Tag Archives: Politics

You Wanna Talk About Guns? Fine. Let’s Talk About Guns.

There is a phrase I’ve seen pop up on several social media sites recently, a sentiment issued in the dying echoes of the DKR shooting and the more recent Sikh temple shooting. The phrase goes something like this: “We need to have a discussion about guns in this country, people.”

Now this is mere extrapolation on my part, but I’ve noticed that the people calling for this apparently heretofore nonexistent discussion are not the types that I would label gun-nuts, so I suspect that what they really mean is, “I think that maybe we should have more restrictions on guns and ammunition than we currently do, and I want people to chime in and validate my opinion, and maybe we can commiserate about how the government is scared of the NRA?”

But it got me to thinking about the issue, and the thing is, I can’t recall ever hearing a discussion on the causes and consequences of the gun culture in this country. Now probably at this point you think I’m delving into hyperbole. “Albert,” you say, “people are talking about gun culture all the time. How can you say you’ve never been party to one of these discussions?”

But here’s the thing: people talk about gun owners all the time. Occasionally we’ll even talk about the guys who I sometimes call gun nuts. (These are the guys who will cheerfully boast that they’re ordering pallets of ammo from off the internet.) And there’s no end of discussion about gun laws. But I submit there’s another layer most people don’t see.

Recently, I’ve seen some people bandying about statistics relating the various areas of the United States by the number of shooting deaths and comparing that with some arbitrary ranking of gun laws in the same states. (I say arbitrary not to call the comparison into doubt, but simply to point out that states don’t just pick a level of gun control on a scale from one to five. Laws are, I am told, more complicated than that.)

Now these statistics tend show that states with stricter gun laws tend to have fewer shooting deaths than those with very lax gun laws. And of course again, the people sharing these numbers say, “No of course correlation doesn’t imply causation. But isn’t this something we should at least talk about?” Right. Again with the talking.

Well, I have some thoughts about those statistics, and I’ve never been afraid to talk.

Only, I’m pretty sure they don’t say what most of the people bandying them about would like to assume they do. Because they’re not quite uniform, see. There are two states on that list, Vermont and Maine, with shockingly lax gun laws and very low rates of gun death.

What’s going on there?

Let’s go back to a phrase I used earlier in the post: “gun culture”. Here’s my problem with the comparison of states gun laws with their per capita shooting death stats: we live in a democracy (or, if you like to be pedantic about it, a representative republic.) Which means that people have a certain amount of say in what laws get passed. More importantly people in individual states have influence in the laws that pass in their state.

Now I don’t have much firsthand knowledge of states in New England and the Northern  U.S., but I can extrapolate from the fact that the majority of them have fairly strict gun laws that they are not overrun by second-amendment-quoting, AR-15-owning, “Don’t Tread on Me”-flag-waving, gun *ahem* enthusiasts. If they were, these laws wouldn’t have passed in the first place.

What I do have firsthand knowledge of is my own home state, Florida. Now Florida is interesting, because it ranks smack dab in the middle of that list of gun deaths per capita. It’s also interesting because it’s home to a wide spectrum of political opinion. To the south you see more liberal tones of thought. But the further north you travel —and, perhaps more importantly, the closer to Alabama you get— the more conservative people become. That’s where I live. A stone’s throw from the Alabama border, and just across the bay from a whole city full of military retirees.

The people around here? They like their guns.

In fact, just yesterday I had a conversation with a man who proudly proclaimed that he was against any kind of gun control at all. And when I said, “You really believe that convicted felons should be allowed to own firearms?” his answer was a resounding and confident, “Yes!” This man further went on to quote one of Thomas Jefferson’s dumber lines about how the people should rise up every twenty years and overthrow the government, just for the heck of it apparently. (To be fair, I looked it up, and Jefferson did say this, but that just proves that maybe Jefferson isn’t the guy you should be quoting to back up your political opinions.)

