Addicted to Hate: Guns and Other Stuff
My readers in Europe see one thing more clearly than we in the States do – that Americans have a gun obsession. No matter your position on gun ownership or gun control, guns are larger than life. Either they are necessary and good, delivering protection from forces of evil that can be arrayed against you without warning, or they are evil itself, the cause of all that we need protection from. I am not writing to position myself on one side of the gun debate in order to persuade you to join me in uniting against the other side. I am writing to persuade you to see that both sides are barely distinguishable from each other. Despite their attempts to establish their differences from their opponents using the starkest language of good vs. evil, for both sides, guns possess an almost totemic power to situate evil in someone or something that is nothing like us.
I am talking here about what author and theologian Brian McLaren calls hostile identities. Relying on mimetic theory in his most recent book, McLaren illuminates a fundamental human reality: our identities are formed in relationship with others. We do not spring from the womb as fully formed human beings but go through an extended maturation process in which parents, family, friends and the wider culture induct us into a particular identity rooted in time and place. If I were born, say, a few centuries ago or a few continents away, it is safe to say that I would be a different person than the one I am today. This is not rocket science, but what often escapes our attention is that while we receive identities from others we can also secure or solidify our identities against others. In particular, to know we are good people, worthy of love and friendship and membership in our communities, we use evil people to compare ourselves to. It’s reassuring to locate evil in another culture, another religion, another political party or, as is our topic for today, in the other side of the gun debate. Finding evil somewhere completely outside of who I believe I am allows for a simple, comforting logic: if those guys are evil, and I am not those guys then who could argue that I must be good! That is what McLaren means by a hostile identity – our goodness depends on hating another.
Hostile identities galvanize around objects that we can argue over, but the object itself is barely relevant. Once an object like gun ownership has triggered the momentum of hostile identities, the hostility escalates and energizes each side equally. When this happens, the triggering object recedes further and further from view until it is a speck on the horizon of the debate. All that’s left is a red-faced anger that thrives on hurling accusations of evil against the other, while the issue itself is never discussed let alone resolved. When I take up an issue like this one, my aim is always to try to wean both sides away from their shared addiction to hostility. Being gripped at the level of identity by hostility makes them mirror images of each other and prevents them from achieving what both sides say they want: in this case, a sane and safe gun policy.
You can make the same argument about hostile identity over any number of issues today. Wherever “guns” appear in this article, substitute taxes, abortion, marriage rights, education policy, urban poverty, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran – plop in the issue that gets your blood boiling and you have the same dynamic – the issue will never be addressed until both sides stop using it as a foil to establish their own goodness over and against the opposition. To be authentically good we cannot use the shortcut of hostility. Authentic goodness emerges when I am willing to risk the possibility that I might be wrong, that my opponent might have something valuable to say, and that the issue we are all shouting about might be more important than my need to bolster my fragile sense of self-worth. Authentic goodness requires kindness towards the other not hostility, hospitality toward adversaries not exclusion, and sincere questions not close-minded accusations.
Chicago, the big city near my home, could provide an excellent test case for the practice of authentic goodness. The unfortunate truth is that our murder rate stands at 400 this year, up 25% from last year. And since 2001, we have logged more than 5,000 gun related-deaths. Many in Chicago have found the comparison to a war zone sobering: in the same 11 years since 2001, there were 2,000 military deaths in Afghanistan, 40% of Chicago’s total. It is past time for Americans in Chicago and across the nation to honestly address not only gun policy, but poverty, racism, welfare, education, housing – all interrelated issues that we falsely isolate so that we can pepper our public landscape with reasons to hate one another. Americans want to claim the mantle of goodness on the world stage – let’s do it at home first. There’s plenty to work on here.