This is quite relevant to recent events. My DePaul Religious Studies colleague Laith Saud's recent TED talk.
Building on my piece from yesterday, a great deal of my objection to the idea of having certain speakers on university campuses was rooted in the idea that, given the university's mission as a place where ideas can be debated and discussed, and where those ideas can advance intellectual inquiry, a speaker whose sole motivation was to offend others was not appropriate for a university setting. The response I got, initially on Twitter, but also in other contexts as well, was "well, who are you to judge whether it was intended to offend?" Or "Isn't offense in the eye of the beholder?" To which I have typically responded: "I believe it is possible to infer the intent to offend based on the record of the speaker." In other words, from what was known about Milo, and what was known about his rhetoric, and the substance-free nature of the writing in which that rhetoric was typically contained, it was possible to infer that his sole motivation was to offend a substantial portion of the student population. I would extend that argument to the group that invited him: I think we can infer from their invitation to Milo that their entire motivation was to offend the progressive student groups that they knew would show up to protest the event.
Certainly the fact that Milo's events had been protested in a similar way at other venues suggests that everyone involved knew what the likely outcome was going to be. I'd suggest it was exactly what they were hoping for. But I want to expand the conversation beyond this particular speaker on this particular occasion and ask whether or not we can be permitted to infer the intent to offend, generally speaking.
My point here is not whether we can know that people are, as a matter of fact, likely to be offended by a particular speaker. I'm not suggesting that the mere fact that people could be offended is a reason to bar a particular speaker. On the contrary, as I noted before, I think that speakers of all positions on the left-right spectrum, whose views may happen to offend some portion of the student population, certainly have a place as speakers in a university setting. For example, I believe that a pro-choice speaker should be permitted to speak at a Catholic university, even though many Catholic would be offended by them, because the argument about abortion itself has merit, and having that argument in the midst of university life is part of the mission of the university. Similarly, I believe that a speaker advocating building a Trump-style border wall on the American-Mexican border should be permitted to speak, as that argument is part of the larger debate about immigration reform in the United States. I think in either case, it should be unsurprising if protestors showed up, and as in the case of Milo's event, I think it would be ill-advised if those protestors disrupted the event, but protest is certainly an appropriate response.
My question runs to a more difficult issue: To what degree are we permitted to infer that, when someone says something offensive, they are saying solely to offend, versus saying something for the purpose of advancing an important conversation which just happens to offend? The person advocating for abortion rights may indeed offend pro-life Catholics, but that would be in the context of advocating a point of view about the rights of women over their own bodies. Compare that to a speaker who was invited to a Catholic university for the purpose of trampling on a consecrated communion wafer. The later speaker would clearly have no goal except to offend Catholics, and I think it would be well within the purview of the university to exclude them.
Similarly, in the case of the advocate of the border wall, while their viewpoint would be offensive to many, and certainly to me, as long as it was not couched in an argument that Mexicans are in some way innately inferior human beings, but in say economic terms, then offensive as it would be, it wouldn't be solely offensive. On the other hand, inviting a member of the Aryan Nations to campus would clearly have no other purpose but to inflame anger and cause offense to people of color around campus.
Again, if you know what someone's record of speech and action is, I believe it is entirely possible to infer intent from action, and to infer future intent from past action. We do it all the time. A substantial part of human interaction in every context involves the inference of internal states from external actions. Much of human language is about negotiating the differences between what people say and what they intend. And of course, as imperfect creatures, we often get that wrong. But I would suggest that we get these things wrong most in ambiguous, marginal cases where what is being communicated is unclear, or the connection between external act and internal state appears to conflict. But again, to use the communion wafer example: Someone who came to campus for the express purpose of doing that would leave no ambiguity with regard to their goal of offending.
But then the rejoinder would no doubt be: Well shouldn't people have the right to act in an explicitly offensive manner? On the one hand, in your own home, I suppose you can act as offensively as you want. If you can find people who are willing to pay for you to be offensive, you can take the show on the road. If you set up your soap box in a public park, you can be as offensive as you please as long as you obey park rules. But that's not what a university exists to promote. If you are offensive because you are presenting controversial ideas that are otherwise of worth in advancing the intellectual mission of the school, then a university can and should permit that to take place. But no one has a right to be offensive in the context of a university setting, even when presenting controversial ideas. To put it another way: If someone is presenting an idea I disagree with, then it is not a refutation of their idea for me simply to say that I find it offensive. However, if a person is acting in such a way that they are advancing no real idea, but simply trying to get a rise out of me, then to respond by saying "You are simply being offensive" is indeed a refutation. It's saying, effectively, "You are not advocating an idea that is capable of response or rejoinder, but simply trying to be offensive for offensiveness's sake."
Take the communion wafer example again. Let's give the example some detail. Suppose I were to invite a member of the Church of Satan to campus to advocate for the idea that religion was false, that would be an acceptable speaker for a university setting, even a Catholic university setting. But if, as an illustration of his contempt for religion, he pulled out a communion wafer and trampled on it, that would cross the line to pure offense. It is entirely possible to make the anti-religion argument without the offensive act. And making that argument may indeed offend some people. The simple fact that the speaker is from the Church of Satan may offend some people. But those things are offensive in the context of advancing a conversation that is part of the university's mission. The trampling of the communion wafer, on the other hand, is not.
To push it a step further. If we knew that the particular speaker was in the habit of coming to campuses in order to trample communion wafers, then I would argue that it would be perfectly acceptable to say that the speaker was not welcome, because we, once more, can infer his intent to offend based upon what we know he had done in the past.
Next question: suppose our communion-trampler somehow bypassed the university administration and got invited anyway. When word got out, a group of Catholic students decided to protest the speaker, and what's more, some of them decided that they were going to interfere with the speakers act of wafer-trampling. What would we say about their actions? I honestly am not 100% sure. Would the university president have apologized to the member of the Church of Satan if those students succeeded in shutting down the event? I don't know. What I do know is that the problem started when the decision was made to invite the speaker who was known for committing such an act.
As I've argued elsewhere, given the substance-free nature of Milo's offensive rhetoric, and given the demonstrated tendency of his followers to respond to his opponents via intimidation, I believe that the original sin in this entire drama was the decision to allow him to speak at DePaul in the first place. I think it was entirely possible to infer his intent to offend based upon his past actions, and that those actions gave a good indication of what was likely to happen.
What university policies should exist to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future? I admit I am not sure. Where should the precise boundary be between acceptable and unacceptable speakers? I'm not sure about that either. I'm not even 100% sure that Milo fell on the wrong side of that line, though as I've argued, I have a strong suspicion that he does. But I do think that ultimately we should recognize that not every speaker is acceptable in the context of a university, and determining which are, and which aren't, is part of the university's mission.
