Are you a tax-raising, soy latte-drinking, Prius-driving, New York Times-reading, Daily Show-watching, corporation-hating liberal?
In my last blog, I asked you to imagine a country in which many apartment buildings are built with materials so flammable they easily catch fire, killing dozens of people each episode. The solution to such a problem, it seems, should be for government officials to regulate those building materials so the buildings won’t be so deadly for people who live in them.
But in that imaginary country, politicians in the grip of the Materials Rights Association (MRA) defended the use of those flammable building materials, using three “arguments”:
- “It’s complicated. There are multiple factors in fires…”
- “Critics of these building materials don’t even know the difference between a building’s cladding and its exterior siding.”
- “This is not a materials issue. It’s an arson/electrical wiring/fire alarm/… issue.”
Despite their intellectual shoddiness, these responses worked in the story through obfuscation [as in 1)], intimidation [as in 2)], and rhetorical punch [as in 3)]. But it’s not hard to see why, from a rational perspective, they don’t come close to justifying inaction. To 1): The existence of multiple factors doesn’t entail people shouldn’t deal with one of the main ones. To 2): Not knowing the difference between cladding and siding doesn’t disqualify a person from calling for regulation in response to fires; and it’s part of the legislators’ job to carve the more nuanced categories. And to 3): The existence of, say, a wiring flaw doesn’t rule out a problem with building materials, since both problems can and did exist.
Furthermore, I think it’s obvious to almost any reader of the story that these “arguments” are both rationally flawed (in a way that’s easy to detect) and presented in bad faith: even the advocates of the “arguments” themselves should know how bad they are.
But now we come to the point. Despite how obvious it is that these “arguments” are bad (when approached as a part of a hypothetical case), real people in the contemporary United States are often taken in by the same “arguments” in a different context—the perpetually recurring American gun debate.
As my reference to Parkland, FL, at the end of Part I suggests, the problem of deaths by gun violence in the actual United States is in relevant ways analogous to the problem of deaths by fire in the story: the building materials/guns are one causal factor among many—but an important one that makes a huge difference to how lethal the situations are. It’s true in the US that people have a right of some sort to arm themselves (it doesn’t extend to just anything), just as it’s true in the story that people had a right of some sort to select materials for building. But that doesn’t undermine a case for better regulation in either context. The case for gun regulation in the present United States (where the scope of the regulation should be informed by empirical and legal research) is as good as the case for building material regulation in the story: regulations are a minor inconvenience in comparison to the lives they would save.
So here’s the puzzle. Why is it so easy to see that these “arguments” are terrible when encountering them in a fictional story—and I assume it would be easy for almost anyone to see they’re terrible—but they march on like zombies in the present gun debate? Why aren’t they just as easily dismissed?
Most of us have heard the following kinds of utterance from gun advocates when talking about events like school shootings:
- “It’s complicated. There are multiple factors to consider…”
- “Gun control advocates don’t even know the difference between an automatic and a semiautomatic.”
- “This is not a guns issue. It’s a mental health issue!”
Why are they taken seriously in real life, when in a different context it’s so easy to see they’re not the least compelling?
One might be tempted to say that people who believe such arguments lack the intellectual acuity to see what’s wrong with them. And that may be true in some cases, but not in many. We need a better explanation.
I submit the following: The “arguments” in question are potent socially in two striking ways.
First, they induce fatigue. Even though the “arguments” are patently bad, it takes some work to untangle them and explain why they are wrong. It also takes work to figure out if they are made in earnest or merely as obfuscating sophistry. That all takes time and energy. Thus, each “argument” is an efficient way for a gun advocate to deplete the temporal and other resources of a gun reform advocate. One pithy phrase is all it takes.
Second, these “arguments” sneak presuppositions onto the table (without stating them) that are favorable to gun advocates. The second, for example, presupposes that one must be intimately acquainted with distinctions between gun types before expressing a public opinion. That’s false, because it’s reasonable for the public to demand that representatives take action on a certain issue and leave the important details to the representatives—it’s their job to work out the details. But the presupposition that you have to be highly informed before you can talk is easy to sneak in and tips the scales in the gun advocates favor, since he (usually) knows a lot more about guns.
So such arguments are intellectually dumb but tactically smart.
That’s a bitter realization for us reformers, but it’s one we must accept: being right, having better evidence, and reasoning better are not enough. Part of the agenda for arguing more effectively for gun reform needs to be finding arguments that are also tactically effective. And that is likely to be at least as hard as crafting intellectually sound arguments. But in the end, it’s no less important.