Monday, July 23, 2012

The Slippery Slope of Assault Rifles

Longtime Slog readers know I like to try to explain different groups to each other. One useful tool for unknotting conflict and cultivating empathy is to search for symmetry. A tug-of-war only appears to be symmetrical from outside the contest; if you're pulling on the rope, it appears to be righteous defense against outside aggression.

Whenever I find myself in conflict and unable to inhabit the other point of view, I expand my perspective until I spot the symmetry - until I see the conflict less personally and more objectively. Until it looks like a tug-of-war.

For example, I'd been horrified by the right's science denial in recent years. I just couldn't understand it. But things clicked - and I love when things click! - as I came to realize that both left and right toss aside science when it impinges on their moral values. There's symmetry, after all, even though it's nearly impossible to spot when you're caught up in the binary "us versus them" mindset (indeed, if you do it right, the result is almost nauseously the rug's been pulled out from under you. I defy you to read the above linked article without feeling a little queasy!).

In the wake of the Aurora shootings, I've tried to apply this approach to the legality of attack rifles, and to the puzzling intransigence of the right on that. By framing it as a Constitutional issue, a freedom issue, a self-defense issue, the right appears to be flailing. And for what? Do they truly feel that assault rifle availability is a good thing?

No, I think they actually do not. But they can't say so publicly, because they perceive themselves to be backed against a wall. Few may prefer to see such advanced weapons freely out there, but there's an obligation to staunchly, stridently defend the availability, because submitting to any discussion of what's beyond society's pale, weapon-wise, would erode the larger argument against gun control. By giving way on assault weapons - or by drawing any distinction - treasured institutions such as hunting and self-defense would be vulnerable to arguments from the left. And so those arguments must be deflected reflexively, and with zero tolerance for nuance.

Jason Alexander, of all people, just wrote a wonderful, cogent piece filled with persuasive arguments against the legality of assault weapons. If you're a liberal, it reads like pure common sense. But once you've read it, spend a moment considering the ramifications. Most of those same arguments could be applied to other firearms - even, in the end, all firearms.

The right, loath to approach that slippery slope, finds itself defending the legality of assault weapons, which they, in their heart of hearts, may actually prefer to see restricted. They must dig in their heels, lest they unravel the wider argument. If you've spent decades screaming "firearms: good!" while the other side screamed "firearms: bad!", then you will never submit to a discussion predicated on the assumption that maybe freely accessible firearms aren't necessarily always a great idea after all.

So they are, basically, lying. But it's a strategic sort of lying, and it's rational. One result of binary conflict is that reasonable parties become less and less willing to expose their reasonability. This is what feeds the vicious circle of extremism (see Israelis vs Palestinians), and both sides inevitably share responsibility for the escalation to unreasonableness. The only way to unwind things and to reinstitute reasonableness is for participants to clearly see the dynamic for what it is. You can't transcend the grip of conflict without establishing a more objective perspective. It's all about acknowledging the symmetry, however queasy-making that might be.

There's almost always symmetry*. So...yes, there's at least one issue where liberals strategically lie about their private feelings because they fear a slippery slope leading to the erosion of a cherished right. See my next posting (give me a day or two).

* - There are rare exceptions (e.g. Jews and Nazis were not engaged in symmetrical conflict). But everyone embroiled in conflict deems their side to be an asymmetrical exception (this, among other things, explains Godwin's Law)


joshi said...

there are always going to be many instances when a vast percentage of the population holds entirely erroneous beliefs, and will do so in spite of clearly contrary evidence. indeed, advertising/propaganda are founded on this.

where is the symmetry when beliefs are false?

Jim Leff said...

"where is the symmetry when beliefs are false?"

Only facts can be true or false. Not beliefs or opinions. And the notion (much less abject certainty) that the Other's belief is false is the ultimate expression of the symmetry I'm describing. Because they're damned well saying the same about you and your beliefs and opinions.

Joshi said...

"Only facts can be true or false."


By definition, a fact is an assertion that is true. When an untrue statement is asserted as true, then the assertion is false.

Beliefs are assertions that are true, false or unprovable.

1. 'I believe my passport is in my sock drawer at home' is an assertion that is easily verified to be true or false
2. 'I believe the entire universe was created five minutes ago, complete with memory banks' is an unprovable assertion ( B. Russell)

My point is that we humans are not only capable of asserting unprovable beliefs as gospel truth, we are even more likely to believe manifestly false notions as true. Most everybody believed before Gallileo that the sun revolved round the earth, that women had fewer teeth than men, that heavier objects fell to earth faster than lighter ones etc. There is no symmetry to be had in trying to understand servitude to falsehoods is what I was trying to say.

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