Can We Talk (about Guns)?

Mark Kleiman wonders why so many of his ideological compatriots are driven to fits of rage by Megan McArdle, noting the fevered reaction to her recent column on the Sandy Hook shooting and potential policy responses. (See also here.) Though Kleiman would not endorse everything in the piece, he thinks it’s “one of the more sensible pieces of writing about Sandy Hook,” and yet has sent some liberal bloggers into a frenzy.

In a related vein, David Hoffman notes how difficult it is to have calm, reasoned discussions on this sort of issue.

Like many of you, I’ve been horrified by the events in Newtown, and dismayed by the debate that has followed.  Josh Marshall (at TPM) thinks that “this is quickly veering from the merely stupid to a pretty ugly kind of victim-blaming.”  Naive realism, meet thy kettle!  Contrary to what you’ll see on various liberal outlets, the NRA didn’t cause Adam Lanza to kill innocent children and adults, nor did Alan Gura or the army of academics who helped to build the case for an individual right to gun ownership.  Reading discussions on the web, you might come to believe that we don’t all share the goal of a society where the moral order is preserved, and where our children can be put on the bus to school without a qualm.

But we do.

We just disagree about how to make it happen.

If anything, Hoffman understates the problem. It seems increasingly rare in political discourse for either side to consider that the other may be arguing in good faith. Why is this? One contributing factor is ideological cocooning. Many people, academics in particular, have relatively little meaningful interaction with people of opposing views. As a consequence, alternative viewpoints seem alien and hard to fathom. For many it is bewildering that someone of reasonable intelligence, good will, and good faith could reach diametrically opposing conclusions. Thus arises a need to ascribe contrary views to idiocy or bad faith.

Hoffman also suggests the nature of internet discourse cuts against the tolerance of differing approaches to social problems.

My intervention here is to just to point out that the problem we actually have here is one of discourse – we are forced by the Internet to nationalize problems. This makes it much, much harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order. If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes. If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists. Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award. And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.

That is: a national conversation about guns and violence, facilitated and sped up by the internet, reduces our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminishes our capacity live together in peace.

I think he has a point. I also suspect this problem is magnified due to a decline in the understanding and appreciation of tolerance as a virtue. Not tolerance as acceptance or approval, but true tolerance. Tolerance as in there is something unpleasant, objectionable, or distasteful that one nonetheless tolerates. And this is brings us back to the problem of cocooning. If we have little interaction with those of truly different viewpoints — those whose entire worldview and starting premises are different than ours — we have a harder time recognizing the goodwill and fundamental humanity of those with whom we disagree. And that means we have a more difficult time discussing divisive political issues and trying to find common ground. So instead we demonize and attempt to marginalize our opponents — undertakings that may make us feel good, but do nothing to improve the situation.