By Brandon R.
Occasionally, you have to come up for a bit of philosophical air in the gun debate. The “conversation” over gun rights is so consistently down in the weeds of statistics, hyperbole, and ad hominem, the core values of both sides often become obscured. Anyway, that seems to be what University of Texas Philosophy graduate student Simone Gubler tried to do in her opinion column in the New York Times titled, Philosophizing With Guns. You know, come up for air. Sort of . . .
Gubler’s central premise seems to be giving voice to a now palpable fear that the presence of legally carried guns will stifle the academic freedom of professors and students to discuss and debate controversial topic in safety:
It is my worst fear that, one day, when teaching problems like [suicide], 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?
I find delicious irony in Gubler’s attempt to lay blame for “trigger warning” culture at the feet of her gun owning students. Think about it. She tries to build the case that guns are not, in fact, inanimate objects, but actually totems violence, with a supernatural agency of their own; their mere presence turning people into objects and perpetrators of violence.
But 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.
Then, by accident, our intrepid muse eludes to one of the core issues at the heart of the gun debate in America that many – including angry philosophy professors at the University of Texas – seem to miss.
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.
I fundamentally disagree. We live in a time, and specifically a country, where violence is not the norm. And I don’t mean just homicide. We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity and security. The average America is entirely shielded from all forms of actual violence and tragedy at a level never seen in human history. Accidents are rare, elderly die in bleached environments far from our homes, deceased relatives are viewed after a visit from a makeup artist and a hair stylist rather than spending a few nights in your living room, diseases become extinct every decade, our wars are fought by a few skilled professionals, and even our meat comes slaughtered in faraway places by systems and machines meant to isolate us from the necessary gore. Yes we have violent video games, movies, and literature, but these media relegate violence to a form of fantasy. Violence is not documentary, but pornographic. I am not sure whether simulated violence is either good or bad, but the most important point is that that vast majority of Americans will live a relatively violence free existence in comparison to the many billions of people living around the world, and in humanity’s bloody history.
And here in lies the rub of Gulber’s “Austin-tatious” musings. There is no class of people in America more removed from violence and the simple hard realities of human existence, than our modern ivory clock-tower dwelling philosophes. Few have ever held a job outside of academia, most are middle and upper class American citizens who have won the “privilege lottery.” For these people, real evil, real violence, and the depths of human nature are as abstract as Kantian Dialectics. This is why America’s academic classes have to go to such great lengths to imagine potentially violent situations, because real violence is so fundamentally rare in their sub culture. I am unaware of any class of Americans more self-important and privileged than starry-eyed graduate students of philosophy; a class of people paid with tax payer dollars to sit around and “think” in the austere halls of “higher learning.” Our entire culture is certainly blessed, in one sense, to enjoy the fruits of the Pax-Americana, but this group of academics so much more so.
One of the great stories of our time is that violence has continued to decline, even with an increase in the number and lethality of weapons in civilian hands. Americans own guns for a plethora of reasons, but I would argue that the common theme uniting all is the belief that evil and violence still exist and are even necessary at times, no matter what the politicians or social theorists say, and that facing that human reality – whether in our meat production or self-defense – is about acknowledging the full spectrum of human experience, and not placing other people between ourselves and the “ugly bits.”
Finally, Gubler utters what we have all hoped humanities professors everywhere – the propagators of so much of what plagues American politics today – would propose,
Perhaps we should abandon the big, morally important questions… perhaps, when we teach contemporary moral issues, we should avoid discussing abortion, race and gun rights.
May it always be so. Not “because guns,” but because you obviously can’t handle these issues with any rational clarity.