Thursday, December 20, 2012

Philosophical Gun Control: the mis-application of Arendt to the debate

The New York Times online is home to an extended blog known as The Stone, which "features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." Currently, The Stone is running a series of articles about guns, all tagged as "The Armed Society," for reasons we might easily predict:
In the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the resulting renewed debate on gun control in the United States, The Stone will publish a series of essays this week that examine the ethical, social and humanitarian implications of the use, possession and regulation of weapons.
The articles can all be found here. They are most definitely thoughtful, often long-winded, and tend to reflect the general mindset of academic and media elites. One of them caught my eye, mostly because it delves into the philosophies and opinions of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, two of my favorite subjects (especially the former). The author of this piece--"The Freedom of an Armed Society"--is someone named Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Thus, the piece is academic and heady. And since he is a frequent contributor to Common Dreams, his political views are expectedly progressive. So let's get to it.

DeBrabander begins with a recap of Sandy Hook, the state of guns and gun control today, and the following pronouncements:
As ever more people are armed in public, however — even brandishing weapons on the street — this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.  
And yet, gun rights advocates famously maintain that individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty. Deeper reflection on their argument exposes basic fallacies.
His two principle claims are 1) the prevalence of guns in public is destroying (has destroyed) freedom, and 2) arguments in favor of "an armed society" are flawed. As a writer and amateur philosopher (meaning I don't get paid to wax philosophical), my expectations for this piece are set: I want to see a demonstration of both claims.

For the first, DeBrabander turns immediately to Hannah Arendt, arguing that Arendt speaks directly to this issue, the effect of weapons on freedom. She says--according to DeBrabander--that guns "undermine equality" by introducing hierarchy into society and that guns "chasten speech" because their presence silences dissent.

With regard to the idea of the hierarchy spoken of here, DeBrabander employs something of a strawman. He criticizes the NRA for arguing that visible guns make society more polite--since such a compulsion to be polite is not consistent with freedom at all, a point which is most certainly correct--under the auspices of change: this is what would happen if all were armed in public. But the hierarchy he identifies is that of the armed versus the unarmed. If--theoretically--all are armed (visibly so, necessarily) there is no hierarchy as a matter of definition. He speaks of "basic fallacies"  in the arguments of gun rights advocates, yet opens with one of his own.

His argument for the idea that guns "chasten speech" drops the pretense of a fully armed society entirely and instead switches to public assembly, typified by the Arab Spring movements and the Occupy Wall Street movement. DeBrabander very obviously believes that the OWS movement meant something, that it was a powerful example of what can be achieved via non-violent protests. What did it achieve? I'm not sure. Regardless, he continues by offering a what-if on the OWS movement:
Imagine what this would have looked like had the protestors been armed: in the face of the New York Police Department assault on Zuccotti Park, there might have been armed insurrection in the streets. The non-violent nature of protest in this country ensures that it can occur.
It's something of a fair point, but in support of what argument? There were all kinds of Tea Party-type rallies in this country in 2009 and 2010. And let's be fair, plenty of the people attending these rallies were (and no doubt still are) firmly in the pro-2nd Amendment camp. People like DeBrabander latch on to one incident of open carry at an Obamacare rally (while simultaneously ignoring all sorts of transgressions at OWS sites) as evidence of some sort of implied violence. Yet, there were no armed conflicts at these various Tea Party gatherings, even though people at some of them carried weapons or had them nearby (by the way, this is not intended to be an argument for open carry at all).

At the same time, DeBrabander also ignores the violent conflicts that have erupted at other events, like G-8 summits. And while there was peaceful protesting during the Arab Spring, there was also violence. He's not making the case he wants to make at all; he's come nowhere close to proving more guns would "chasten speech."

Apart from all of this, what about his take on Arendt's ideas, which I've kind of allowed to go unchallenged so far? I'll turn to Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, for some help in that regard.

In this piece--entitled "Arendt and Gun Control"--Berkowitz takes issue with DeBrabander's characterization of Arendt's thinking. Berkowitz allows that parts of the argument are not clear to him, but deftly points out that guns/weapons can be a tool for a achieving change. As he says:
DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.
Arendt recognizes that the use of guns to compel political support is not real support, is not indicative of freedom. But that's a part of an already extant hierarchy: the government and the citizens. The new hierarchy DeBrabander imagines from having an armed populace is inconsistent with Arendt's ideas on the matter. In the same way, Arendt--though not a proponent of violence, per se--is not so idealistic as to imagine violence has no role, ever, in civil society. Berkowitz quotes Arendt directly on the matter ("Reflections on Violence," the New York Review of Books, 1969):
In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.
Thus violence is real, is a legitimate--though rarely desired--response in both public and private life. As Berkowitz says, citing Arendt as a means of arguing against violence as a concept doesn't work. And as a response to what happened in Newtown, it really doesn't work.