For the past several days DePaul University has been dealing with the aftermath of a visit by alleged journalist and noted provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos writes for alleged news site Brietbart.com, and everything that I've seen suggests that they are perfect for each other, in that both the writer and the website are far more interested in stirring the pot then in actually engaging in journalism or seeking to enhance or promote democratic discourse. Zach Beauchamp at Vox.com has described the ideology that Yiannopoulos represents quite well:
Once you understand that Yiannopoulos thinks norms against offensive speech and action are themselves a terrible form of authoritarianism, then the rest of his persona starts to make a lot more sense. He sees himself as a hybrid journalist-activist, leading a movement he calls "cultural libertarianism" to protect "free speech" from the egalitarian bullies.
What "cultural libertarianism" is, in practice, is a lot of people on the internet saying intentionally offensive stuff. What better way to end the left's taboo on being sexist than by actually being sexist and getting away with it? ...
All of this, basically, reduces to high-profile trolling — a term that, if you aren't familiar with it, means posting stuff online that's deliberately designed to offend people, often purely because you think irritating other people is funny.
That's intentional. Yiannopoulos is, self-consciously, weaponizing trolling: taking tools invented by internet pranksters and deploying them in his self-declared war on the cultural left. His stunts are designed to appeal to a warped sense of humor as much as they are to help batter down liberal taboos. He thinks things like pretending to be a BuzzFeed editor and tweeting stuff like "#FeminismIsCancer" is a "hilarious" way to stick it to stodgy liberal elites.
Yiannopoulos was invited to campus by the DePaul Republicans. This provoked a reaction among many of the DePaul students who, as it turns out, finds making intentionally racist and sexist comments far less hilarious than Yiannopoulos and his fans. A student group organized protests outside the event, and some students opted to disrupt the event, blowing whistles and shouting Yiannopoulos down. Things escalated from there, as Yiannopoulos decided he was unhappy with the security response and took to the streets. The DePaul Student Center was shut down and eventually Yiannopoulos left and the protestors dispersed. The next day, President Dennis Holtschneider wrote an email to the campus community condemning the disruption and apologizing to Yiannopoulos and the College Republicans. This letter was the first I knew about either the event or the protests.
The apology, it seems, satisfied nobody. The Yiannopoulites found it insufficiently groveling, while many students and faculty at DePaul found it outrageously conciliatory, given the content of Yiannopoulos' words. Meanwhile, things continued to escalate at DePaul, as anti-Mexican graffiti was found on campus, and then a noose was discovered in a student dorm. Several of my faculty colleagues were subject to some fairly severe harassment on Twitter. I posted a tweet in support of one colleague, and then turned in.
I woke up Thursday morning thinking about the question of how it was that someone like Yiannopoulos, who did not really have anything of genuine intellectual worth to add to the discourse of a university, had gotten invited to speak. Of course, people get invited to do a lot of things at universities. Some are invited to give academic lectures, some are invited because they represent a controversial point of view, or because they are public figures. Some are comedians. But whatever the purpose for which someone is invited to speak at a university, it occurred to me that what they offer ought to be consistent with the academic mission of the school. It needn't agree with any particular political position, or even, I would argue, in the case of DePaul, be consistent with Catholic teaching, in order to be worth of a hearing. But it should rise to some minimal threshold of intellectual worth in order to be worthy of inclusion in university programming.
With this in mind, I took to Twitter once again, and posted the following series of tweets.
If one comes to a college to say something that has no intellectual worth can interrupting them be a violation of their right to speak?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
If a student group brings a speaker to campus for the express purpose of offending others, does that person have any genuine right to speak?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
If a student group wanted to bring a speaker to defend the Rwandan genocide, would they have a right to do so? Where is the boundary here?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
Some things are clearly on one side of the protected speech boundary, some things are clearly on the other, but how do find the line?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
These comments were intended to raise precisely the question I noted above: What is the purpose for which any particular speaker is brought to campus? And what are the limits to what kinds of discourse are permissible.
Given that I have a very small community of Twitter followers, and that I hadn't used any hashtags to draw attention to the tweets, I figured it would promote some mild discussion among my followers -- if that -- and that would be the end of it. I'd continue to ruminate on the topic, and probably no more would come of it. Oh, how wrong I was!
Apparently, I eventually got retweeted by Yiannopoulos himself, or at least one of his more prominent hangers-on, and the tweets went viral. Before I knew it, I had well over half a million impressions on Twitter. That in itself was surprising, but what was even more surprising was the degree of vitriol, as well as the complete lack of comprehension, represented by the response to my words. My initial reaction was amusement, as most of the responses weren't actually interested in engaging me, but insulting me. Again, based upon everything I know about Yiannopoulos and his minions, this is pretty much the sum and substance of their MO. They never engage in thought when they can engage in purile name-calling. So, I responded with snark. Eventually though, real life called, and I realized that continuing to engage these folks was a classic case of feeding the trolls, so I moved on.
What I did not expect was the next round of attacks, which consisted of harassing emails and phone calls to my office. I came to find out that I was far from the only faculty member so targeted, and, like the racist graffiti and the noose, this all seemed to be grounded in the hostility of the Yiannopoulites. What's more, it occurred to me that, apart from the childishness and vulgarity of the response, it had a very specific intent, which was to intimidate Yiannopoulos' opponents into silence. The great irony of Yiannopoulos' whole routine is that under the guise of the defense of absolute free speech, it's real agenda is silencing those who would speak out against overtly sexist and racist commentary.
To be clear: There are plenty of people who would be perfectly welcome to speak at DePaul, regardless of the odious opinions that they held. But I return to what I suggested above: A person whose entire goal is quite literally nothing other than to be intentionally offensive is not worthy of an invitation to speak at an academic institution. Many of my respondents on Twitter seemed to be of the opinion that I was taking a stand against free speech in general, or that I was saying something that was contrary to the First Amendment, though this only demonstrated both that they hadn't read what I wrote and that they didn't understand the First Amendment. If Yiannopoulos got hold of a soap box and chose to stand on it in the park, I would have no objection to him being allowed to say whatever he wanted. If the College Republicans wanted to rent a private space off campus to hear him rant, I would have no objection. If he stood in the street off campus and said what he wanted, I would have no objection. My objection was to the use of university space and resources for the purpose of giving him a forum. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment, it has to do with he mission of the university.
