Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Politeness and the Gun

"An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life."
- Robert A. Heinlein, "Beyond This Horizon," 1942

It's not hard to find permutations of this quote now. Particularly in the United States, the idea of ordinary people carrying guns for protection is an idea that was forged in the Revolution and advanced by the frontier that it expanded into through the nineteenth century. Today, the United States is probably one of the most well-armed societies on Earth; only in Illinois is it illegal to carry a firearm, and the majority of states allow firearms to be carried openly. Now, it's not as if every single American is packing - during the course of my journeys down to the States, the closest I came was a sign on a Valley Metro bus in Tempe, Arizona that helpfully told me firearms were prohibited onboard.

I'm not interested in talking about openly carrying firearms itself; that's an intensely charged discussion that I don't really have any reason to enter. It's more the psychology behind them, the psychology that is the source of the Heinlein quote at the top of this post. The idea that a proliferation of weapons will lead to a proliferation of manners - a sort of mutually assured destruction for society, perhaps.

Whether or not this would work in the ideal way some of its supporters suggest isn't up for me to figure out. It's just something I've been thinking about, and was recently reminded of - and I can't get beyond the conclusion that a society based on the manners of the gun would be profoundly... off.

A society based on the manners of the Nintendo Zapper, on the other hand, would be profoundly entertained!

Strip away the rhetoric about self-protection, about manners, and so on, and what do you get? That probably depends significantly on the views you bring to the table, but for me, it looks like a society based on fear. A society where you need to be on your best behavior at all times, lest your neighbor decides you're offensive and decides to shoot you - though I know that's a rather extreme possibility. But it really does remind me of the way many people seem to approach religion, particularly Old Testament-flavored Christianity, where the core of the belief is fear: fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of punishment. I hear anecdotal stories occasionally about people who claim that their belief in a vengeful God and eternal punishment is all that keeps them from commiting bloody crimes and atrocities on Earth.

That theoretical "armed, polite society" seems like it hews the same way; that it's set up to keep those same people in line, the people who would run wild with reckless abandon if they knew that the person next to them on the bus, or for that matter barely anyone, could kill them if they stepped far enough out of line.

But what kind of foundation is that? "Follow social norms, lest your peers kill you?" Honestly, I feel as if this goes even farther than states - states may govern through a monopoly on force, but force does not have to be death-dealing. Doesn't it say something about a society if it's necessary for people to be armed to make it polite, that there's been some problem somewhere down the line? The more I think about it, the more it seems like a society founded on fear... and societies based on fear never last. Either people stop being scared, or the fear deepens into bunker mentalities.

If a man can only be well-mannered when he believes his life is on the line... is that really the sort of man we want to be unfettered in society?

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