The Bravery of Youth and the Bravado of Firearms: a note on the character of social violence.
The ‘NeverAgain’ and ‘#menext’ movements that have quickly arisen following the latest in a lengthy pedigree of mass murders stateside are a belated response to more than mere gun violence. They are to be commended at every level of society, by every honest and noble human being, but their task is enormous. For violence also exists at every level of society, can consume even the most honest and noble among us, and is part of the character of contemporary humanity as it has been since we have been human. Notwithstanding its primordial character, it is nevertheless not ‘human nature’ to be violent. There is no single human nature, and nature, as we know it in the world apart from we humans, is made up mostly of instinct. There is no human instinct above the bare physiological and base-cortical functioning of the body. As history is the greatest argument against nature – specifically that human, but also in other species given the evolutionary course of natural selection – what passes for social habit changes and thus can be changed. But actually changing it means to confront its fullest traditions and deepest convictions.
Youth are eminently suited to do just that, for they do it, in ways both petty and profound, already everyday. From simple disobedience of so called ‘authority figures’ such as parents and teachers to inventing new forms of art and craft, music and machine alike, young people the world over gradually practice the manner in which they will eventually age and take over the very world they so disdain. But it is precisely through this process of aging out of their youth that the heavier responsibility for caring for the world as it is comes into the foreground, and with this, the frustration, the questions, the anger, and the disbelief in the way things are, in adults’ ways of running the world, gradually dissipate, become dissolute, and ultimately disappear entirely. So the greatest task facing any youthful movement is not simply to overturn this or that law, habit, prejudice, or custom, but rather to maintain its own revolutionary abilities and actions throughout the life-course. Yes indeed, shame on us, we adults, who have given up doing so. When the young leaders of these two new movements – so far mostly social media based – shouted ‘for shame’ at politicians and others responsible for the way things are in the United States today it was an epithet that all of us who are no longer young or yet even young at heart needed to face up to.
It is a shameful thing, amongst other things, that a child cannot go to school and feel safe, concentrate on his or her studies, kindle the humane wonder at the world and through unbridled curiosity and question, unlock the secrets of the wider nature within which all life and non-life alike is ensconced. It is a shameful thing that much of our entertainment culture glorifies violence as a means of negotiating with one’s fellow human, much of it with firearms, on screens everywhere, from film to television to video game. It is a shameful thing that the geopolitical competition amongst nation states is so often premised on deadly violence. It is a shameful thing that in twenty states so-called ‘educators’ can assault young defenseless human beings with weapons under the guise of ‘discipline’, and in all fifty states such is the case in the home, with so-called ‘parents’ at the helm. And it is more than shameful that we do not recognize that all of these settings and the violence that occurs within them are intimately related, for they are.
This is not the place to play the smug Canadian. But it is worth noting that the level of violence up here is far less than due south. The fact that physical discipline has been all but outlawed, that firearms are controlled vigorously though not banned outright, and that per capita acts of violence in Canadian media occur far less than in Hollywood is of some small interest. But these are epiphenomena. The deeper reason that there is a difference between our two closely related nations has to do with the cultural personality and history of the places in question.
I lived for six years in two very marginal, rural areas of the United States. I found great friendship there, I found much love, and Americans came across to me as mainly noble creatures, generous to a fault, refreshingly honest – you always knew where you stood with your ‘average’ American, like it or not – and most importantly, willing to hear you out. Stating one’s case is part of the ‘American way’, whether in court or on the street, in a church or school, the workplace, or yet under the bed sheets. I did so in all of these contexts many a time. Sometimes I was pilloried and sometimes I was celebrated. I was both demon and angel to my southern cousins and I was called every name in the book, for better or worse. But that was just me doing my job, for which I was fortunate enough to be handsomely paid for a quarter century. The youth who have organized and are pushing forward these two new movements are not being paid. No gun lobby will support them with its powerful networks and wealth, no media lobby with its even more powerful networks and wealth, and no political lobby either. Some parents perhaps, some teachers, some officers of the law. But I think that they know that they’ll be mostly on their own, as all authentic culture critics of any make and mark always are.
Hailing from bygone days, the beginning of a new religion, the self-proclaimed messiah piloting its radical course, represents the ancestor to modern social movements which also must use the language of the unfamiliar to get their point across. To seize this kind of day, when the disgust factor of most people may safely be assumed – who can defend the absolute cowardice of Las Vegas, of Florida, of Sandy Hook etc. etc? – is certainly of the moment. But the moment is, in the end, exactly and only what it is. If young people can organize consistently, act considerately, think constantly, then there may be a chance of success.
Here’s some free advice from a philosopher and professional human scientist: empty the schools and cease consuming violent media until the laws are changed away from the habits of violence. Include in your arc all of the contexts within which violence breeds, including institutionally sanctioned currently legal assaults by adults against your person, commodities such as violent games and films etc., and force all adults to be forthright about their viewpoints. Let them state their case and then evaluate it. Make us provide for the health, safety, and dignity which is your collective birthright. Be ready to compromise when it is reasonable to do so – for instance, it is true that an AR-15 is not necessary to defend one’s home; an old-fashioned .38 special will do just fine, but do not imagine you can ban firearms in your country because only about one-quarter of Americans own them anyway, and for the record, I myself do agree that one should be able to defend against home invasion or wanton personal assault with deadly force if necessary – and be ready, more than anything else, for adults, hiding in our collective shame, to put you down and try to blunt your critique. Don’t let us do that to you. Don’t give in on the basic principle that sociality can change for the better even if we older folks have given up long before.