Of course, then there is the matter of what should have been done once he was there. I was exceptionally proud of DePaul's students for organizing a peaceful protest in opposition to him. And I am sympathetic to the students who chose to disrupt the event. There may indeed by times and places where disruption is an appropriate tactic in opposition to genuinely vile speech. For example, I see no reason why a neo-Nazi should be given a hearing, and shouting one down seems to me to be a perfectly appropriate response. However, in the final analysis I think that the disruption of Yiannopoulos' event was a miscalculation, primarily because it gave Yiannopoulos and his minions exactly what they wanted. Once the event was interrupted, the story was no longer, as it should have been, how awful Yiannopoulos was and how outrageous it was to give him a forum at DePaul, and became about how he wasn't permitted to speak. Yiannopoulos was thus able to claim the moral high ground in spite of his vile rhetoric, even though it was undeserved, because the interruption seemed to run contrary to the commitment to free discourse in a university setting.
But again, to be clear, nothing that Yiannopoulos had to say was worth a hearing in a university setting. Explicit racism and misogyny don't have any place in democratic discourse. The idea that literally all voices deserve a hearing at all times and places is not an expression of free speech, rather it is a means of thwarting free speech by continuing to relitigate arguments that should be considered settled issues. Again, the goal is silence those who would speak out against entrenched privilege and systemic racism and sexism.
Returning to Zach Beauchamp's article in Vox, he makes an important point about the idea that Yiannopoulos and his followers are not actually racist or sexist, but only say these things for the purpose of being intentionally provocative, for the sake of the freest possible speech:
Even if he doesn't actually agree with these ideas and is just trying to be provocative. He's mainstreaming bigotry.
Beauchamp then goes on to discuss Yiannopoulos' relation to the "alt-right" community:
The alt-right is a group of online dissidents from mainstream conservatism. While they have a diverse set of beliefs and interests, they share one core belief: Mainstream conservatism is full of politically correct sellouts.
The alt-right encompasses a range of views. It includes among its ranks people who’d traditionally be just called white supremacists or white nationalists, people like Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute (who coined the term "alt-right") or American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor. But it also includes people who reject bigotry, at least in its overt forms, but whose views are still too reactionary for the conservative mainstream.
Regardless, racism and sexism are essential elements of the alt-right movement; it could not exist in its current form without them. Alt-righters tend to oppose mass immigration on grounds that Latin Americans and Muslims dilute the excellence of white culture. They support what they call "white identity politics" — the idea that white Americans should organize and stick up for their own interests because minority groups do the same thing.
Hot arguments on the alt-right include the idea that African Americans are intrinsically dumber than white Americans, that society would be better off if women had fewer opportunities outside of the home, and that Nazism maybe wasn't all bad.
Yiannopoulos loves these guys.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether Yiannopoulos or the alt-right are "sincere" in their racism and sexism. The point at which you incorporate racist and sexist rhetoric into your worldview, and advocate it as a matter of course in your speaking and writing, you are a racist and a sexist. The difference between someone like Yiannopoulos and a character like Borat is that Borat makes bigots the butt of the joke, Yiannopoulos makes women and people of color the butt of the joke. And to excuse that by saying it was "only" a joke, or that it's satire, or that it's insincere simply doesn't wash.
And so that brings me back to my main point: If Yiannopoulos chose to rave in the streets of Chicago about women or African Americans, I'd gingerly walk past him on my way to something that was actually important to do, and shake my head that there weren't better services for someone so obviously disturbed. But to have him at DePaul University elevates him and diminishes the school. The fact that there were students who chose to be provoked by him in exactly the way he wanted to provoke them is unfortunate for DePaul's reputation, but for my part I'm far more worried about the idea that there are DePaul students who would hear or read anything he has to say and conclude "this is a guy we should have on campus." That is a far bigger indictment of DePaul University than anything else.
Earlier this week, a Federal District Court ruled that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (CFSM) should not be considered a religion under U.S. law. According to an article on the ruling by the Religion News Service, this was based upon the fact that the Church was clearly intended to be satire, and not anything that could be considered a "genuine" religion.
In a 16-page decision, the U.S. District Court of Nebraska ruled that Pastafarianism is satire, not sacred, and that anyone who thinks it is a religion has made an error “of basic reading comprehension.”
“This is not a question of theology,” the ruling reads in part. “The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a ‘religious exercise’ on any other work of fiction.”
What I find interesting in the ruling is the fact that it makes a clear demarcation between something that is transparently satirical, and what would commonly be considered "genuine" faith. It raises a number of sticky issues, not least of which is "how can one go about distinguishing "genuine" from "inauthentic" religion. However, I don't think that the problem is nearly as difficult as the ruling's detractors are seeking to make it.
In the view of the CFSM's supporters, it is impossible to distinguish between a "real" religion and the CFSM, since everything that appears absurd about that faith is, in their estimation, no less absurd than the doctrines of Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, or Scientology. By ruling against Pastafarianism (as the church is sometimes referred to), they argue that the court is making declarations about what constitutes "true" versus "false" religion.
However, that's not how I read the situation. The question is not whether the object of the religion is true or false, but whether the belief in the object of religious faith is sincerely held by adherents. The problem isn't that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, it's that absolutely no one really believes that there is one. As an act of satire, the CFSM has done its job too well. It has set itself up as such a transparent attempt to troll genuine religious belief, that no one can possibly take it seriously as a religious faith, to the extent that, even if someone were to claim to believe it sincerely, it would be quite clear that this is simply part of the act. (And if you don't believe me, try listening to or reading someone affirm the doctrines of Pastafarianism without conveying an obvious smirk).
This is in distinction from, say Scientology, which I have in the past defended as an "authentic" religion. By this I do not mean that I believe its doctrines to be true, or even remotely plausible. Rather, in thinking of Scientology as a religion, I recognize that there are many people who, for better or for worse, hold it as a sincere matter of faith. Now, I have heard from former Scientologists that much of the leadership of the Church is corrupt and abusive. This is probably completely true. I've heard enough similar reports to grant that a high degree of probability. But it's irrelevant to the question of whether it constitutes an authentic religion, because again, it's not about the truth or falsity of the doctrines, it's about the sincerity with which they are held. It's not about the virtuousness of the church's leadership, it's about the degree to which they are genuinely held in esteem by their followers, or can at least make a credible case that they are.
And this is the problem with the CFSM. One respondent in a conversation about this asked "why must it be the case that a belief is held sincerely in order for a religion to be authentic," to which I responded, "because the very nature of the word "belief" implied the idea that the thing believed is sincerely held to be true. There is simply no such thing as a genuine "belief" which is not sincerely held. Since nobody claiming to hold to the beliefs of the CFSM has been able to make even the most basic case that they hold those beliefs sincerely, it cannot be considered to a genuine religion. It's too successful as an act of satire. If the CFSM had wanted to be held as an actual religion, it would have had to do a better job cultivating a base of followers that could credibly claim that they sincerely believe it.
