Sunday, December 23, 2012

Newtown: Seeking Wisdom in the Words

                                     Accept Complexity
                                                    Marshall Schulman
                                               Amos 5:19
Words, words all around, but is there a drop of wisdom to drink? H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that defensiveness is the greatest source of error. There is plenty of that going around. A. N. Whitehead noted that a great source of error is making too large a generalization from too small an insight. Lots of that everywhere. Perhaps a "bits and pieces theory" of truth is the best we can do while devising helpful laws and practices in a spirit of bricolage.

Fallacies abound. Just because something worked in Australia or Norway doesn't mean it would work here in the same way or that it would be politically possible to begin with. Our history and culture are different. Statistical correlations become causal connections without regard for context. Absolute statements are commonplace. Things are said to work or not work, but they may work to some extent in some times and places but not or as well in others.

No general law or practice can prevent every specific act involving multiple murders. The NRA wants armed guards at every school. Sometimes that might save lives. But what will prevent one of them for unpredictable reasons from slaughtering a dozen first-graders before he can be stopped?  Unlikely, yes, but how likely was the Newtown massacre?

Better control of gun possession, improving the mental health system to locate and render harmless potential killers, making ammunition with mass-murder potential hard to get, having armed guards in our schools, and much more-- all of these and many other laws, steps, and practices large and small might help in some cases but will not likely be effective in all instances, even if they are possible in a locality or the country as a whole. Taken separately or together, they are not likely to prevent all future mass murders. Individual people kill with specific weapons at given times and places under particular circumstances with varying motivations. Some will get through every net of laws and practices we can devise. The next horror may be in a crowded church committed by a middle-aged female.

Are there any commonalities, any recurring patterns and profiles? Yes, of course, and we must look for them and devise remedies accordingly. We need to act on many fronts in many ways learning from the past and using what experience has taught us to make better what cannot be made perfect. But we can only do so where public opinion and political means make it possible.

Every measure has an opportunity cost, may have unexpected side effects and cause new and unforeseen problems. Bureaucracy will complicate and frustrate enforcement of well-intended laws. 

The Second Amendment is not the Word of God for all time but an anachronism that we might be better off without, especially given our present Supreme Court. Nevertheless, we could still permit responsible people to have guns for legitimate purposes though not without risking abuse and massacres. There is no fool-proof, risk-free system with or without the Second Amendment.

It would help if the absolutists and dogmatists would just shut up, but they won't, and they threaten to drown out calmer voices with modest proposals that have a chance of helping.
Finally, and most importantly, a fundamental issue is a cultural peculiarity in our society regarding guns rooted in our history.* We value individual freedom in this regard at a terrible cost, whereas an increased measure of social control might  promote the common good.

An important prerequisite, then, is a change of heart, of ideas, assumptions, attitudes, values, sentiments, and feelings. Change is possible when a given system breaks down in the presence of an attractive alternative. Perhaps the horror of Newtown will be for us a kairos--a right and ripe moment when healing can begin. Our deep-rooted individualism and political culture lead me to expect only modest changes for the better in the near future. But we can hope for more.

Meanwhile we are on a badly damaged ship on the open seas that must be repaired where we are with what we have--bricolage.

 Consider the wise words of Alfred North Whitehead:

"Philosophy may not ignore the multifariousness of the world--the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to a cross."

"Seek simplicity--and distrust it."


Cf. Japan at the opposite end of the individual freedom versus social control value spectrum: