I spent the winter of 2013 doing what millions of Americans did. I followed the events in Newtown with shock and dismay. I read a lot—newspapers, books, editorials, online testimonials. I talked a lot—to friends, to adversaries, to politicians, to students, to children. I Facebooked a lot. I tweeted even more. I blogged. I got involved with my own state's campaign against gun violence by working to keep guns off of our college campuses. We had an impact.
As I said, like millions of other Americans.
I learned a lot about the American gun debate, but more importantly, I saw things that I had done correctly, incorrectly, and ineffectually. What follows began life as a list of "Notes to Self," but as the list grew, I thought I'd share it. Not because what I have to say is unusually important, but because the issue that all of us are addressing—responsible gun control—certainly is.
First, I learned how dependent we are on each other when we undertake any sort of campaign, regardless of how small it happens to be. And second, I understood how like-minded communities support one another, how they grow in power and visibility, but how our support for one another—often purely emotional—is at times the most important aspect of the enterprise. Hence, my Declaration of Dependence, in four parts:
- Emphasize civility. The gap between our differing opinions on guns has grown now to dangerous distances, in my opinion, and I will not increase those distances by my own unmeasured words. Or I'll try not to do so. I've got a model in mind—James Madison. For decades, I've loved his prose because of its scalpeled reason, but I recently read the Gutzman biography, and above all, I was impressed by the man's, well, civility, as he fought his way through one of the greatest struggle this country has seen. I don't know how he did it. I don't how he tolerated, at times, George Mason or Patrick Henry or Edmond Randolph without exploding on them. But he did, and he's my model.
- Understand Twitter's limits. Twitter is a tool that serves many ends and purposes—some well, some not so well. For me, Twitter has provided two essential services: first, I've discovered through Twitter a community of folks who share similar goals and values, and from that community I've gotten advice and support (and in the gun debate, I can't emphasize this latter quality enough); and second, through Twitter I discovered a treasure-trove of links to information I would never have found on my own. But I have also discovered that Twitter debates between opposing parties in the current gun climate are pointless—I have yet to change anyone's mind on such exchanges, nor has anyone changed mine. One hundred and forty characters encourage sloganeering, but not debate.
- Avoid the destructive energies. For thousands of years, Hindu culture has organized the universe into a trinity of forces: creation, preservation, and destruction (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). It's not rocket science, but it is ancient. Look around you—stuff gets born, it persists, and then it's destroyed, or dies. The deities simply give a visual representation of each stage of the cycle. And of course, on the individual level, each of us feel a kinship to one or more of these energies. When the world is balanced, or when we are balanced, we understand how each of the three works in harmony with the other two, and even though we may feel drawn to one, the other two are always present, complementing it, restraining it, contextualizing it. In the gun debate, obviously, much of the dark energy that I encountered on Twitter or on certain websites—and much of the "feedback" I received—was deeply disturbing because it was destructive energy unchecked by its partners, creation and preservation. I was threatened, my family was threatened. Homophobia everywhere. Psychopathologies in individuals arise for many reasons, but they often manifest as pure destruction. And many of the hard-liners I confronted over the past six months were running on this archetypal energy. So I learned the hard way—a very wise friend told me so—that this archetypal energy of destruction will not succumb to the archetypes that I am drawn to: creation and preservation. What I can do, though, is emphasize and cultivate the energies that I appreciate, which in turn will minimize the destruction inflicted by the other corner of the triangle.
- See gun violence, whenever possible, only as a symptom of a larger problem—Once I began to retreat from one-on-one confrontations with the violent energies that fuel much of the gun debate, new perspectives opened up, broader avenues that encompass and affect gun legislation, while addressing other vital issues. Short term v. long term, in effect. Racism, child abuse, mental health, violence against women, our penal system, forms of poverty, income inequity—the laundry list that leads a person to pick up a gun and use it to injure or kill another person is a long one. So, after our campaign in Arkansas, I resolved to broaden the scope of my attention, always keeping gun-violence in my field of vision, but trying to address several of its roots, a few of its origins.
To many, particularly to veterans of partisan political campaigns, these points will be obvious. But if you're new to this struggle, as many are after Newtown, I offer them up for your own benefit. As one of my favorite teachers often says, "if you find what I have said to be useful, that's good; so now try it out, and see what happens; if it's not useful, that's OK too—just leave it alone."
Always sound advice. Particularly when we're trying to build strong communities that still recognize the integrity of the individual.