Writing for nytimes.com, University of Texas Philosophy graduate student Simone Gubler [above] wrings her metaphorical hands at the imminent arrival of campus carry. “In order to assess the physical risks of campus carry, we must rely on quantitative studies,” she opines, without mentioning any relevant data. “But as philosophers, my colleagues and I can speak to some of the less explicit threats that campus carry poses by turning to our own long tradition of the qualitative study of violence and its role in human affairs.” In other words . . .
pay no attention to the facts behind that curtain. And get ready for some serious B.S. (and I don’t mean Bachelor of Science).
In general, we do not feel apprehension about the presence of strong people in spaces reserved for intellectual debate (although we might in other contexts — a boxing ring, say, or a darkened alley), but we do feel apprehension about the presence of a gun. This is because the gun is not there to contribute to the debate. It exists primarily as a tool for killing and maiming. Its presence tacitly relates the threat of physical harm.
That’s the warm-up: anyone carrying a gun into “spaces reserved for academic debate” (which is hardly a perfect description of a university classroom) is harshing the academic mellow. And they’ve got nothing to contribute. Because guns. Here’s the pitch:
The gun in the classroom also communicates the dehumanizing attitude to other human beings that belongs to the use of violence. For the use of violence, and of the weapons of violence, is associated with an attitude under which human beings figure as mere means, and not as ends in themselves — as inherently valuable. Adapting Simone Weil’s characterization of force in her essay, “The Illiad, or the Poem of Force”: violence is “that x that turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.” When I strap on my gun and head into a public space, I alter the quality of that space. I introduce an object that conveys an attitude in which people figure as things — as obstacles to be overcome, as items to be manipulated, as potential corpses. A gun is an object that carries with it a sense and a potency that is public and that affects those around it, regardless of its wearer’s intentions.
You know you’re in the presence of university-level philosophy when you have to read the text twice to understand what the writer’s saying. Not because the concepts are above your head. Because the sentence structure is so convoluted, so strewn with overly-punctilious punctuation and obscure references, that you lose the rhetorical thread. Convincing? Frayed knot.
Translation: students who carry a gun into a classroom for self-protection are selfish assholes who lack human sympathy and freak people out. To which the only suitable answer is: I know you are, but what am I?
We live, as the philosopher Richard Bernstein has observed, in what might be called “The Age of Violence,” immersed in a soup of real and fantastic violent imagery. And it is difficult under these conditions of cultural saturation to forswear the correctives that violence appears to offer to itself. But when we arm ourselves and enter a classroom, we prefigure others and ourselves in terms of force, as “things” — and not as equals in speech and thought. And we thereby endanger the humanist values that (along with a fair helping of verbal conflict) characterize the conduct of scholarly life at its best.
As the philosopher chef Campbell reminds us, it’s amazing what soup can do! Especially if it’s cultural soup! Immersed in the symbolic broth of “The Age of Violence” (as opposed to?), Ms. Gubler thinks its difficult to resist “the correctives that violence appears to offer to itself.” Which is a fancy way of saying it’s hard not to be violent.
That’s a problem that’s never affected me, someone who carries a gun every day. But one that seems to bedevil the author. I can only assume Ms. Gubler suffers from that bête noire of the civilian disarmament movement: psychological projection. Hence her use of the word “we” when Ms. Gubler asserts that concealed carry is dehumanizing. I wonder if she’s ever carried a gun? You know, for real.
In addition to these relatively abstract considerations, there remains a need for more concrete philosophical work concerning campus carry — situated work that draws on gender, race and labor theory. We need to ask: What bodies are at greatest risk? What disproportionate harms might the law visit on people of color? What sorts of psychological and physical threats can employees be subjected to in the workplace? And what is the significance of this law for academic freedom?
The race card? Seriously? And gender? And labor relations? It’s no wonder Ms. Gubler likes the soup analogy: it allows her to gather every slimy shibboleth she can find “situated” at the base of her ivory tower, throw them into one pot and call the gun black. Or something like that. (English Major here.) Hell, it’s not even an argument. It’s a list. I rate that an F. At best.
A few weeks ago, I read Albert Camus’ novel “The Stranger” with my students, and we considered the question of suicide — of whether life is worth living. This is an important question (the important question, if we are to believe Camus), but it is one that demands sensitive treatment. It is my worst fear that, one day, when teaching problems like these, I will have a Young Werther on my hands. And, to my mind, the normalization of guns on campus enhances the probability of this event. So what are we to do if we want to be responsible teachers?
By this point in Ms. Gubler essay, I’m also wondering if life is worth living. Speaking to that point, Ms. Gubler is worried that one (or more) of her pistol-packing [presumably existential] students will imitate the love-stricken “hero” of Geothe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and shoot himself in the head. Why? Because campus carry normalized guns! And there I was thinking philosophy demands at least a passing acquaintance with the rules of logic.
Of course, if we resolve that the most responsible thing to do under campus carry is to avoid topics that are likely to elicit strong feeling, then there is little point in continuing with the academic practice of philosophy. But before we do away with philosophy altogether, let us decide whether there is anything that we can or should do to resist the wider adoption of campus carry policies. And let us resolve, where resistance is unsuccessful, to think carefully about what needs to be done to protect the practice of philosophical inquiry, and our students, from harm.
The continued existence of philosophy as a university subject or campus carry? Hmmm. If I were, say, a UT dance student facing an on-campus killer, I’d rather have a pocket .380 than, say, a book by John Stuart Mill. Unless my attacker was willing to sit down and be bored to death. Speaking of armed self-defense . . .
Ms. Gubler wants us to be “thinking carefully” about “what need to be done to protect . . . our students from harm.” How could such a practiced philosopher forget to consider the advantages of campus carry in that regard? I dunno. Maybe we should cut her some slack. As Nietzsche confessed, “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!”