely create more vulnerability. The police stand at the very fulcrum of this process.
The police are our firearms. We deploy them to protect us from gangs, criminals, “thugs”, violence, and chaos. The police force is our power to coerce “others” to do our will; to leave us alone, to not hurt us. They are our power to ameliorate our feelings of vulnerability. Since we, too, are not immune to the corrupting influence of power, we, too, have become corrupted. We insulate ourselves from our complicity in any abuse of power by police. We hold police as “heroes” but turn a blind eye to the harm they do. We almost always take their account at face value and refuse to find them guilty when tried.
This creates the paradox that by “supporting” our police to arduously, we end up paradoxically enabling their brutality. We don’t see how our “support” has the effect of leaving them on their own and therefore vulnerable to the corrupting influence of power. We turn a blind eye to the dangers we expose them to by failing to provide the necessary training, working conditions, supervision, and oversight needed to protect them from the threats of their job. We essentially abandon them, sacrificing them as we pursue our own stuff, status, and safety. The conspiracy of “support” by police officers, police unions, prosecutors, and juries, all essentially sacrifice the police officer on the altar of our “safety.” (Put another way, it may be said that we have failed to provide them the leadership that is critical to preventing the risk of damage inherent in the use of deadly force.)
We leave the officers “holding the bag” of moral injury resulting from what they’ve done. But the “justification” our support provides can never fully silence the knowledge –that they keep hidden within--that they have betrayed themselves and their duty. That, in actual fact, they did something they shouldn’t have done, whether out of fear, rage, or some other emotional need of their own. By not holding an offending police officer truly accountable, we destroy any hope of reconciliation, repair of the social fabric, and the possibility of reintegrating the officer into the full society, including it’s softer sides of inclusion, compassion, and altruism.
In ignoring our own vulnerability, in ignoring how our deploying the police protects us from feeling vulnerable, we make it impossible to have a serious discussion about what it will take to have a justice system that truly protects and defends all of us. In order for that to happen, we have to be willing to tolerate more vulnerability in the interest of increased safety. We need to give up the false sense of security provided by mass incarcerations. Pay for effective rehabilitation and accept the fact that mistakes will be made. Pay for community policing and the additional costs of careful selection, continuous training, and effective oversight such programs require. We need to provide adequate court resources to truly provide timely trials.
We can agree that our neighbors can provide their own self-defense in their homes but negotiate the weapons suitable to that purpose in our neighborhoods. We have to provide appropriate limitations on the police use of weapons: who to shoot, where, when, and why while accepting that instituting such limitations will make both the police and us somewhat more vulnerable. At the same time, we need to diminish the supply of illegal guns that are the main source of police vulnerability. Finally, we have to recognize the inherent vulnerability created by othering people: making them “the other”; not me, not us, whether based on race, or poverty, sexual orientation, or political difference. Because this is the first step in the process that creates the “them” that “justifies” the coercive policing of “them.”
What I hope I’ve illustrated is that this same dynamic operates in all of us. All of us have fears, and fears of vulnerability. All of us reach for and rely on whatever diminishes fear. And all of us are vulnerable to the corrupting power of that which makes us feel safer, whether firearms or the police, alcohol or heroin, denial or cynicism. The paradox is that our attempts to limit our vulnerability frequently have the unintended consequence of increasing it. Only by all of us learning to tolerate some feelings of vulnerability will we be able to devise democracy creating, rather than democracy destroying means of dealing with the dangers inherent in our large, heterogeneous society. We’re all in the boat.