Guns, Dignity, and the Climate of Fear

If we start with my basic premise that our colonial beginnings created a climate of injustice that has never been adequately corrected, then our conversation about gun violence would need to consider the current social climate of injustice. What difference does it make that our social climate is not a climate of justice?

In a climate of justice, we would not be afraid of each other. We may still feel uneasy with strangers, but we would not fear for our lives. In a climate of injustice, on the other hand, fear is pervasive.

Fear does seem almost universal. It’s a basic human emotion. It could be that we humans are like horses, deer, and gazelles, we are fear-based animals. In my book’s Chapter on The Civic, I refer to the work of anthropologists Donna Hart and Robert Sussman who discovered that our earliest ancestors were gatherers and scavengers, not aggressive hunters. They spent much of their energy protecting themselves from predators, such as saber tooth tigers and pythons. If this is true, then much of our aggression may be based on the well-known premise that the best defense is a strong offense.

It's a bit more complicated. I think we are not ultimately driven by fear, but by desiring connection with others. That’s what I learned from Attachment theory. Many of us have been lucky to live in relationships with others and know how fundamental these relationships are for our well-being. Some of us have not been so lucky.

A recent article on young men and guns in the New York Times provided research on the scary period for boys as they transition from family relationships to other social relationships (6/2). When you think of their insecurity occurring in a climate of injustice: fear may well be in the driver’s seat.

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian recipient of the Noble Prize in Literature, writes in his book, Climate of Fear, that fear is a threat to a person’s dignity.

A notable aspect of all pervasive fear is that it induces a degree of loss of self-apprehension: a part of oneself has been appropriated, a level of consciousness, and this may even lead to a reduction in one’s self-esteem: in short, a loss of inner dignity (p,8).

Soyinka is not writing about mass shootings in the US, but his reflections seem to add to the ideas developed here: a climate of injustice threatens our dignity, and a climate of justice honors and protects it.

For too many today, owning a gun has become a part of their dignity, which is nothing less than a bastardization of dignity. Instead of recognizing one’s dignity in reciprocal relationships with others, which would enable us to create a climate of justice, shooters stake their dignity on the power of the gun, which strengthens the climate of injustice.

This is a sticky wicket. The mixture of guns, fear, and injustices propels one to a stance that’s just the opposite of what would allow the creation of a climate of justice: a stance of humility and generosity. Even the deaths of shoppers and children do not seem to break through the pride of the tyrant.

What might help is the realization that behind the climate of fear exists the legacy of a climate of injustice that has never been corrected. I doubt that we will make much progress in gun safety until we begin to dissipate the climate of fear by creating a climate of justice based on human dignity.

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