There’s a nuanced factor about the gun debate in America that’s really difficult for the media to try and capture. It doesn’t fit into neat 5 second sound bites, and it doesn’t make for clever social media graphic memes. It’s not talked about on social media, at least from what I’ve seen, and I don’t hear it in personal discussions. Before I give away the punch line, let me tell you a story that illustrates this overlooked factor.
Last week, my wife and I went to go see the new movie, The Shape of Water. While sitting back in our reclining chairs, watching opening credits to the movie, the person directly on my left was talking to his wife or girlfriend rather loudly. I thought to myself, “well, I’m sure he’ll stop once the actual movie starts.” Of course that didn’t happen. Now in a situation where you’d think most people would understand social norms, and that it’s rude to talk during a movie (you know, they have big messages to remind people to turn off their cell phones and shut their traps before the movie begins), I guess this fact had escaped my friend on my left. Being the courteous person I’d like to think I am, I gave him another 5 minutes or so into the movie to stop. That didn’t happen either. So of course, being the kind and courteous person I am, I gave him another 5 minutes. Surely, he knows his constant and loud talking during the movie is a disturbance. He’s just covering something really important with his wife. He’ll stop shortly.
That of course didn’t happen, so I turned to him, very politely and said, “Hello. Would you mind…”, and before I could finish my sentence he snorted back, “Would I mind what?”. Ahh, I thought. This is going to go well. I can see it already. “Would you mind not talking during the movie (and I even added a please)?” His kind response was, “I wasn’t talking to you.” Well, that clears it up then. I thought he was trying to explain the movie to me with talking subtitles, which I didn’t need. I could see the movie, but apparently I was wrong.
“I can see you’re not talking to me sir. I’m asking you if you can stop talking because you’re in a shared space, and you’re disturbing me and others around you.” To which he responded in his loudest voice yet, “I can talk if I want.” And there you have it. How dare I ask him to give up his right to free speech, in order to be polite, courteous, and think of the others around him he’s sharing space with.
The end of the story is irrelevant. He did stop talking. I believe his wife said something to him. And of course this gun debate centers around the tension between personal freedoms, and the safety of society. The individual vs. the collective. The underbelly of most debates conservatives have with progressives. “Why should I give up my God given right to X, just to satisfy you?” But that’s not my nuanced point.
The nuance of this story is, personal freedoms are a myth. They’re an illusion. American’s have been sold on this notion, more than any other countries in my experience, because it sets a great stage for division. It’s a natural tension between, “I think therefore I am.”, but also, “I think, and my thoughts effect others.” How we’ve dealt with this in order to ease tensions, at least historically, has been to make everything relative. “Johnny has a right to his own opinion, and who are we to say that Johnny’s opinion is any better or worse than someone else’s”. That’s what we do as a society, and it makes sense. We don’t want society at large, at constant tension with each other, challenging each other’s beliefs. But wait… aren’t we already at a natural tension with each other if beliefs become diametrically opposed to one another?
Everyone is special and unique right? Everyone has a right to be their own individual. You have inalienable rights, like the right to worship as you wish. Sure. However, pretending those personal freedoms only effect you is a lie. It’s the myth of personal freedoms. You have control of your part, but you are still PART of a whole. No matter where you go in the world, or into the cosmos, you aren’t just an individual person. You’re part of a whole… whether you like it or not. All of your decisions, ideas, and beliefs, effect the whole (of society).
I’m all for the illusion of personal freedoms. I think they make getting by in a complex world, much easier. But I’m not vain enough (and I’m plenty vain) to think that my personal freedoms should ever supersede the needs of the whole. I know lots of very responsible gun owners. All very good people, and most with good reasons why they want a gun. I have confidence that American’s can find a balance to support both positions responsibly. All other first world countries have done so, and I don’t think American’s are somehow inferior to these other countries. We have plenty of models, and all of the data in the world that shows less access to guns, stricter regulations on guns, leads to less gun deaths. The data on this issue is very black and white. We as a country can find a balance that meets the needs of most groups on this issue.
My only hope is that for the hardcore gun owners. The ones that say, there’s no way I want to give up my right to own an AR-15, or some other semi-automatic weapon that can wreak such tragedy in such a short period of time reflect on one point every time they pick up their gun. I hope that those gun owners, understand that their overwhelming need for their perceived personal freedom, is coming at the consequence of all of us reading this right now. I hope they realize they are part of a whole, and not just an individual, and they look to find some common ground with others who share their common space.
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