We are smack-dab in the middle of the white-hot debate about guns, mass murder, 2nd Amendment rights, the power of gun manufacturers, democracy, and peace in America as of this writing. I sometimes lock horns with my intellectual and erudite interlocutor, Robert L. Lloyd, Ph.D., and this topic is no different. Though we both own, gosh, ten guns between us, I tend to be less of a 2nd Amendment supporter and I see public violence a bit differently. The larger issue — beyond what works and what doesn’t, how politics either facilitates or impedes social progress, or whether America is looking at a bright future or if we are witnessing the sclerotic attempts at social change that characterize all empires in decline — is virtues of civility and humility. In this blog, I recapitulate a bit of our dialogue on guns specifically, but conceptualize the heart of the matter as certitude, intellectual humility, willingness to hear the other, compromise, and unity. Many additional quotes about humility, quotations on certitude, and tolerance quotes are brought to the fore.
Robert points out, for example, “Handguns is a complex issue. Last year there were 7,200 murders due to handguns; 131 from rifles. Are we focused on wrong thing because the AR15 looks scary?” Indeed, handguns cause a huge number of suicides and quite a few murders in this country — the most dangerous of industrialized nations. As well: “What I still find interesting is that there has never been a shooting in an Israeli school, ever! In a very violent area of the world. But then they haven’t legislated schools to be shooting galleries (“gun free zones”), something to look at when it comes to solutions.” That may be true, though I don’t think we want to live the Israeli lifestyle; they are as big as Massachusetts and have a massive military presence in everyday life. It’s amazing the Israelis are as educated, innovative, and productive as they are under such conditions. And of course, the Palestinians essentially exist in an apartheid society.
I like the “root cause” idea; after all, I’m a (for the most part) political liberal who studied psychology! I just also believe that the NRA gins up the whole thing and makes it an issue that is unnecessarily intractable. Of COUSE background checks should be solid; of course no one should be selling guns without background checking (at gun shows, for example); of course cops should be able to remand a violent and dangerous individual to a 72-hour evaluation and remove guns pending legal investigation of the confiscation. Nicholas D. Kristof takes pains to point out things that may very well save lives in his recent in-depth analysis in the New York Times entitled “How to Reduce Shootings.”
Much of the whole issue has to do with not wanting to spend money and not wanting to offend the GOP king-maker, the NRA. The extremist organization. Take Michael Moore’s dynamite movie Bowling for Columbine, a wonderful movie about the Columbine school shooting and the history/nature of firearms and racial discord in this country. The movie which asks “Are we guns nuts, or just plain nuts?” It claimed/showed that the NRA morphed from a benign organization dedicated to safety and the sport of hunting and target practice in the 50’s or whenever into an aggressive, uncontrite group of macho, politically-right gun lovers. Lovers is probably too weak of a word. It’s “culture warriors” who fear and loathe. Robert and I just want a safe society and to own a few firearms, but the NRA is a political action committee of a noxious nature with an outsized effect on Congress. From my cold, dead hands, right?
I think one has a right to own certain types of firearms based on a generous reading of the 2nd Amendment. But it’s just glaringly obvious that the 18th-century provision that allowed muskets to fend off the British and Indians and provide for home defense has little or nothing to say that is reasonable about a gun that can shoot 100 rounds very accurately per minute. I mean, can Robert really be comfortable knowing that 500 people within five miles of the elementary school his daughters attend have such weaponry? Is our world their multiplayer online war game? I mean, for God’s sake.
I do know that no sane, healthy, normal, individual (99% male, incidentally) commits gun violence. Shooting a lover, a perceived enemy, or a bunch of innocents is rank aggression and anomie at its most extreme. Robert and I think much needs to be done on the deep causal end of the issue. If it’s politically more feasible, it is all the wiser to start there. Mental health care, police powers, and true primary and secondary prevention are critical. It is truly in line with the best and brightest liberal principles to invest more in schools than prisons, make sure kids don’t go to bed hungry, and try to keep fathers in homes (and gainfully employed). That’s social cohesion 101.
But, as Robert notes, violence is the consequence of the gift of free will. To lose the ability to choose might reduce violence, but we would then be automatons and life wouldn’t even be worth living. Philosophically it’s akin to the ability to see good only because evil exists. I don’t think that Israel or Japan are what we need. I can’t say that I really disagree with Marco Rubio when he says that “Criminals don’t follow gun laws.” That’s true, as far as it goes. I also admit that many liberals don’t have experience with firearms and it scares them to look upon these cold, dark, metal, loud things. It is clear, though, that semi-auto rifles are not really used for hunting and to curtail their purchase or use would not infringe on anyone’s rights (buy a shotgun and be done with it). Take up painting or golf if you need a new hobby.