But believe it or not, that wasn’t the most interesting part of the conversation. See, me and this guy got to talking guns. In particular we were talking about self-defense firearms. And somewhere along the line the guy says, “What are you going to do if you need to defend yourself?” I told him I’d made it 26 years without needing to pull a gun in self-defense, and that while it was possible I might one day find myself in a situation where having a gun at my side might be beneficial to my continued existence, I didn’t think it very likely. And he said, “Well, you must not get out much then. I’ve had to pull my weapon in self-defense. Twice.”

That got me to thinking. Because I know a number of men who have never needed a firearm to defend themselves, and then this one guy shows up gung ho for guns, and he’s needed his twice? What gives?

And here I’m going to delve into the area of conjecture. I’m not a psychologist, an anthropologist, nor a economist. But I can read a map. I can look at that list of states where the most shooting deaths occur and realized that they all have something else in common besides the kinds of gun laws they have. They’re all (barring Alaska) states in the south and southwest of the country.

This is what I think is going on: for one reason or another those are the states where you’re most likely to find people like the man I just described. People deeply concerned about the second amendment; people who believe that they will need their guns one day to defend themselves.

And belief is an exceptionally powerful thing. If you believe you’re smarter than everyone else, you’re likely to do better on tests. If you believe you’re ugly and that no one likes you, you’re going to have a hard time making friends. And if you believe that one day you will need to draw your firearm in self-defence…

The problem isn’t with the laws. Lax gun laws did not create the man I spoke with yesterday. Rather, he and people like him, created the laws. You can make the laws as strict as you want, but without changing the men behind them and you will accomplish very little. In contrast, in places like Vermont and Maine, places with lax gun laws but without the gun culture I’m speaking of, you could give free guns to everyone and probably not see much uptick in gun violence.

What’s the solution? I have no freaking clue.

Which is why, I think, people like to fixate on the legal side of the equation. You can change a law fairly easily. But changing a man? That takes some doing. Especially when that man lives among other men who think and believe as he does.

So there. You’ve been clamoring for someone to talk about the gun issue? You got your wish.

But talk is cheap.

Change, on the other hand, may cost you everything.

How to Win

I kinda like to argue. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve got some kind of confrontational personality disorder.

I used to argue stuff I didn’t even believe just to enjoy the verbal sparring involved in trying to prove my point. I was addicted to the idea of the win, The moment when I had back my opponent into  a logical corner and they’d have to throw up their hands and say, “Clearly Albert, your’s is the superior intellect. I concede your point and reject my previous position.”

Except that never happened. No matter how well I argued, people would leave the conversation believing the same thing they had always believed, thinking the same way they had always thought.

I came to the conclusion that most people’s minds were fixed like concrete, that once an idea had taken root there no amount of logic could serve to pull it out. The idea of the win was a myth.

But recently I’ve been giving the win some more thought. Winning arguments doesn’t work. No matter how many facts you have at your disposal most people will go on believing what they’ve always believed. But you can change minds. How?

You have to win people.

“Win people?” you may ask. “What does that mean?”

Winning people is all about connection. It’s about creating friendships. It’s about being a nice person.

The best way to make someone see your point of view is to first make them like you. It sounds simple enough, but it’s a fact that most of our society chooses to ignore. Take for instance, the most recent presidential elections. Political pundits took great joy in dissecting the minutia of the different candidates campaign platforms, their political plans and economic strategies.

And in the end the man who won was the candidate who was the most likable.

This is coming from a guy who’s pretty staunchly conservative, by the way. I watched the campaign and I didn’t agree with most of Barak Obama’s policies, but even I had to admit that the man was charismatic and engaging. I enjoyed listening to him say things I disagreed with more than I enjoyed listening to McCain say (some) things that I agreed with.

We can moan and whine all we want about how unfair it is that people make decisions based on personal feelings, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The world we live in is not based on logic; it is based on likability.

