An armed society is an ironic society

Robert A Heinlein, a science-fiction author that I have only a passing familiarity with, was either a melodramatic hack or a social critic of such Swiftian subtlety that he is mistaken for an ultra-conservative crank. He may be a mix of both. In 1942 he gave us the quotable axiom that “an armed society is a polite society.”1 That phrase has been dragged out regularly in the most recent ritual pantomime of social and legal debate about gun violence in the United States.

I would be neglecting my pedagogical responsibility as a student of violence if I did not try and comment with some informed opinion on this issue. While I am unqualified to discuss the peculiar American relationship with guns and their pseudo-sacred rights to personal arms, ill-defined in their founding documents, I can make an argument about the utility of arms and their relevance in maintaining social order and protecting the vulnerable as it applies to the American context. Fair warning, however, that this may get contentious.

There is a barrier to rational discussion about arms control and violence that is made from a vast collection of abstract ideas about how the world works, about individual agency, about history, about risk, threat, identity, and about political, economic, and ethical freedoms. It is close to impossible to construct an argument based on simple mechanical controls for harm reduction without running into a dozen vaguely related, but often entirely emotional or ideological, arguments to the contrary.

Stripped of the emotional and political baggage, mass shootings are possible in circumstances where some simple material variables persist. An individual, through whatever escalating circumstances, who moves towards an outburst of focused violence will take advantage of whatever mechanical means are at hand for the purpose. Most Americans are within easy reach of legal, high-capacity, portable firearms. They either own them personally, or they know people who have them, or they have clean enough backgrounds that they can purchase them legally and in a relatively short amount of time. A quick review of recent mass shootings in the United States shows that most weapons used were obtained through legal channels or were one owner away from legal purchase.2 Assuming for the moment that the easy availability of weapons was not a motivating factor for the perpetrators and that they were intent on violence regardless, different weapons would have produced different results—results almost certainly less severe. Also, attempts to obtain weapons illegally would have increased the likelihood that someone would discover the plot, or at least deter or prevent the violence from happening in the way we have come to expect it. A restriction on the private purchase and ownership of certain types of firearms (for the sake of argument, let’s imagine a restriction on semi-automatic weapons above a certain calibre and with certain capacities) would mitigate the risk of mass shootings. To borrow an inaccurate but oft used phrase, ‘evil people will always find ways to do evil things’—but the scale of ‘evil’ is at least limited, if you limit access to certain weapons. You will still have all the murder-suicides, all the suicides by gun, all the domestic disputes that escalate, all the police stand-offs with an armed suspect, but at least the ‘crazed nut on a spree’ will have a lower body-count. That’s not much of an improvement but it’s better than nothing. Changing the underlying motives for all this violence will take more time and can’t be legislated, at least not easily.

Somehow, harm reduction—through rules that do not really infringe one’s ability to own firearms for hunting or self-defence—is powerless in the face of ideological arguments. While a tactical pattern, 16-gauge shotgun is more than suitable for home defence in the most high-risk circumstances, a civilian pattern AR-15 carbine, chambered for the standard NATO cartridge is, quite literally, overkill. But the debate I am commenting on actually has very little to do with guns. It’s about a certain American relationship with violence and personal identity. Radical gun controls are certainly needed, but the propensity for Americans—be they imbalanced youths, estranged husbands, petty gang members, or suicidal teens—to use deadly force is based on some fundamental, and unacknowledged, foundations of the American worldview. Statistics and cross-cultural comparisons don’t help in these debates because, in a rare instance, the idea of American exceptionalism actually applies and invalidates the evidence: in any country other than the United States, a high density of gun ownership does not actually correlate with higher rates of gun-related violence.3

Violence, as William de Haan wrote, is an “essentially contested subject” and I of all people should know how hard it is to make judgements about causality and agency when it comes to broader social and cultural contexts.4 Generalizations always cause problems in conversations about violence, but there is some validity to the claim that violence in the West is more common in times and places where institutional authority over justice and ‘legitimate’ violence is weak or lacks respect or credibility. This condition can exist in places that could not, under any circumstances, be considered ‘lawless.’ All it means is that the people who commit violence as a means of personal ‘self-help’ have little fear of or respect for the legitimate powers that claim to represent and protect personal property or interests.

While the United States depicts itself as a beacon of democratic peace and prosperity, most Americans have an ambivalent relationship with their national institutions of governance and justice. The media often airs the complaints of citizens in the wake of natural disasters, blaming the government for failing to protect them in advance or failing to help them afterwards. At the same time, many complain that those people were foolish to expect anything from the government at all. Independence and self-reliance is incompatible with egalitarian values. Individualism can’t incorporate a place for government in times of adversity. Looking to others for help is a sign of weakness, despite the fact that no one is ever really able to live their life free of dependence or responsibility. In this way, social safety nets are labelled intrusive or authoritarian, and to trust the police or courts is pure gullibility, which is openly mocked. That distrust does not come from a long history of political and judicial corruption; it comes from a more fundamental idea about how the world works and a radical idea about individualism. America describes itself as a land of opportunity, but it is also a land of great risks where your success and failure are entirely your own to endure. Only under these circumstances could someone say that “an armed society is a polite society” without the slightest irony.

