Artificial Intelligence

Breakfast with Chad: Gun Violence With a New Twist

A series of gun incidents have, I maintain, thrown a new light on one form of rot at the core of US culture. Chad doesn’t always agree.
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April 20, 2023 00:31 EDT
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Media commentators have been weighing in on a sinister string of curiously similar gun incidents that have interrupted the usual weekly accounts of mass shootings in the heavily armed United States. The past week has seen three cases of spontaneous shootings of young people guilty of making a simple geographical mistake.

As we began discussing this, I mentioned to Chad the fact that I have long maintained and frequently written about what I consider to be the source of the problem.

“It isn’t just the availability of guns and the solution will not be stricter gun laws. It’s obvious that the US has created something we call ‘gun culture’ that exists nowhere else in the world. The common attitude seems to regret that people are so trigger-happy, but that doesn’t go far enough. I would maintain that gun culture is not fundamentally about a fanatical group of people who proclaim their love of guns. They are a tiny minority. When we talk about culture, we’re talking about assumptions, beliefs and reflexes that are widely shared across the population. Why has it been so hard for people, including media commentators, to come to grips with the multiple components of that culture, which involve much more than an attitude towards guns?”

Chad agreed that it was a deep cultural problem. “This culture has evolved over time and has become a defining characteristic of American identity, particularly among certain segments of the population.”

Then Chad tried to answer my question, but came up with all the traditional explanations we always hear in the media. “The reasons why it has been difficult for people to come to grips with the multiple components of gun culture are numerous. One reason is that the issue of gun ownership is highly politicized, and there is often a reluctance to engage in a nuanced discussion of the topic. Additionally, there is a strong emotional attachment to guns among many Americans, and any attempts to address gun culture are often seen as an attack on personal freedom and individual rights.”

I was about to object that what Chad was describing was the political side, which is precisely what everyone always talks about, while failing to address issues with the culture itself. But Chad hadn’t finished.

“Another factor is that gun culture is closely tied to other issues, such as crime, mental health, and social inequality. Addressing gun culture would require addressing these underlying issues, which are complex and multifaceted. Furthermore, gun culture is often perpetuated and reinforced by media and popular culture, which can make it difficult to change attitudes and beliefs.”

So, I wondered, what about the solution? Chad always tries to provide a solution.

“Addressing this issue,” Chad helpfully added, “will require a comprehensive approach that takes into account the many components of gun culture and the underlying issues that contribute to it.”

“I agree with that, but what are those components? I would suggest that at the most fundamental level there are two assumptions that appear unique, at least in terms of their intensity, in US culture. The first is that property is more sacred than life. The defense of property has been elevated to the status of a dominant moral imperative. The second, which the entertainment industry has been instrumental in propagating, is that Americans increasingly see guns not so much as about defense as about problem-solving in general. This is related to the facility with which Americans brand certain things as ‘evil.’ That ultimately derives from the early religious history in the US. The culture has created the idea that as soon as any problem gets out of hand, in which we have the impression that we no longer control the outcome, we see it as an evil that must be eradicated. What I’m talking about is psychological. But this is about the psychology of a culture, not the mental health of individual shooters. Why is nobody in the media or politics willing to consider this type of reflection, which might help point to some kind of solution?”

Chad agreed about the pertinence of my analysis before responding to my question.

“Regarding your question about why the media and politicians are not considering this type of reflection, it is difficult to say. There are likely a number of factors at play, including political polarization and the difficulty of addressing complex cultural issues in a soundbite or a tweet. Additionally, the debate around gun control is often highly emotional and charged, and there may be a reluctance to engage in a nuanced discussion of the issue.”

Chad then tried to reassure me by citing the fact that “some organizations are working to shift the cultural narrative around guns and gun ownership, focusing on issues such as responsible gun ownership and safe storage practices. Others are working to address the underlying social and economic factors that contribute to gun violence, such as poverty, inequality, and lack of access to mental health care.”

“But this is all superficial.” I objected. “The fact that the debate is highly emotional and charged is the clearest indication that it’s a deep cultural issue. Cultural assumptions generate strong emotions that tend to cancel any form of rational problem-solving. I submit that responsible leaders should be focusing on how to address those deeper issues, how to influence the culture in the direction of reasoned dialogue. I believe that the competitive economic system that rewards aggressivity and systematically adulates those who triumph economically has something to do with creating a culture of lambent violence. Obviously no one in politics or the media wants to talk about that. Is this because the society is governed by its economic beliefs rather than any system of social morality?”

Ever the passive optimist, Chad reminded me that “cultural change is a slow and difficult process, and it may take time to see tangible results.

Concerning my suggestion about a link with Americans’ understanding of their economic system, Chad responded that “this is a complex issue that is open to debate. While it is true that the competitive economic system can reward aggression and celebrate economic success, it is not necessarily the sole cause of gun culture in the United States.”

This time I had to react. “I didn’t say it was a cause. I suggested it was a contributing factor. Chad, this is one of the reasons dialogue and civil debate become so difficult in the US. It’s what I call temptation to reduce everything to a set of simple causes and effects. The binary fallacy. It’s directly linked to the tendency to see all actions in terms of good and evil. An evil cause produces or calls for an evil effect. Eliminate the evil – shoot it, if necessary – and all will be well. Am I wrong to assume that what I would call a skewed moral framework is at the core of the problem?”

This is where Chad can be counted on to offer a typical equivocating answer. It always consists of agreeing but then reminding me that “it is also important to recognize that this is just one piece of a larger puzzle, and that other factors, such as political ideologies and media portrayals of violence, may also play a role.”

“Chad,” and this time I ended up shouting, “I’m the one who has been talking about not reducing things to a single dimension or a simply binary opposition. I’m the one insisting on extending the list of causes and seeking to understand them and how they relate to one another. As soon as I mention something new and potentially important, you dismiss it by claiming there are other factors, as if I hadn’t already acknowledged those other factors. We’ll have to stop the discussion there. I’m pushing towards reflecting on complexity and you’re finding ways to dismiss it. I’ll just let you think about that.”

At this point, I refrained from adding the remark that it’s probably unlikely that a large language model can think.

*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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