Culture War or Culture Shift?

Culture War or Culture Shift? March 4, 2018

In his weekly appearance on the PBS NewsHour, and his frequent role of sensible centrist, David Brooks recently made a case for an even-keeled, incrementalist approach to gun control (that part of the conversation starts at about 7:45 in this segment).

Brooks spoke about the need to “take the temperature down” and not to “ramp up the culture war” in order to move a few congressional Republicans toward “realistic gun legislation” on practical grounds.  He has a point: there is something to be said for keeping an even keel, however high the stakes, and for the willingness to gain incremental improvements rather than none at all.  And he is quite right to suggest that one crosses a dangerous line by demonizing other human beings (such as calling Marco Rubio a mass murderer, to take his example), which is neither practically helpful to reducing gun violence nor consistent with human dignity.  Taking a stand for nonviolence, of all things, should never be a blood sport.

Where I take some exception to Brooks’ analysis is his casual dismissal of essentially any calls for movement of the culture away from its unhealthy trust in and infatuation with violence as “ramping up the culture war.”  To change laws in that direction requires not only practical appeal, but enough of the same kind of change in the culture to make just laws possible.  David Cruz-Uribe made a related point in a comment on a recent post of mine, with an analogy (citing Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo) to the cultural shift that has taken place with smoking.

“75 years ago, smoking was ubiquitous, socially accepted, and being against smoking (unless you had a specific health problem that prevented you from smoking) made you part of a disrespected fringe. But since the 1960s, the social role of smoking has changed. It is still legal, but is far less socially acceptable, and is now heavily regulated. When I was a kid, no one in my family smoked, but Mom kept ash trays because guests would light up without asking permission. Now, no one would light a cigarette in a private home without the express invitation to do so. Similarly, it is illegal to smoke in bars and restaurants, and it is socially acceptable to say that smoking is nasty (albeit in more temperate language).

We need to do the same with gun ownership: the owning of dozens [of] guns needs to be seen as odd, the brandishing of military style semi-automatics in public needs to move from normal to socially unacceptable. Then, like with smoking, the cultural regulation will lead naturally to the legal regulation of guns. This is trickier in some ways, because unlike smoking, there is a legitimate side to gun ownership: farming, hunting, sport shooting. But I think we can reframe gun ownership around this axis, and still make other cultural aspects less acceptable.”

It is a good sign, as Mark Shields observed, that certain retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods are making their own moves in that direction – an incremental sign of the kind of cultural shift we badly need, which probably would not be happening without some perceptible rise in temperature on the subject.

Like Brooks, I am generally “suspicious of concentrated power,” whether economic power on the right or cultural power on the left.  But the thing about violence is, there is very little logic in characterizing it as a left/right issue.  Change the words “gun control” to “abortion” and my position remains the same: I favor laws curtailing any violence as a matter of course, and more importantly in the long run, I support any movement toward making violence against human beings – and the instruments thereof – less socially acceptable.  None of this, to me, has anything to do with waging a war, or with the victory of one political tribe over another.  It has everything to do with respecting life.

Perhaps the problem is that practically everything in American social and political life these days gets filtered through a “culture war” paradigm, which easily becomes the only way we can conceive of taking a stand on anything.  But a stand for nonviolence is itself the opposite of bad or dangerous, unless it does become hypocritically reduced to a warrior mentality.

Martin Luther King can serve as a guiding model here: his redemptive personalism would not fit the mold of a rabid culture warrior, although nobody could mistake him for a part of any mushy middle.  What gave his impassioned social critiques their prophetic ring was precisely that, in all their passionate conviction and even sometimes accusation, they contained no note of demonization – and that makes all the difference.

In some ways, we do need to keep up the heat on the culture of death – and work and pray and hope for the release of human beings beholden to it (including perhaps ourselves), always holding out hope for what King called the “double victory” of winning over the violent and the prejudiced.  To “change the structure and the evil system,” as he put it, requires first of all naming the needed change and the systemic evils – not in order to vanquish opponents, but to convince.

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