The Public Debate Insults My Intelligence

Lecturn view

(Photo credit: David Michael Morris)

On one of my recent posts, the blogger Rockettattoo commented on an acquaintance who goes overboard on the gun rhetoric.   I decided at the time that I wanted to follow up on a related topic and yesterday’s Trayvon Martin verdict added an extra layer to my thoughts.

If you’ve never read anything on my blog before, you need to know that I don’t like to blather on about controversial issues.  I’m not going to do so now, either.  Instead,  I’d like to rewind to the Giffords and Newtown shootings to find some useful lessons for today.

More specifically, I’d like to focus on the events’ aftermaths.  After the two shootings, we witnessed a popular sport in American politics on both sides of the aisle: using new events as evidence for preexisting beliefs without providing sufficient support for the asserted logical connection.  People who support gun control trotted out the former congresswoman and the murdered children’s parents as nothing more than images to sway our opinion.  Think “emotional blackmail.”  The message was “A shooting happened; therefore, we must restrict legal gun use to make this stop.”  And on the NRA (and allies’) side, the message was “A shooting happened; therefore, we must increase access and/or ownership of guns to make this stop.”  And sometimes, they trotted out the Constitution in a way that reeked of emotional blackmail directed at the patriotic.  (I didn’t smell much in-depth discussion of the Second Amendment’s original intent.)  Like Giffords and the grieving families, the Constitution became a convenient and powerful image that activists mobilized superficially.

Neither side was arguing for any compelling idea and neither side endorsed anything they wouldn’t have supported if these tragedies hadn’t happened.  If the debate were online, we’d probably claim that both sides were trolling.

And if politicians were comedians, we’d refer to these exhortations as tired one-liners.  Unfortunately, the intellectual and rhetorical laziness isn’t funny.  These sound bites devour the mental capacity of people who already demand lightweight political fare, further constricting their ability to exercise responsible citizenship.

With apologies (sort of) to Julien Benda, we are left with a politics of what is possible, not a politics of what will work.  Both sides of the gun control debate would be correct to argue that their solutions might prevent future tragedies.  Shooting everyone up with a large dose of Valium each day might do it too, and so might daily opera classes.  In theory, almost anything might solve the problem.

But there’s no longer any reason given to ask “why not?”  for any given proposal.  Each sides gives us something that might work and, in the absence of serious debate, no side has any reason to be converted to a different view.  And so we are left with gridlock and ineffective laws.

And back to Trayvon Martin.  By now, some people are arguing that the case proves the inability of Black men to get justice in the United States, or at least in Florida.  Others are taking the opportunity to complain about Stand Your Ground laws.  In most cases, the people making these claims already believed the social and legal diagnoses they proffer.  The Martin case only gave them an opportunity to speak.

Similarly, others saw a man being accused of racially motivated murder and listened to activists raising their voices against hate crimes.  Some will use yesterday’s verdict as evidence that the whole “hubbub” about race issues is an unwarranted stain on society.  Again, these people already held such a view before Trayvon Martin’s name entered the nation’s vocabulary.  The Martin case only gave them an opportunity to speak.

So both sides are speaking.  A lot.  Just not to each other…