This, to be clear, has nothing to do with the question of whether one can "prove" the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster any more than one can "prove" the existence of God. The response that the FSM is just as credible as the Christian or Muslim God is, from a legal perspective, beside the point. This is not a matter of philosophical proof or comparative theology. It's a matter of what the courts often call the "reasonable person test." Would a reasonable person, looking at the CFSM conclude that its adherents held its beliefs sincerely, or merely for the purposes of satire. On that basis, I think a court could validly conclude that the CFSM is not a religion because it's precepts are not sincerely held.
Now, there may be other grounds on which one could make a case for the validity of the CFSM as a religion, but I'm of the opinion that, as New Religious Movements go, it's really not very interesting precisely because it's so obviously satirical. What I'd be interested in seeing would be a case where, for example, someone who followed the Jedi religion wanted that to be officially recognized. There are, after all, those who hold that Jedi-ism is a genuine religious belief, and they hold it sincerely. I think one could make a very compelling case, in a way that one can't for the CFSM in favor of adherents of Jedi religion, on much the same grounds as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Scientology.
Last night I had the opportunity to see The Hateful Eight (in its much vaunted 70mm, roadshow format, with a souvenir program and everything!). Tarantino's movies are, of course, always controversial, and this movie is no different. But as I discussed it afterwards with my companions, I realized that, despite the complaint that his movies revel in violence and nihilism, there is actually a moral core to Tarantino's work that is often overlooked.
There will be spoilers in what I am about to write, so consider yourself forewarned.
The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's homage to the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, but it's equally indebted to the drawing room mysteries of Agatha Christie. It tells the story of seven bad men and one bad woman trapped together in an isolated way station in the old west, waiting out a blizzard. Two of the men are bounty hunters. John "The Hangman" Ruth, always brings his bounties in alive to be tried and hanged. Major Marquis Warren is an African American Civil War veteran, who claims to be in possession of a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln. The woman, Daisy Domergue, is Ruth's bounty. Along the way, they also pick up a man who claims to be the town's new sheriff, but who also turns out to be an unrecalcitrant racist, who once belonged to a unit of Confederate soldiers who terrorized black towns in the name of "honor in defeat." Before we even arrive at the way station, tensions are running high among these four.
Once they arrive at the way station, they meet four more men. A Mexican named Bob who claims to be running the place, a cowboy on his way to spend Christmas with his mother (did I mention this is a Christmas movie?), the local hangman, and a former Confederate general. As the snow traps them, the central question driving the action is who is there to betray whom, and who will make it out alive.
It's no spoiler to say that not everyone does. Nor is it a spoiler to note that, along the way, enormous amounts of blood will be spilled. This is after all a Quentin Tarantino movie. If he really wanted to surprise us on this score, he'd make a movie with no violence at all.
However, that having been said, the level of violence is relatively muted for the first two hours of the movie. From the early panoramic scenes of a stagecoach traversing a mountain pass to the bulk of the time our cast of characters spends trapped together in the way house, most of the movie passes with relatively little violence (however, unfortunately most of the violence that does take place in those first segments is inflicted on the one woman in the cast). The third hour more than makes up for the slow burn, however, once the masks come off and the participants in the setup are revealed.
Here is your last warning about spoilers. After this point I will be revealing elements of the movie's plot that you might rather not know.
In the last act, it's revealed that Daisy's brother, along with the Mexican, the Brit, and the Cowboy, have staged an ambush at the way station in order to rescue her. After killing everyone there except the Confederate general, they set up the scene to appear innocent and then wait for Ruth to drop his guard. Eventually he does and gets himself poisoned to death along with their stage coach driver. At this point, Marquis and the Sheriff, who have every reason to hate one another, team up to figure out who the murderers are. They quickly establish that everyone except the two of them is now in on it (Marquis had killed the general right before the intermission, after a long scene where he described his humiliation and murder of the General's son, an act of revenge for the General's misdeeds during the war -- again, these are all bad people).
As violence, murder, and chaos descend on the cabin, everyone finds themselves dead except for Marquis, the Sheriff, and Daisy. Marquis is fatally wounded, and the Sheriff is not much better off. Daisy offers him a deal: If he will kill Marquis and let her go, he can cash in the bounties on the men her brother had brought to help rescue her.
Before I talk about what happens next, it's worth talking a bit about the connection between the western tropes that Tarantino is accessing (such as those in Sam Pekinpah and Sergio Leone) and naturalistic fiction. Naturalism stressed the struggle of human beings against their environment and their nature. It tended to be morally pessimistic, and leaned toward a degree of nihilism, in that it portrayed human beings as ultimately slaves to their own natures, and to the whims of fate. Watching the movie, I could see Tarantino dipping into that well, presenting us with eight characters who were not bound by any rules of morality of any sense of transcendent value, looking only to their own survival and sacrificing whoever and whatever was necessary in order to do so. At best, perhaps, they were bound by notions of kin and blood, whether Daisy's brother's attempt at bloody rescue, the Sheriff's lingering loyalty to the values of the Old South, or Marquis's desire to see justice done for the years of slavery and repression heaped on black Americans. But even there, one could argue that those bonds of blood and kin are tenuous at best, and can break under the right stressors. If this were a work of naturalistic fiction, then when those bonds were finally dissolved for the surviving characters, all that would be left would be the desire for survival and gain.
However, that's not what happens in the bloody aftermath, once everyone is dead except for Daisy, Marquis, and the Sheriff. After listening to Daisy's offer, and perhaps even seriously considering it for a moment, he instead rejects it, on the grounds that, as the Sheriff of Red Rock, he has a duty to perform, and furthermore, he doesn't believe Daisy's threat that, if he kills her, fifteen additional men are waiting in town to kill everyone. He is about to shoot her when Marquis insists that, for the sake of John Ruth, they enact a rough form of frontier justice and hang her themselves. Thus, as both men lay dying, and despite the fact that they each have good reason to hate one another, they overcome their mutual hatred in order to see some form of justice done.
Now, perhaps I'm stretching more than a bit in seeking to skim some form of moral redemption from this grand guignol, and there is certainly much to criticize in the way that Tarantino brings this drama to a conclusion. Certainly the violence is excessive. Certainly Tarantino seems to take far too much glee in acts of casual misogyny (directed mostly toward Daisy, though she is as thoroughly despicable as every other character), and in allowing the characters to express and explore their own depravity. And certainly the light of redemption at the end of this very deep and dark tunnel that Tarantino has led us down is very dim, yet I would still argue that it is there, and that, in spite of the racism, in spite of the misogyny, and in spite of the violence, Tarantino's message in this movie is about the possibility that, even under the most brutal circumstances, we can overcome even the most entrenched differences between us in the name of some transcendent reference point. Naturalism does not rule the day. In the end, our lives exist for the sake of something more than mere survival. John Ruth may not have been much of a moral guidepost for The Hateful Eight, but he did believe in the need for justice, and his example ultimately inspired the two remaining representatives of social order in that cabin to seek to bring about what justice they could, given the limited means at their disposal.