Gun control, public violence, aggression, and other related (or for that matter, unrelated) social problems are complex, to say the least. As former Yale scholar, liberal arts advocate, and education critic William Deresiewicz puts it: “The world is full of immensely intricate things: the structure of an enzyme, the language of a Shakespeare play, the workings of a modern economy. Despite our urge for clear and simple answers, the truth is very hard to come by. Some knowledge is settled enough to be regarded as factual — the Laws of Thermodynamics, the dates of the French Revolution — and mastering a portion of it is part of education, too, but the leading edge of discovery is always a blur, always a grope. We proceed by doubt, by trial and error, by resisting the impulse to lunge after certainty.”
That is really a wonderful quote about humility, but I don’t think the correct interpretation is that we don’t have even the foggiest idea how to reduce gun violence and antisocial behavior writ large, because other countries have had much greater success and are much safer. I think it tends to be based on special interests blocking progress, mostly. However, I do acknowledge that the “law of unintended consequences” will mean that some solutions are better than others. Social science can provide a lot of information and theory-testing if we only would take the counsel of many dedicated sociologists, criminologists, and psychologists.
In a different vein, though, pull the lens back and think about gun violence as garden-variety public philosophy, democracy, and community at work. Carolyn O’Hara, Managing editor of The Week magazine has this to add, and it’s wise for sure: “Hypocrisy in politics is nothing new. But public acceptance of it is. In our hyperpartisan atmosphere, we’re increasingly willing to grant ‘our side’ a pass, lest we give aid and comfort to the enemy. … Believing ‘it’s only bad when the other guys do it’ is one of the canaries-in-the-coal-mine signs that authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify in their new book, How Democracies Die. ‘If one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history,’ they write, ‘it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.’”
Extreme polarization is the heart of this blog. I want to now de-focus off of guns, abortion, and religion and think about the process-level. In this view, humility is the opposite of certitude. I do have to hand it to Senator Marco Rubio, who, on 2/21/18, attended a raucous gathering of aggrieved and desperate adolescents, their parents, and other community members to discuss and lobby for changes to gun rights in this country. Rubio was willing to face the music, be honest, and even to make some alterations to his prior thinking on the subject. It seemed pretty darned productive. But then again, anytime the spokesperson for the NRA gets grilled in public, I am going to enjoy myself.
Humility, open-mindedness, and tolerance are key virtues. “Confidence is always overconfidence” said Robert Byrne. We all lose the minute we decide we have to “win.” This is about all-or-nothing thinking, partisanship, ideological adherence, and so on. If winning an argument, debate, or policy is more important than a more integrated, cooperative, democratic process, it can throw a wrench in the works simply because our system was designed to give even one Senator the ability to hit the “Veto” button. Of course, Congress, being power-hungry and anti-democratic has made significant changes to precedent over the years to quell minority dissent, but principally, cooperation is going to yield more fruit than “my way or the highway.” “A person totally wrapped up in himself makes a small package” (Harry Emerson Fosdick).
As well, groups such as the NRA (and Robert would say Planned Parenthood) have outsized power now so that also tweaks the idea that compromise, civility, and democratic processes can function as well as they ideally are supposed to. Indeed, our arrogance and political ties are keeping us from looking up at what we could be if we would only choose to see the common thread of humanity that runs through us all. We need to spurn tribalism and factionalism in favor of finding common-sense and reasonable solutions to problems we all face, such as outlandish numbers of suicides and murders every year, unsustainable practices that will lead to environmental devastation, and antibiotic resistance, to name a few.
Certitude is the mortal enemy of tolerance. I’m right, they’re wrong curtails open-mindedness, tolerance, and respect for the liberty of the other. Some things can be shown to be “more right” than others; let’s not go so far into postmodernism and political correctness as to say that “we are all always right and equal,” but an equal danger lies in the ideological position that I am certainly right. We ought to cultivate a hearty sense of modesty and humility, and only bare our claws when it is truly necessary. You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” noted Edward R. Murrow, and “The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don’t agree with” points out Eleanor Holmes Norton.
The ability to “think outside the box” is humility’s ally. Ideological inflexibility, theoretical foreclosure, and allegiance to a particular individual or paradigm narrow a person’s choices, vision, and flexibility. Psychologist Abraham Maslow wisely maintained that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Major mistakes, miscalculations, and SNAFUs reverberate through communities, societies, and even the world when those in power fall prey to this tendency to be cocksure. Think of Donald Rumsfeld/Condoleeza Rice/Colin Powell/George W. Bush with Iraq, or of JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis. How many times has a major corporation or the U.S. government had to come forward and apologize for misleading, obfuscating, causing harm, or covering up?
Former MBA professor Michael Roberto reflected on the cognitive biases and errors in judgment such as the well-researched mental trap, confirmation bias. He illustrates overconfidence that characterized a brutally dangerous year for those who spend four months and $75,000 in Nepal training and acclimating to ascend Mt. Everest in his series of lectures on critical decision-making. They risked and many lost their lives because they bet it all on being right (and were wrong). In a word, biases such as the sunk cost effect and the recency effect, caused the fittest athletes in the world to die on the stormy mountain at 25,000′. One would think that cognitive biases would be easily kept in the front of one’s mind, in order to prevent minor and major mistakes, but one would be wrong. Think of the death-grip that some people hold on their views of not just gun rights/restrictions, but abortion, vaccinations, and politics.
