‘The Language of No Compromise’: Revisiting the Fray
The gun issue in the United States is at once both an interesting and incredibly volatile subject. It requires even the most knowledgeable on the subject choose their words with the meticulousness of a criminal bookie. Otherwise, of course, their enterprises will be thrown wholly into one of the two partisan jails on the issue and there remain in an echo chamber. I claim neither comprehensive knowledge on the subject—though I have shot plenty of guns—nor invaluable pragmatic insight. This is merely an example of how rights talk—stark and unyielding rights talk in this case—leads to a dreary, pessimistic, and anti-social landscape in which we only ever “speak of what is most important to us in terms of rights.”
Which further seems to necessitate nearly every social issue being framed “as a clash of rights.” Conversations circling the topic of guns and gun laws are but one such example. While I think it is most pronounced in this example, the almost inherent impasse created by gun rights discussions are by no means an isolated feature of the gun debate. At this point, nearly all of our political “dialogue” follows the same vacuous, platitudinous, and ultimately Hobbesian rubric: “nasty, brutish, and short.”
As noted in my earlier piece, there seems to be an aversion to speaking about collective responsibility or our duty to other citizens here in the United States. There is relatively little debate over this point, yet immense difficulties arise when we depart from this small plot of agreement. Some say that it is this way and, for good reason, it should remain this way. As in, we are right to frame things in terms of individual rights and shouldn’t talk of collective responsibility. Usually at this point citing slippery slopes or 20th century nightmares that were done all, apparently, in the name of the exact type of collective thinking we just so happened to be talking about here. Others say it is this way but we should derive some better sort of ought from it as Glendon, the author of Rights Talk, hopes.
Regardless of these two distinctions there seems to be some confusion over what Glendon and those who agree with her want, and what people think Glendon and her followers want. Though I am not ready to say that the individualism versus collectivism debate boils down to a mere misunderstanding, there is a significant amount of air to be cleared before we get to the conflict at the bottom. Hopefully, in presenting an example we can see that what Glendon wants can be, in some degree, complementary to people’s right to bear arms while not actually changing or rescinding those rights.
I confess that my only reason for bringing this up again is due to my near obsession with finding compromise or attempting to stake out a middle path.
Crudely summing up the debate on guns we can say that there are only about three positions, with minor deviations here and there.
The first rallies around the “shall not be infringed” clause of the Second Amendment and believes nothing more need be said on the subject.
The second is a sort of reformist-left position that believes gun laws need to be adjusted or modified to keep up with the times.
The third is the crowd that thinks the amendment should be repealed in toto—also due to “the times.” This last position being the crowd that is often caught hating the present for not being the future.
However, it’s no great secret that the second position usually tends to be a part of the third group just wrapped in a shroud of political realism. In other words, they eventually hope to repeal it, but common and political sense indicates to them that this needs to happen over time and perhaps even slowly.
Per Glendon, there seems to be a fourth position that can be staked out. One that will aim to satisfy the ends for which the the “repeal it” crowd hopes—i.e. reducing gun crime and deaths regardless of what the statistics show—while keeping the Second Amendment’s sacred right enshrined in language that, on a purely semantic reading, admits of no compromise whatsoever. Thus allowing the first group to be satisfied as well.
This, I think, is where the confusion lies. Glendon would not ask that any substantive changes be made to the Amendment at this particular juncture; it is far too heated and divisive a subject to warrant any expedient political action. The moderate understands that any swing one way or the other—right as the position may be—is going to infuriate the other side. Perhaps we will never get to the point where concrete political action is taken. What Glendon wants to do is reframe the conversation so that any and all talk of keeping the amendment, changing the amendment, or repealing it never even comes into the picture.
So to the condescending retort of “it’s my right, you can’t take it away from me” Glendon rightly agrees. But she would also insist that there is more to be talked about. That “more to be talked about” is not, however, strict legal reformism. Rather it is an open-ended discussion about how gun responsibility and safety is a good thing, and that this is the more important half of the Second Amendment. Much to dismay of gun-right absolutists, history is once again not on their side. Though the words of the Amendment might make it seem that way.
Glendon is right to point out that the Founders would have been suspicious of our modern way of talking about rights. Today, rights are “characterized by self-expression and the pursuit of self-gratification, rather than by self-reliance and the cultivation of self-discipline.” Given our situational lack of any civic virtue that was simply taken for granted during our nation’s early years, the founders would have happily pushed through, for example, a law requiring a certain amount of time each month dedicated to training with firearms. In the absence of self-discipline and any concomitant feeling of duty to one’s fellow citizens, this would seem like nothing short of a necessity. The founders were, above all, keenly receptive to felt needs along with their political education. Although a historical and cliche sin, I like to imagine they would agree with my sympathetic rendering of their judgement into modern times. I am often reminded of Burke—a conservative—when people think that their freedoms are boundless and require no restraint, as the Founders would have undoubtedly agreed:
Men qualify for freedom in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power is put somewhere on will and appetite, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.
Ironic that staunch defenders of the Second require so much of this “controlling power within” from others on other issues. In other words, the appetite for owning a gun, whether for a felt necessity or otherwise, begins and ends at the buying counter, when we should be fostering a conversation about the seriousness and responsibility that comes with buying a gun and continues as long as one owns the gun. This requires that responsible gun owners decry those who think simply in terms of a ‘right to buy a gun.’ The ones who know that this isn’t even near the entire story that needs to be told.
The sympathetic reader will see that what I am asking for is a change of atmosphere and attitude; not, as it were, a change in the laws. Gun rights advocates need to do a better job of communicating the seriousness of owning a firearm while downplaying the ferociousness with which they defend words on parchment. Yet these people do actually exist: folks like Sam Harris and Scott Reitz come to mind immediately, but there are plenty of others who haven’t made a career out of a romantic attachment to the Second Amendment. What these folks are focusing on, in Glendonian terms, is the second half of the equation; one that needs its importance to be revived. It is what is not said that we should work to defend rather than the easier and much less important task of defending words on a page. Words that will never be repealed without a second civil war.
Yet I am not so naive to think that the “other side” hasn’t contributed to the problem in their own, perhaps even larger, way: the repeal it crowd wishes to entertain no conversation about guns in a Glendonian light either. Their contempt for the words on parchment—and how they’ve seemingly outlived their usefulness—is simply the equal and opposite of those who only defend the words.
Argument and conversation, in other words, needs to be happening in the nuances. Nuances that will never be captured by parading and flaunting the founding fathers’ thoughts on the issue. Thoughts that, as any good historian knows, were never of any uniform opinion on the matter, and thoughts that even better historians know that regardless of what he or she said two-hundred years ago, nothing can speak to us as an absolute authority in the present. At least so much so that we feel we needn’t address the issue ourselves with new insights. Or at least old insights repackaged in a way that seems fit and accommodating.
As a “call to action,” one might be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing here. Indeed, there is very little in terms of a concrete proposal other than, sadly, to keep the conversational fire alive. I have come to believe, for better or worse, regardless of truth or falsity, that every time a conversation ends abruptly or in flames is to chalk one up to violence. Of course it is not to literally punch someone in the face, but it is to think that problems will be solved by others; someone else, or some authoritative science. We are seeing the seeds of a an attitude that believes that our early and harsh disagreement with someone couldn’t possibly have any long term effects. Other than, of course, if everyone started to do it; then we’d be better off.
Of course my vote doesn’t matter; but our vote does. So too with conversation and political engagement in the trenches: of course our small, unoriginal exploration of political topics doesn’t matter; but as a collective whole it seems like it’s the only thing that does.