Benjamin Dueholm has a piece in Religion Dispatches today that adds a bit more to the ongoing Wheaton College controversy over whether Christians and Muslims worship the "same God." A few points that he raises are worth accenting. First, on the subject of how "monotheism" has traditionally functioned in Christian theology, he writes:
To some extent this may reflect the relative decline of classical philosophical monotheism in Christian discourse. Aquinas and his non-Christian influences had a common language for the nature of God—one, transcendent, necessary, eternal, not subject to change or decay, and so on. This language was at one time believed to be logically prior to revelation, and to be valid even if no revelation had confirmed it (this led thinkers of all three faiths into some risky territory with their co-religionists).
Moreover there were aspects of the revelations themselves—the “book” of which Dr. Hawkins spoke, quoting a common Islamic formula for the adherents of the monotheistic religions—that cohered in broadly shared themes. The world has an origin and a conclusion; humans are made for relationship with God; moral precepts are ordered to the knowledge and service of this God.
This philosophical language and these intertextual themes are less prominent in Christian thought today, especially among Protestants.
This point cannot be stressed enough. The theological positivism represented by way that Wheaton's administration has chosen to interpret Professor Hawkins' statements represents a failure to recognize the continuity of tradition in thinking about the question of monotheism. What Medieval Catholic theologians and Medieval Muslim scholars shared in common with one another allowed them to actually argue over the substance of their theological claims. These scholars were actually having a disagreement, whereas Wheaton College can't actually be said to be "disagreeing" with anyone because it's refusing to even engage in a substantive conversation with Islam over the nature of its differences. The best that can come -- the best -- from a religious dispute of this sort is a set of mutually dueling monologues, in which religious traditions talk past one another and refuse to recognize any common ground from which they can speak. Of course, the more common result of this refusal to engage on a set of common terms is violence, coming from both sides in the dispute. But if the goal of speech is understanding, then recognizing a common language for conversation is a necessary first step. We once had that in the conversation between Christians and Muslims, but we don't any longer.
Ben goes on to make another point:
Where Christianity’s similarities with the monotheisms—whether of Greeks, Jews, or Muslims—were once central to Christian interfaith apologetics, now it is the distinctive marks that predominate. Some evangelicals have adopted a sort of slogan that Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship,” fully severing the anguished familial bonds with Judaism and Islam.
In other circles it is now more common to describe religion as constituted by its practices and its distinctive narratives, diminishing the abstract notion of God to something of a cipher.
This point is even more perplexing to me coming from an evangelical institution such as Wheaton. Given the focus on conversion, and the need for apologetics, the fact that they would abandon what has been, since Paul's speech at the Areopagus, the central apologetic strategy of Christianity is really rather mind-boggling. It also raises troubling questions, as several commentators have noted, about the relationship between evangelical Christians and Jews, suggesting as it does that they do not believe that Jews worship the same God as Christians any more than Muslims do. As Daniel Kirk has noted, throwing around accusations of Marcionism is a bit of a cottage industry these days, yet I cannot be the only one to find traces of Marcionism in this implication. I was rather startled in my own exchanges over the past several days on this topic to realize that many Christians are actually quite happy to abandon the claim that Christians and Jews worship the same God, if that means that they don't have to accept that Muslims worship the same God as well.
But what this demonstrates is how the commitment to the exclusion of Muslims has led to an incoherent and tribalistic rhetoric in some evangelical circles, where evangelism simply consists of responding to every question with a Bible verse (as though that would convince anyone who didn't already hold the Bible as authoritative in some way, and as though those passages themselves don't require contextualization and interpretation), and where there is not even a scintilla of rational engagement with those with whom we disagree, or even an acknowledgment of a shared language. The problem is not, I think, that there are some people who just can't be bothered to rationally engage on these questions. There will always be people whose capacity and desire for such engagement is limited. The problem is that those who can't be bothered occupy positions of power and influence in educational institutions intended to represent the Christian intellectual tradition at its best.
For now at least, Wheaton's administration seems to have decided that it's given up on the business of education, in name of indoctrination. More's the pity for its excellent faculty and students.
Much as I've appreciated Miroslav Volf's defense of the argument that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, one passage in his Washington Post article jumped out at me as rather dissonant, but I didn't really feel qualified to comment on it. However, it turns out that my Catholic Theological Union colleague Scott Alexander noticed the same thing, and he is qualified to comment. Here's the passage from Volf:
In addition to contesting the Trinity and the Incarnation, Muslims also contest the Christian claim that God is love — unconditional and indiscriminate love. There is no claim in Islam that God ‘justifies the ungodly’ and no command to love one’s enemies. But these are the signature claims of the Christian faith. Take the redemption of the ungodly and the love of enemy out of the Christian faith, and you un-Christian it.
Clearly, Christians and Muslims disagree, just as Christians and Jews do, on the questions of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity. These are rather basic disagreements, though profound as they are, they do not nullify the underlying argument. Christians and Muslims may be said to worship the same God, even if they disagree about the nature and attributes of that God. However, what about this business about Muslims not believing that God is Love, or that God commands us to love our enemies? Scott Alexander writes in response to these assertions:
My experience with Muslim interlocutors of various types have taught me that, although they may reject the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, Muslims have their own different but equally powerful expressions of God’s love in profound divine-human intimacy.
Muslims personally testify in an abundance of ways to the immanence of God in their lives—the God whose active will is felt in the pulse of the very blood coursing through their veins. This sense of intimacy with a God who loves (His) creation is also echoed in classical interpretations of the two divine attributes attested in Islamic discourse above all others: “The One Who is (Him)self Compassion” and “The One Who Ceaselessly Acts Compassionately in (His) Relationships with All Creatures.”
I discussed this point with a Muslim colleague who pointed out that the Islamic emphasis on God’s rahma or “mercy” is the equivalent of Christian agape in that it is “flows eternally with no expectation of reciprocation.”
Alexander then goes on to address the assertion that Muslims aren't commanded to love their enemies:
In the context of burgeoning Islamophobia in the U.S. and rhetoric which propagates the falsehoods that Islam is an inherently violent faith and that Muslims are uniquely prone to violence in the name of their religion, Volf suddenly resurrects another age-old Christian anti-Muslim polemic. He declares, by way of implicit contrast with Islam, that “love of enemy” is “the signature claim of the Christian faith.”