Oddly enough, the Arendt essay Berkowitz quotes from (a fine essay, though very long) does say something relevant to Newtown. Building on the above, Arendt writes:
Rage and violence turn irrational only when they are directed against substitutes, and this, I am afraid, is precisely what not only the psychiatrist and polemologists, concerned with human aggressiveness, commend, but what corresponds, alas, to certain moods and unreflected attitudes in society at large.
Thus it is irrational violence and its cause(s) that requires understanding. One could easily make the argument that--according to Arendt--the tools chosen for carrying out such violence are not the issue, in the least. Armed populace or no armed populace, violence exists in society at large. What matters is the nature of the violence. Among the citizenry, it is an issue of rationality or irrationality.

Which brings us to the question of an armed populace and freedom. The argument DeBrabander is criticizing--that an armed populace secures freedom--is about the relationship between citizens and government, not one between citizens and each other. DeBrabander sums up this argument thusly:
Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures.
Now this is the argument that DeBrabander claims is flawed, is full of "basic fallacies." But rather than exposing these fallacies, he offers this rather lame substitute claim to defend:
I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.
Justifying such a suspicion is a long ways from demonstrating that the argument suffers from fallacies or flaws, basic or otherwise. Regardless, let us deal with what is before us. DeBrabander switches from Arendt to Foucault as a background source for creating his narrative, with regard to how a gun culture creates a society without freedom. He does so by focusing on Foucault's critique of the development of "extreme individualism" in relation to the exercise of power. Foucault's goal is to identify how power is exercised, what conditions allow for it to happen most effectively. In that regard, the segregation of individuals is a near-primary step. DeBrabander says of Foucault:
As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community.
That's a fair statement, I think. But hardly a radical one. Indeed, DeBrabander had no need of opening up Foucault to make this point, as Arendt says quite similar things (though with more emphasis on the emotional aspects of such individualization: loneliness and solitude). But one may be wondering, at this point, what any of this has to do with gun culture. Well, according to DeBrabander:
After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism... 
Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.
Private gun ownership fosters "extreme individualism" and undermines community, therefore such a situation is the antithesis of freedom. Quod erat demonstrandum, right? Hardly. The basic fallacies here all belong to DeBrabander. He simply states that an armed citizenry functions as above, he doesn't prove it at all. He takes it as given. A better example of circular reasoning one may never see.

But more than that, the actual available evidence suggests exactly the opposite, with regard to community: people who are proponents of the 2nd Amendment are often found in areas with strong communal ties, not weak ones. This is borne out among Tea Party types, as well. In contrast, the OWS movement is a good example of an ephemeral community, one whose existence is temporary and conditional, that only exists in relation to a common cause (which is equally ephemeral). When the cause is gone, so is the community.

The article is an interesting read, no doubt, but the author fails to establish either of his primary points, that the prevalence of guns is destroying freedom and that the arguments in favor of an armed society are flawed. In his failed attempts, he misapplies Arendt's thinking and needlessly summons the spectre of Foucault. But I fear the heavy academic bent of this piece may sway many readers into accepting as proven what most certainly was not. Already, other websites are describing the piece as a "must-read" and the like. And maybe it is, but only if you follow-up such a reading with contrary opinions--like mine--to see why it's so deeply flawed.

Cheers, all.


  1. I am glad for two things. First, that I read your words. Second, that I did not read all of his. For one thing, I like to take things literally, and therefore have problems with verbiage such as "extreme individualism". An individual is unique, and "extreme" is not a proper adjective, in this case.

    Progressive, to my experience, tend to favour words and phrases whose definitions are at least subtly indefinite. Then, when you put several such terms into a compound sentence, the permutations of possible misapprehensions expand greatly. Or as David Crosby said, "Just beneath the surface of the mud, there's more mud here. Surprise!"

    I accept it as proven that a community where guns are common, politeness is the general rule. Cause and effect is inferred, not proven. I do not believe that there is a constant threat of violence simply because adequate tools are at hand. I the removal of the tools of violence would create civility, the state penitentiary should have some kind old grandmother as warden.

    But I do have a theory I play with from time to time. Get in your car and drive. In a city, you will find very much rudeness in general. In a small town you are more likely that people you don't know will smile and wave.

    The lack of anonymity. The clear and present expectation that all your works will be remembered by the community as a whole. It's more than deterrent, it's incentive. For if I am to be remembered, I want you to think well of me.

    And you and I are not so different.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Roy. And I agree with you about anonymity and community. It's an issue that seems habitually ignored.

    Hope you're having a nice holiday season.