It is in the fantastic book by William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite that he adroitly points out an example of this “Relax, I know what I’m doing” attitude that I am afraid many of us are succumbed by in the age of Wikipedia and Facebook chatter. He writes:
The problem with our leaders now…is also a lack of ability to think outside disciplinary boundaries. Alan Greenspan, to take the most spectacular example, has admitted that he was mistaken to assume that rational self-interest was enough to shield the bankers from disaster. As the journalist Chris Hedges pointed out, Greenspan simply couldn’t see beyond his theoretical assumptions, couldn’t factor in the kind of folly to which a moment’s reflection would have alerted him.
“Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cocksure of many things that were not so,” showed jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. A cocksure insistence that one’s position is the only “right” one – debases others and functions to reassure ourselves of our positions. It also provides “the common enemy” corrals individuals and individuals within groups into an “echo chamber of verification” that may soothe us and makes us comfortable with our decisions, but which will not necessarily be anchored in any objective and verifiable truth. Richard Carlson points out that if you “[c]hoose being kind over being right, and you’ll be right every time.” It can be difficult to be the first one to “lay down arms,” but as we can see from some intractable social problems or, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ceaseless dogmatism and tribalism don’t serve the best interests of the community. And individuals are always part of a larger social system. Humility and acceptance of others pay many dividends, not the least of which are humaneness, tolerance, and even truth.
I will now present some quotations about humility, certitude, and tolerance that I have been able to dig up when thinking about this issue. You can also utilize The Wisdom Archive, possibly the best quote search engine available (especially since it is free and has no advertisements).
“Cocksure certainty is the source of much that is worst in our present world, and it is something of which the contemplation of history ought to cure us, not only or chiefly because there were wise men in the past, but because so much that was thought wisdom turned out to be folly—which suggests that much of our own supposed wisdom is no better.” ~ Bertrand Russell
“As always in life, people want a simple answer … and it’s always wrong.” ~ Susan Greenfield
“When, indeed, one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.” ~ William James
“To be able to see truth goes along with emotional and ethical maturity. When one is able to see truth in this way, he gains confidence in what he says. …And he also gains humility, for he knows that since previous things he saw were partially distorted, what he now sees will also have its element of imperfection.” ~ Rollo May
“All too often, visions of virtue or decency have been invoked to brand as immoral and dangerous anyone who is different. Such aggressive moral dogmatism – which, it is worth stressing, can occur on both the political right and left – is one of the greatest enemies of human dignity.” ~ Elizabeth Kiss
“If you can’t say it simply and clearly, keep quiet, and keep working on it till you can.” ~ Karl Popper
“In a humble state, you learn better. I can’t find anything else very exciting about humility, but at least there’s that.” ~ John Dooner
“When a man speaks of his strength, he whispers his weakness.” ~ John M. Shanahan
“After crosses and losses men grow humbler and wiser.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
“Let us be a little humble; let us think that the truth may not perhaps be entirely with us.” ~ Jawaharlal Nehru
“Our [Israeli-Arabic] culture of discussion in our region is to debate, to know the truth, and try to prove to the other one how they are mistaken – and it’s not really helpful. Listening compassionately can enable us to let the other person reveal and discover what is really there.” ~ Hagit Lifshitz
“Intellectual humility means knowing that your knowledge is limited and recognizing that you shouldn’t claim to know more than you actually know. One who has intellectual humility is willing to recognize and admit to having faults.” ~ Judith Barad
“The peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burdened with convictions.” ~ Alexander Chase
“Warmaking doesn’t stop warmaking. If it did, our problems would have ended millennia ago. More wars occurred in 1987 than in any previous year in history. No decade has ever had more arms trading.” ~ Coleman McCarthy
“We live in an age in which the world’s most horrific conflicts are being played out on the stages of its most humble citizens. This may yet leave to progress, since simplicity and humility can succeed where complexity and belligerence have failed.” ~ Lou Marinoff
“Sense shines with a double luster when it is set in humility. An able and yet humble man is a jewel worth a kingdom.” ~ William Penn
“I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of; that is all agnosticism means.” ~ Clarence Darrow
“The most successful tyranny is the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.” ~ Allan Bloom
“For every person worried about the dangerous lack of civility in our politics and sincerely asking what we can do about it in the coming year, the answer lies within our reach. We can start by refusing to defend what should be indefensible. We can call a hateful or atrocious action what it is without giving that person or voice any ‘cover’ in our own circle by employing the “But!!… Defense.” Doing so would be a start towards ostracizing the extreme elements on all sides and diminishing their impact. Anything less will keep coming back to bite us all in the backsides.” ~ Shellie Rushing Tomlinson
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” ~ Bertrand Russell
“Education is the process of leading people from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.” ~ Denis Hickey
“It is always the secure who are humble.” ~ G. K. Chesterton
This blog was co-written with Robert L. Lloyd, Ph.D.