This highly spurious declaration raises at least two questions.
The first is whether Prof. Volf is familiar with verses such as Q 41:34:وَلَا تَسْتَوِي الْحَسَنَةُ وَلَا السَّيِّئَةُ ادْفَعْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ فَإِذَا الَّذِي بَيْنَكَ وَبَيْنَهُ عَدَاوَةٌ كَأَنَّهُ وَلِيٌّ حَمِيمٌ
“[Given the fact that] goodness and evil are not equal, defend yourself [against evil] with what is greater in goodness, such that the one between whom and yourself there is enmity may be as though s/he had always been your intimate friend.”
He goes on to ask how any religion can be said to have a singular "central claim," the absence of which would make it cease to be what it is. He then concludes:
Volf seems to imply, Wheaton and other Evangelical Christian institutions and theologians can then get about the more important business of truly loving Muslims by showing them just how flawed their understanding of the God they worship really is.
As a Christian committed to the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim dialogue, I must respectfully offer my “thanks, but no thanks” to Prof. Volf’s well intentioned but ultimately troubling intervention in the controversy over Prof. Hawkins’s suspension.
I'm not as willing to throw over Volf's whole argument because of these flaws, but I do recognize that they are flaws in his argument. What Volf, Alexander, and I all share is a commitment to the creation of an ongoing conversation between Christians and Muslims, which recognizes and addresses the genuine core differences between them, but also engages in an honest assessment of what we share in common. When Volf argues that "Many Christians and many Muslims worship the same God," I understand him to be saying that those of us who recognize God as the common source and originator of our distinct faiths, and affirm that God wishes us to live in peaceful community with one another, then we are worshiping the same God. Of course, by that same argument, it can be said that Christians and Muslims who desire this share more in common with one another than they each do with members of their own faith that are committed, as far too many are, to the perpetuation of violence and conflict.
Wheaton College has made the news this week for putting a tenured professor on "administrative leave" for having asserted that Christians and Muslims worship "the same God." Here's a brief account of the details via Inside Higher Ed:
Wheaton College, a Christian institution in Illinois, has suspended Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science who has attracted considerable attention for saying she would wear a hijab throughout Advent to express solidarity with Muslims. A statement from the college said the suspension was not for her wearing the hijab, but because of "significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements" she has made. "Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution's faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college's evangelical statement of faith," said the college's statement on the suspension.
The particular statement that got Professor Hawkins into trouble, as described by Christianity Today is this: "“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, ... And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
There are a number of strands of this controversy which are difficult to unravel. On the one hand, there's the question of academic freedom, in that as a faculty member at a university, Professor Hawkins should be permitted to make statements in her capacity as a professor without fear of institutional reprisal. Yet, at many religiously based colleges and universities today, those rights are to one degree or another curtailed. Yet it undermines Wheaton's credibility as the "Evangelical Harvard" as it claims to be.
Then there is the issue of Professor Hawkins' decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslims. Wheaton insists that this was not a factor in their decision. And perhaps it wasn't, but it's hard to disentangle her public display of solidarity from the words she used to express that solidarity. It seems that Wheaton was uncomfortable with the degree to which professor Hawkins was acting "too Muslim" for them. As Miroslav Volf noted in the Washington Post today: "When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of 'alien' and 'purely evil' other. She also drew attention to the simple fact that most Muslims aren’t enemies."
Then there is the issue of whether Professor Hawkins' defense of her position is "too Catholic" for Wheaton, given the school's history of firing faculty for the "crime" of converting to Catholicism. But at bottom, the school's claim is that she has violated its statement of faith via her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship "the same God." But why should this be controversial?
Certainly there are Christians who are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Christianity has anything at all in common with Islam, as well as those who can't comprehend how Christians and Muslims could worship the same God. However, Islam has always insisted that the God it worships is the God of Abraham, the same God attested to in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Thus it places itself firmly in the Abrahamic religious tradition. But the fact that Muslims believe they worship the same God as Christians and Jews doesn't necessarily require that Christians believe that, does it?
Well, Muslims assert that they worship the God who was revealed to Moses and the Prophets, just as Christians and Jews do. They assert that the God they follow is one God, just as Christians and Jews do. In many respects in fact, the way that Islam conceives of God is much closer to the Jewish conception of God than the Jewish conception of God is to the Christian conception of God. If Christians and Jews worship the same God, then in what sense would Muslims not do so?
Indeed, as Professor Hawkins statement notes, this position has been officially recognized within the Catholic Church. According to Nostra Aetate:
“The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter III, 21 to Anazir [Al-Nasir], King of Mauretania PL, 148.451A.), who has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting.
Of course, as noted above, Wheaton has some issues with Catholics as well. But there is certainly nothing alien to the idea that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying that we understand God in the same way. Our conceptions of God are relevantly similar, but not identical. This is again, clearest when one contrasts the Christian conception of God as one, but also triune, as eternally spirit, but also incarnate in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And in terms of salvation, as Christians we affirm that God saves humanity through Jesus Christ, while both Judaism and Islam believe that it is accomplished through God's law and covenant as attested in the Torah or the Quran. These are deep and relevant differences between these traditions, but acknowledging these differences is quite distinct from saying that each tradition is not, in its own way, seeking to follow the same God.
What's more, if, as many Christians affirm, all truth is one, then anyone seeking to faithfully follow God, whatever tradition they embrace, is following the same God. This position, which was powerfully illustrated by C. S. Lewis in his book The Last Battle implies that one can be mistaken in the substance of one's belief, while still truly following the true God. As Volf states:
All Christians don't worship the same God, and all Muslims don't worship the same God. But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same. The description of God is partly different.
A key problem in understanding what is going on at Wheaton has to do with how they understand what it means to "do theology." This is a perennial problem within the evangelical community, and one that I've encountered in conversations with conservative Christians time and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: from the conservative Christian perspective, theology is not something that takes place in the context of a particular time and place. It is not a response to the revelation of God. It is not an attempt to engage in an understanding of the tradition to which we belong. Rather, conservative evangelical theology is about obedience to and adherence to authoritative texts, whether those texts from the Bible, particular creeds and confessions, or -- as in this case -- your school's statement of faith. This "received theology," is then declared to represent an uncrossable line, and the decision about who has or has not crossed that line winds up residing with authoritative bodies, like church bodies or university administrations. It constitutes a form of dogmatic theological positivism which does not allow allow any room for actual response to the contextual arena in which God is actually live and moving in the lives of believers.
