Why do many people oppose gun ownership? Almost always, because they want our society to be a safer one, and they consider it dangerous to have guns in circulation in the hands of private owners, law-abiding or not.
On the other hand, why do gun owners want their right to own those guns confirmed and respected? Because they want safety, too – but they believe that it does more for safety for people who aren't criminals to be able to own guns than for only police and criminals to have guns. Gun owners usually favor heavy penalties for gun crimes, because they believe those penalties to be a deterrent.
Same end, but very different views about how to achieve it. Seeing this doesn't necessarily change anyone's mind about the means they think are needed, but it helps us to see those on the other side of the argument as reasonable people rather than as crazy, stupid, or evil.
Equally important, to some extent both views conflict with the actual data on violence and gun crime. I'd rather see all of us who want our communities to be safer base our efforts on facts rather than assuming we already know what will work without bothering to find out first.
One of the most common mistakes we make when facing problems is leaping into action before we've collected all the information we need. Men tend to be more guilty of this than women, which is why women sometimes get frustrated when they just want to have someone listen and understand their situation and men spring into mister-fix-it mode. These gender patterns are by no means exclusive, of course.
Another frustrating phenomenon, often seen in culture and politics, is a tendency to oversimplify nearly every issue people face. Human beings seem prone to thinking of things as simple dualities, and often that's exactly how they're presented to us.
A lot of those dualities are false. Framing things in those terms, if done deliberately, is an old sophist trick, a cousin to the push poll and the straw man argument. Most people are not crazy, stupid, or evil which means that in any passionate controversy, there has to be some sense to what's being said on both sides. So how can large groups of reasonable people – sane, well-meaning, often pretty bright – hold strong but wildly differing opinions, views, and wishes? Why do they disagree so vehemently if they're equally reasonable? Because they're operating from different assumptions and expectations. Often this is obvious from the words they use to frame the issue, e.g. “right to life” versus “reproductive rights.”
Progressive scholar George Lakoff explained this beautifully in his books, “Don't Think of an Elephant” and “Whose Freedom?” When we see a false duality – a complex issue oversimplified into stark and absolutist choices, with one that sounds obviously right and the other obviously wrong – one of three things is usually happening:
The source of the false duality is trying to manipulate us rather than honestly weigh the merits of our choices on the issue at hand;
The way the issue is presented is based on erroneous beliefs rather than on accurate information; or
People are repeating an argument they've heard that struck a chord with them without really thinking about it first.
We've probably all fallen into this error many times. I know I have. It dominates public discourse; it makes understanding the world seem easier in the short run. We don’t have to think, just try to yell louder than the obviously evil or crazy people on the other side. And we get to feel virtuous and full of righteous indignation as a bonus. The downside is that it's useless, and sometimes counterproductive, in solving real problems. We'll never learn anything new about an issue if we believe we already know everything we need to know and are not open to rethinking our ideas.
I saw a lot of this when I worked with county and tribal health councils for my state's health department, managing contracts and providing training on systems theory and evidence-based program design. Good, smart people were often investing a lot of money, time, and physical and emotional energy trying to overcome problems plaguing their communities, ranging from high DWI rates to teen pregnancy to high incidences of diabetes. They were working as hard as they could, often having done so for years and sometimes decades, and I would roll into town and sometimes tell them they needed to stop what they were doing and do something different, using strategies that had some history of effectiveness, or we weren't going to keep funding their programs. Often they were operating from assumptions they hadn't checked for accuracy rather than from data, and they didn't know how much impact they were having because they weren't keeping data on their own programs to measure their results.
Some of them got pretty angry with me initially; I learned not to take getting yelled at too personally. I remember one group in particular. Their chairperson was a smart, dedicated woman who knew her town intimately, having lived there for decades, and was a natural leader – charismatic, eloquent, and hardworking. She cut me off less than thirty seconds into my spiel and very heatedly told me how well she and her group knew the town and the problem they were working on, how hard they were working. She finished by telling me that this group of people had been together for over a decade, working their hearts out on this problem, and she didn't appreciate me waltzing into town from the capital with my slide show and briefcase and acting as if I knew more about their situation than they did themselves. The others in the group were nodding, murmuring, and glaring at me.
I said, “You've been doing this for over a decade. You have my absolute respect and admiration for that – this town is lucky to have you.” At this point the group was nodding. I went on: “How much difference has your work made in the problem since you started this group ten years ago? What's different in this town as a result?” Abruptly, they looked stricken. The fact was that nothing had changed. Their hard work, including things I might have done exactly the same way in their position, had been irrelevant in terms of actually helping the community. It had made them feel good (and sometimes exhausted, burned out, and unappreciated), and that was about it. From there we were able to start a dialogue about some strategies they might be able to use that were proven successes, how they could adapt those strategies to the unique aspects of their county, and how they could collect and analyze results to see how they were doing. I worked with them for a couple of years. Things did get better once they were directing their energies into effective action, and we ended up with a lot of mutual respect and friendship.
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