Cultural Bundling, and Why We Can't Seem to Have Productive Debates About Guns in This Country
Well, here we are again. In the wake of yet another mass shooting in America, and we're again collectively asking why these kinds of tragedies continue to happen more and more frequently in this country. The killing spree that left 49 innocent people dead and another 53 wounded at an Orlando, Florida, gay club is the deadliest in modern American history. The tragedy has also given people plenty of issues to debate, including whether the killer was motivated by homophobia, Islamic terrorism affiliations or something else. The mass murder at Pulse has also reignited the national discussion about gun control, with folks on both sides of the debate once again having plenty of fuel to argue about the place of firearms in America.
Often during these debates, things get ugly, and I've realized that the concept of having a productive discussion about the topic can be almost impossible. People on both sides tend to resort to ad hominem attacks, abandoning any hope of persuading those who disagree with them that their opinion has merit.
Recently, I came across an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times that explained one obstacle to any productive discussion about gun control in this country, with the author of that piece describing a phenomenon that I've long noticed but had never been able to articulate quite so clearly.
Memes are one of the ways that people culture bundle, and while making fun of our opponents may feel good, it isn't constructive
Example meme created by Chris Lane
Ken White thinks "cultural bundling" is a problem for productive discourse on controversial societal issues, and I agree with him 100 percent after observing the ways in which many of us argue over things. In regards to discussions about gun rights or gun control, White feels that people aren't trying to persuade or find common ground with one another, but instead are just venting to like-minded people and attacking their opponents.
One of the main strategies that they employ is using one political issue as a sort of shorthand for a broad group of social and cultural values. Many gun control advocates try to attack gun rights by extending their scorn to the type of people they want to believe support those rights — "A struggle against Bible-thumping, gay-bashing, NASCAR-watching hicks," as White describes it. He explains that many Second Amendment supporters do the same thing, attacking gun control efforts by framing them as "a struggle against godless, elitist, kale-chewing socialists."
Unfortunately, cultural bundling doesn't work — not if a person is actually trying to win any hearts and minds over to his way of thinking. Making the assumption that all people who support gun rights are backwoods Neanderthals who want to kill gays for Jesus when they aren't making sausage out of any urban liberals is no more accurate than an open carry advocate's thinking that anyone favoring some form of gun control is a satanic, socialist liberal who never leaves his MacBook or coffee shops behind to see what America is "really like." Arguing that huge populations of people who have an opinion on one social issue all fit the ugliest stereotypes possible is just a dumb way to try to make a point.
White also talks about other issues that make productive discussions concerning gun rights and gun control difficult, such as the tendency for too many gun control advocates to use incorrect terminology that undermines their arguments. It's almost always best to educate oneself on a topic that someone will debate, and not understanding simple concepts like the difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons doesn't make a person's argument for gun control sound very well thought out.
The kind of bad discourse caused by cultural bundling and relying on bad information in the gun debate can be illustrated by a recent article by New York Daily News columnist Gersh Kuntzman.
Kuntzman's article makes a few good points before diving into some rather ridiculous waters that just reinforce stereotypes about urban "elites" that some Second Amendment advocates would like to believe. In regards to firing an AR15, Kuntzman says:
"The recoil bruised my shoulder, which can happen if you don't know what you're doing. The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulphur and destruction made me sick. The explosions — loud like a bomb — gave me a temporary form of PTSD. For at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable."
Again, something like this probably isn't going to win over anyone from the other "side."
Example meme created by Chris Lane
And with that quote, the memeverse went nuts.
I have no reason to doubt that firing an AR15 was a traumatic experience for Kuntzman, but this kind of writing, while florid, doesn't help with a productive gun control debate for several reasons. First, one of the reasons AR15s are popular is that most are very easy to shoot. The recoil just isn't much of an issue, compared to many other weapons. Kuntzman's description of the horrors of firing one comes off as an exaggeration to many people who have done so themselves, and plays to the stereotype of urban, liberal, gun control advocates being out of touch and slightly ridiculous.
Rather than relying on his own subjective feelings about firing an AR15, Kuntzman might've made a better point with the observation that shooting such a gun is simple and not unpleasant for most people, which might explain why guns like the AR15 are so sadly effective in mass shootings. In the very next paragraph, Kuntzman seems to try to do just that:
"Even in semi-automatic mode, it is very simple to squeeze off two dozen rounds before you even know what has happened. If illegally modified to fully automatic mode, it doesn't take any imagination to see dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel."
The contradictory nature of those two paragraphs, along with the exaggerated style of writing, makes it almost certain that Kuntzman's article wasn't going to persuade many people who've ever fired an AR15 over to his way of thinking. What it did accomplish was giving cultural bundling fuel to Second Amendment supporters, and making productive discourse about gun control less likely.
Both sides often argue their points badly, and I'm sure portraying opponents as subhuman throwbacks or weak crybabies in need of their safe spaces is ego gratifying and fun for many people, but it weakens our ability to find common ground.
An ability to try to better understand people we disagree with rather than assuming they fit a convenient negative stereotype might be the first step to dealing with issues such as gun violence in this country.
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