Contextual theology, by contrast, recognizes that theological work is an ongoing and imperfect project, which takes place in the life of the church, in conversation with tradition and scripture, but always in light of the current situation in which it is being done. What it means to think contextually is to ask the question, as James Gustafson has put it: "What is God enabling and requiring us to do here and now?" This requires us to be open to the leading of God into new situations, to be willing to take risks on behalf of our faith in God, and to act confidently in God's grace when we stumble and fall. While the received, dogmatic theology of conservative evangelicalism is rooted in fear -- specifically fear that God will abandon us if we affirm the wrong propositions about the divine nature -- contextual theology reaches out to new situations in love, acting confidently in the knowledge that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). Professor Hawkins was engaged in a contextual theology, rooted in love for her Muslim brothers and sisters, and in recognition that, as the God of Jesus Christ was the God of Abraham, both Christians and Muslims must worship the same God. Her response wasn't a rejection of Wheaton's Statement of Faith, but it also wasn't simply a dogmatic adherence to it. Rather, it was a contextualization of that statement in light of what God is enabling and requiring of us today.
In the final analysis, there is no good reason for Christians to assert that Muslims follow any other God than the one God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, even though they do not recognize our account of that revelation, or what we understand it to be telling us about God. What Wheaton has done is shameful, and as Volf notes, has more to do with Professor Hawkins' attempt to "de-other" Muslims, than with any matter of substance having to do with Christian faith or Wheaton's Statement of Faith. Professor Hawkins has done an admirable thing, and by doing so she has drawn attention to the continuing relevance of this key theological question to the ongoing relationship between Christians and Muslims in the United States. More's the pity that there are plenty of Christians around, happily condemning others to hell, who refuse to see the commonality between us and our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Note: This essay has been updated and expanded.
Another day, another mass gun murder in the United States. Of course, we've been here before, many times. Each time, we arrive where we started, but, contrary to T. S. Eliot's poem, we continually fail to know the place for the first time. Rather, our positions get further entrenched, our arguments more vitriolic, nothing changes, and we simply await the next mass shooting.
In the case of the Colorado Springs shooting at Planned Parenthood, we know that the perpetrator was a right wing Christian anti-abortion activist (despite the shameful attempts of some politicians to pretend otherwise), while in the case of the San Bernardino shooting, it is increasingly apparent that the perpetrators were jihadists. In other cases, the shooters have been right wing racists (as in South Carolina), or deranged psychotics (as in Arizona, and Connecticut, and Boulder, etc., etc., etc.). The motives are not always clear, and for the ones who are legitimately crazy, the question of motivation may not really be all that relevant. But in the case of these last two shootings, it was clear that both sets of perpetrators were motivated by religious zealotry and violent fanaticism. In both cases, it's clear that they were acts of religio-political terrorism (although, it's interesting to note, that the FBI has quickly labeled the San Bernardino shooters -- Muslims, with Middle Eastern last names -- as terrorists, while they have yet to do so in the case of the white, Christian Colorado Springs shooter).
And, if we want to widen the lens a bit, we can include the regular acts of violence that take place around the United States that don't qualify as "mass shootings" but still demonstrate the exceptional rate of gun homicide in the United States -- Chicago, Baltimore, every major urban area, and the many less publicized examples that take place in predominantly white, rural areas. We can add to that the many, many examples of people who inadvertently mishandle legally owned firearms and accidentally kill people every day, up to and including toddlers who manage to get their hands on mom's gun and shoot her in the store. It is -- there is no better word for it -- madness.
Given the prevalence of this kind of violence in the United States, why is it that we keep winding up back here at the same place? Another act of gun violence, another mass shooting, and yet nothing is done. The easy answer is that the National Rifle Association as so corrupted American politics on this issue that we have become completely incapable of addressing it. But the issue is more complicated than that. The NRA is able to corrupt politics to the degree that it does because it has so many willing dupes in American gun culture who are totally and completely incapable of recognizing a) that guns are a genuine cause of massive harm in the United States, b) that there are policies that can be implemented to address that and c) those policies need not in any meaningful way impair their much-vaunted "right to bear arms."
Part of this, as an article at Vox points out, has to do with the ideological mindset of conservatives in the United States who see every act of gun violence, not as a reason to limit gun possession, but as a reason to expand it. This is the showdown at the OK Corral approach to gun regulation. They believe, apparently sincerely, that if only more people had, and openly carried their guns, shooters would be less likely to engage in gun violence. This is, the article notes deeply rooted in a particular psychological state that is impervious, or at least resistant, to counter-argument:
To our gun owner, another mass shooting is not an argument for getting rid of guns. It's a confirmation of his every instinct, another sign of moral and societal decay, another reason to arm himself and defend what he's got left.
You can tell him about Canada and Australia until you're blue in the face — the lower rate of gun deaths, the hunting exemptions, the seemingly intact freedoms. You can cite high popular support for restrictions on gun and ammunition sales. You can tell him that not every incremental tightening of standards is a slippery slope, that no one wants to confiscate his guns.
But you're just another self-righteous liberal on another self-righteous crusade, too blind or stupid to see how governments always use people like you to disarm their citizenry. You've taken enough — of his taxes, his freedoms, his culture. He won't give you any more.
So, incidents of gun violence become part and parcel of the argument that gun regulation itself doesn't work. This meme emerged quickly in the wake of San Bernardino, as at least one of my more pro-gun Facebook friends posted something suggesting that, since this happened in California, which has strict state-wide gun laws, this demonstrates that strict gun laws don't work. So the only alternative is to loosen gun restrictions so that everyone can carry all the guns they want, openly and in public if they so desire.
Of course, in the gang-ridden areas of Chicago, where I live, there are plenty of guns, and everyone knows who has them. Far from reducing gun violence there, it simply leads to the kind of in-group versus out-group violence that characterizes gang culture. Gun violence in this context begets more gun violence, and it's not clear what the way out of the cycle of violence might be except to break it entirely (an argument that Spike Lee is attempting to make in a novel Aristophanean way in his latest film Chi-Raq). The solution here is clearly not more guns. We've got plenty of guns. That's the problem.
At the same time, it's necessary to state as clearly as possible the response to these conservative objections to increased gun violence, not because it will change their minds (as the Vox article notes, there is already ample argument to change the mind of anyone who cares to pay attention, if their minds are genuinely open, but they aren't). It's important to state the response so that we are without excuse. So that it's clear that we know the difference between argument and obfuscation, and that we can tell the difference between the corrupted pseudo-argument of the pro-gun lobby and its willing dupes and the actual construction of sound public policy. And in that regard, there are a few things that bear repeating.