Regular readers will know how much I dislike Steven Pinker’s recent book on violence (it’s the historical parts that mostly bug me, and his strange use of statistics), but he does have a useful discussion of American violence that covers many of the things I have mentioned and that also demonstrates the regional and demographic variations.5 Generalized a little, the argument is that the fragmented nature of the American social and political context combined with a certain form of individualism makes certain kinds of violence acceptable. Pinker likes Norbert Elias’s theory that social change starts with institutions, governments, and eventually, through a circular system of reflection and re-enforcement, the general citizenry change their attitudes towards previously accepted norms. This can be measured in action by tracking the change over time in public opinion about spousal abuse or the use of physical punishment on children. Societal norms are built through consensus of the majority, and if that majority condones or condemns any particular action, through conformity people eventually stop (or start) doing whatever is the focus of that consensus. In some parts of America, the consensus is that violent self-help is, depending on the circumstances, entirely legitimate even where it is otherwise illegal.

I’m not arguing that mass shootings are based on some legitimate grievance and that the shooters are simply taking the law into their own hands. One must fish through the foetid depths of the internet to find anyone arguing that there could be some legitimate and excusable reason to shoot up an elementary school. What I am trying to say is that violence has a privileged place in the American psyche, and while it remains abstract and inarticulate, it is that undercoat of legitimacy that makes it easier to escalate any grievance towards deadly force.

The armed society may appear to be a polite society, but it is also a fearful and paranoid society where the slightest insult, real or imagined, could be met with deadly violence. This was, for all intents and purposes, the state of gentle English society in the 17th century and it entirely failed to contain or control violence. It enabled and promoted violence; it built an economy of social status and value around short tempers and the readiness to resort to the sword.6 It also subjected the unarmed or the socially inferior to even greater threats to their lives and property. This is why I suspect there is some actual social commentary in Heinlein’s use of the concept, since those who do not want to participate in the cult of the duel will lose social standing.

Michel Foucault may be hard to take and his ambiguity lends his work a wider appeal that it really deserves, but his analysis of violence and power is entirely suited to the American experience.7 If, as Foucault argues, violence is about making others do as you desire, those who are armed—who have access to coercive force—arm themselves because they seek control. In a way, this is already part of the American relationship with arms and their government. The American right to arms is painted as a protection against tyranny of government, but in practice it actually creates a tyranny of the armed citizen over the unarmed. Embrace the right to arms and you become part of that daily power struggle—not between yourself and the state, but between yourself and everyone else. In times of crisis, self-preservation will overtake empathy. Armed and desperate, you will fear everyone else likewise armed and desperate. Those in need become potential threats.

There is a mechanistic way to decrease the rates of gun-related violence in the States by limiting access to certain types of firearms. Yes, weapons will still be available illegally, but for the most part, those weapons circulate in groups largely unconnected with the mass shootings that are the object of all this debate. The fact that such a proposition will never actually get passed or enforced is proof by itself that there is more at work here than arguments about guns. It appears that most Americans are still a long way from a useful conversation about their cultural relationship with violence. Eventually, people will reject the individualism that also relies on violent self-help and they will no longer make their right to arms such a cultural fetish. Social norms will eventually change and guns will lose their cultural fetish, just as teachers stopped slapping around grammar students and husbands thought twice about slapping their wives. But it could also go the other way, depending on the consensus.


1 First published as a two part serial under a pen name, Anson MacDonald, Astounding Science Fiction, April-May 1942. It was published in a single-volume edition as Beyond This Horizon, (Reading PA.: Fantasy Press, 1949). The quote was used recently, without the slightest hint of irony, by the head of the National Rifle Association, as a simple justification for armed security in all public schools as a deterrent against random spree shootings:

2 The Sandy Hook perpetrator took his mother’s weapons from their home, and the Virginia Tech perpetrator lied on his application forms to obtain his weapons. While there may be other minor abuses of the legal controls in other cases, none of them involved firearms obtained through any sort of ‘black market’ or through the illegal channels one imagines are at work elsewhere. Detailed and accurate sources for this information is, naturally, only as good as the internet can offer, but odds are that the Wiki entries are popular enough that they will, in time, contain accurate material: Sandy Hook shooting / Aurora Theatre shooting / Virginia Tech shooting.

3 I am cribbing from the most concise article on this issue by Gwynn Dyer:

4 Willem de Haan, ‘Violence as an Essentially Contested Concept’, in S. Body-Gendrot and P. Spierenburg, eds., Violence in Europe: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Springer: New York, 2008) pp. 27–40.

5 See in particular, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (Viking: New York, 2011), pp. 91-106.

6 The literature on the duel is vast but inconsistent. The best recent study is Markku Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2003).

7 I refer to his often cited, but probably rarely read, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (Vintage: New York, 2009), first published in 1975.


One thought on “An armed society is an ironic society

  1. Gwynne Dyer, in an article which does not YET appear on his own site, also refers to Pinker, and plows if not the same ground an adjacent field to yours. You`re running in good company, at least, and I`m sure FOX NEWS will declare you a threat to American Morality presently.

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