The Toxic Conversation About Guns
It is a well worn cliché that sex and religion are forbidden subjects at dinner parties. Well, add armed self-defense to the list of unmentionables. Why is self-defense such a toxic subject that people usually talk past each other when they try to discuss it? Here is one reason we can’t communicate; most people have strong opinions without facts. They know what they read in the headlines, yet have only a vague opinion about violence, self-defense and firearms.
Those subjects may be your passion or your biggest fear, but that means you are a small minority. Violence and self-defense remain confusing and emotionally charged subjects for most of us. You and I can only change the culture when we move the majority to our side with each small step in that discussion. First, let’s look at the extremes.
On one hand, violence is hard to ignore. It drew our attention from a young age as demonstrated by any fight on the school yard. We feel compelled to watch.. and we should. There is survival value as we avoid being the next victim! Why is violence often hard to watch while it is hard to ignore at the same time?
Violence is psychologically toxic to all of us. Soldiers in combat will become disabled by prolonged exposure to violence. For civilians, even seeing a single violent crime can be devastating if the witness is emotionally close to the victim. We react strongly to deliberate malevolence when we identify with the victim. We turn away and cannot bear to watch a violent act if our empathy with the victim is strong enough. Some people go so far as to deny that violence occurred if their psychological aversion to violence is overpowering.
Taken to extremes, some people pretend they did not see what happened. It is no use arguing about facts if the other person can’t perceive them. That is where the dinner party conversation about self-defense breaks down.
The gun is an inanimate tool to most of us, but not everyone sees it that way. The violent sociopath and the overly sensitive empath invest this inert piece of metal with meaning. Both of them see the gun as a tool of violence, though the sociopath is drawn to it and the empath shuns it. Only the person in the middle can see firearms as a tool of self-defense. The average person can see that violence exists and that tools might make us safer.
We like to think of ourselves as that reasonable person who sees things clearly, but the toxicity of violence affects all of us. The refusal to understand violence comes in varying degrees. Our perspective towards self-defense changes by small steps rather than changing all at once. Let’s label a few of the steps.
- At one end of the spectrum, we pretend that interpersonal violence doesn’t exist. No one needs tools for self-defense since threats don’t exist.
- Someone might grudgingly admit that violence happens, but violence is caused by objects rather than people who look and act just like us. Guns are always evil while people are always good.
- OK, violence happens and people cause it, but violence only happens to other people. Violence does not happen to nice people like you and me.
- Some people are violent and they could prey on anyone.
- We intellectually accept that violence could happen to us and we start to educate ourselves about violence and self-defense.
- We emotionally refuse to be a victim and plan to avoid violence.
- We accept the responsibility of self-defense when violence is unavoidable.
- We physically train to defend ourselves and our family.
- We psychologically prepare for self-defense.
- We defend the political right of self-defense for ourselves and others.
That is a huge change from one extreme to the other. To make the dinner conversation more difficult, each extreme thinks their position is both obvious and correct. We need to do more than exchange sound bites from each extreme!
Go back to the party where we began this discussion. Maybe the other guest at the party isn’t yet convinced they should park their car under a bright street light to avoid being robbed at night. In that case, you are coming from different worlds and speaking different languages. There is a chasm of assumptions lying between the two of you. Don’t tell them to carry concealed and practice regularly. You cannot jump that gap in a few sentences. Shame on you if you try because you are not talking to the other person.
Personal violence is so toxic, so emotionally charged, that no one moves from denial to preparation in a single encounter. No one! It probably took you a long time to settle on your beliefs too. The other person needs to change their opinion one step.. one small step.. at a time.. the same way as you did.
Though our current beliefs now seem obvious to us, our beliefs are a conclusion. Our current beliefs are not a convincing argument to others. We will simply produce a loud disagreement and convince those around us that we’re ranting gun nuts if we demand that others immediately agree with our final position. There are more effective ways to change minds.
First, find out what they believe if you and the other guest wants a real discussion. You don’t have to back down from your beliefs, but focus on the next step they have to take rather than focusing on the end argument. See if you can take them one small step further because that is the only place change happens.
For example, “I hear you. I used to support gun registration, and then I changed my mind. I decided I trust my neighbors with a gun more than I trust the politicians. Who would you rather trust?”
One step is far enough. Anything more is a noisy debate contest rather than trying to change hearts and minds. Sure, you and I might wonder whether the book case is concealment or cover, but save that conversation for another audience.
The longest journey begins with a single step. The hors d’oeuvres over on that table are great, so enjoy the party.
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Rob the prepared