First, the goal of gun regulation is not and has never been to take guns away from people who want to use them peacefully for purposes of hunting, or even self-defense. Now, for my part, I think it's abjectly stupid to own a gun. I mean, it's really, really stupid, given that your gun is 17-times more likely to kill someone in your own household than it is to ever protect you from an intruder.* If it were legal to own a tiger, and if it were affordable to own a tiger, and if I had many friends who told me repeatedly that it was my right to own a tiger, and that in fact a tiger could protect me from my enemies, and that owning a tiger was incredibly fun and if only I owned one I would see how awesome and necessary tiger ownership was, I would still not wish to own a tiger, because it's quite clear to me that a tiger is vastly more likely to eat one of my children than it will ever be to protect them. Owning a tiger is stupid, even if you had a right to own one. That's how I feel about guns. Nevertheless, no one wants to pass laws that take guns from the hands of people who know how to use them responsibly (just like no one wants to take Siegfried and Roy's tigers, even after Roy got mauled by one of them).
The goal has never been confiscation, but regulation (and, after all, even a Second Amendment purist can't evade the fact that the phrase "well-regulated" is right there in the text of the Second Amendment). The goal is to keep guns away from those who shouldn't have them. However, the trend that I've noticed since the gun-control debate really re-emerged in earnest in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre is the personalization of the anti-gun control argument. At least, among the people I've been in conversation with, or who have placed anti-gun control memes on their Facebook pages, there is an intense sense that gun owners tout court are being blamed for gun violence. So what I read is a great deal of defensiveness. "I've never harmed anyone with my gun, so why do you want to take it from me?" Leaving aside the fact that no one wants to take their guns, the fact is that there is nothing personal about this. It's not about viewing gun-owners as a group as being morally suspect, it's about ensuring that a potentially dangerous item is secured from those who would abuse it.
Another analogy, similar to the tiger one above. Let's say I was a nuclear physicist. A good, moral, peaceful nuclear physicist, who worked with radioactive isotopes. Assume that I wanted to do an experiment that required access to plutonium. As it turns out, plutonium is incredibly difficult to acquire. And I can't help but think that's a good thing. It's not a moral accusation of me as a nuclear physicist that I have to go through massive background and security checks in order to acquire plutonium. On the contrary, it's a recognition that, no matter how moral I am, the possibility of harm from misuse of plutonium is so great that even very moral people have to be very thoroughly screened in order to have access to it. It would be irresponsible if the Nuclear Regulatory Agency simply gave out plutonium to everyone who asked for it. Because it only takes one lunatic with a bit of plutonium to do enormous damage.
Even if I am a good, moral, and peaceful nuclear physicist, in fact especially if I am a good, moral, peaceful nuclear physicist, I should welcome that kind of scrutiny, not only because I don't want anything bad to happen through the misuse of plutonium, but because I recognize that if something bad did happen that as a nuclear physicist, I could be accused of culpability. In fact, if I were a nuclear physicist who lobbied strongly against the regulation of plutonium, I very arguably would be culpable if someone slipped through the very tattered regulatory safety net I had helped create. I think that this is certainly true by extension of the gun lobby, and the NRA in particular, and I think it is arguably also true of the many gun owners who give them moral support through their money and their resistance to regulation.
However, there is still the matter of the argument that statewide gun regulations such as those in California are actually ineffective as a means of controlling gun violence. Again, I'm reminded of an Onion headline that encapsulates the substance of this argument quite well: "‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." If there were truly no way to prevent this kind of thing, then we'd see it happening all the time in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and other modern industrialized countries. But we don't, at least not with the kind of regularity that it happens here. (Pointing to the recent attacks in Paris doesn't get you very far, since, horrid as they were, they were notable among other things for their rarity). So then, what is the response to people who point to ineffective gun laws?
The most direct answer is to agree: Gun laws of the kind we currently have are not effective, precisely because they only function on the state level. If the laws in California are strict, that's alright, because Nevada and Idaho aren't all that far away and the gun laws are much laxer there. Similarly, the very strict gun laws in Chicago are mocked given the degree of gun crime we experience. But anyone who is familiar with the city knows that it's the easiest thing on earth to get from Chicago to Indiana -- where the gun laws are much looser -- and back again in a couple of hours. State and local gun laws are ultimately ineffective precisely because they are not widely replicated in other states. Pro-gun advocates point to this as evidence that gun laws per se don't work. But this is simply fallacious: Poorly implemented local gun laws don't work, but a national law, which sought to both regulate guns at the point of purchase and also reduce the overall supply of guns available throughout the country, would be far more effective at controlling gun violence. The problem is one of easy availability. The solution is to make that availability much more difficult, both by increasing regulatory barriers (more and better background checks, longer waiting periods, etc.) and by decreasing the overall supply (through gun-buy back programs and requiring gun manufacturers and sellers to stop selling certain items, like extended magazines and armor piercing bullets). All by themselves these two policies (which would of course require a great deal more fleshing out than I can do here before they became law) would drastically reduce the possibility of gun violence, without severely restricting the rights of existing gun owners.
I would add another policy, which would undoubtedly be more controversial, but which shouldn't be: I would require a thorough psychological screening before anyone would be permitted to purchase a gun. To buy or possess a gun legally, you should be required to demonstrate to a competent professional that you are not a danger to yourself or others. It's been said repeatedly that the real problem of gun violence is largely a mental health problem. And while I don't think that's the entirety of the story, I am willing to concede that a non-trivial proportion of gun violence is perpetrated by people who are mentally ill. So, how to prevent it? Easily -- require all gun owners to undergo mental health screening. The goal here is not to stigmatize either gun owners or the mentally ill, but to recognize that some mentally ill people, given access to a gun, have the potential to use them violently, and the question must be how we keep the one from the other. Anyone want to take bets on how ready the NRA is to get behind this idea, despite their repeated claims that we should be concentrating on the mental health aspect of these attacks?
I could say a great deal more, but I'll leave it there for now. I will only add two things: First, I'm not claiming that this is an infallible path to the elimination of all gun crime. Certainly there will always bee the possibility that some gun crime will take place. But the goal is to reduce it to the degree that it becomes a rare and horrifying event, rather than the regular news item that it is now. Second, I have not yet addressed the other central aspect of these last two attacks, specifically the religious dimension. That conversation will have to wait for a subsequent post, which I hope to write in the next couple of days, time and jet lag permitting.
*Attempting to verify this statistic, I found studies suggesting anywhere from an 11-fold to a 43-fold increase in the likelihood of someone other than an intruder being killed by a firearm in the home. Difference in studies suggest different methodologies and data sets, but they all pain in the same direction: You are far more likely to see someone in your own home killed with your gun then you ever are to use it for protection. One of the best known studies suggests a factor as high as 43-times more likely.