Winning people isn’t just for politicians. It’s a good idea for everyone who wants to make an impact on the world, including us writers.

We want to get our work out into the world some day, and we want people to buy it. That’s why it’s so important that we nurture friendships and make connections that will leave a positive impression on the people around us.

The internet has expanded our capacity to make those connections in an amazing way, but it’s up to us to use that capability wisely. Time spent on Twitter and Facebook doesn’t have to be wasted. If we do it right we can forge friendships that may prove invaluable for us later on. At the very least we’re getting our name out there into the world, so that one day when we’re finally newly minted authors with books on the shelves of a real bookstore those friends we’ve made over the years will be there to buy them up.

Bottom line: we should never ever reject the power of relationships or forget the importance likability. Winning people may take longer than winning an argument, but time spent winning people is never wasted.

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

There are some people who pine for the glory days of high school. They look back in fondness on the experiences they had, the friendships they made, the carefree life they had to leave behind for drudgery of adulthood.

I am not one of these people. High school sucked for me in a big way. I can look back on that time of my life and say honestly that I can not think of one unequivocally good thing that happened to me during that entire four years of my life. I made far more enemies than friends, I fumbled my way through social interaction, and generally hated every minute of it.

And it was mostly my own fault. I didn’t think so at the time of course. I thought it was all those other people who were just plain mean and didn’t understand me because I was so much smarter than they were. Yeah, see what I mean? I was kind of a jerk back then.

And I’m still kind of a jerk now. Well, maybe jerk isn’t the best word for it. The point is, I love to argue. I don’t mean for it to be offensive, I just like to debate things. I like to think it keeps my mind sharp.

The problem is that people don’t usually take disagreement well. For most people arguments are always personal, and always emotional. They assume that if I attack their opinion I’m attacking them in some way.

So I’ve had to adapt. Specifically I’ve had to learn a little self control; I’ve had to make conscious decisions not to jump into arguments simply for the sake of argument. And I have to tell you it hasn’t been easy.

You know that rule about not talking politics on the internet? That rule was invented for me. Because I love politics, and I love arguments. I could jump into all the political chatter and start a debate in no time. But I could also seriously tick off some people who I consider to be friends.

I’ve only been on Twitter for a couple of months and in that short amount of time I cannot count the number of times I’ve had to tell myself, “It’s okay, Albert. Just back off and don’t say anything. You’ll be fine.”

The problem is no one is dispassionate about their political opinion. People on both sides of the aisle have woven their political philosophy into very fabric of their being, and attacking that philosophy is only going to lead to anger and distrust.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that there is a vital place for political debate in our society. But it isn’t here.

Here is a place about writing and life. Here is where I’m trying to build your loyalty and trust. So that one day when I’m published you’ll say to yourself, “Hey, I know that Albert Berg. He’s the guy who wrote that one blog post about the cockroach in the spaghetti noodles. Maybe I’ll check his stuff out.”

If I’m trying to sell you my book I really don’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.

So go ahead. Post your political ramblings on Facebook and Twitter if you must. You won’t be getting a response from me. But if you like, you can imagine me clenching my teeth and quietly screaming to myself, begging my fingers not to type out a snarky reply. And if I die of a stress related heart attack at the tender age of thirty four, you’ll know the reason why.

The Siren Song of Sexy Ideas

If you are a language nerd like me you may have heard of something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  If you haven’t heard of it, then stated briefly it goes something like this: “People’s thoughts are bound by the language they use.”  For instance, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis would say, “If your language has no word for the color red, you will not be able to recognize red as an independent color.

Cool idea right?  I mean the conception that the very words we use changes our perception of reality in some deep and fundamental way?  Very cool.  Too bad it’s wrong.

I’m not going to get into a debate here about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in specific because it’s not my field, but there has been plenty of research done debunking this idea.  And yet, there are still people  out there, smart people, who believe in it.  Why?

Because it is a cool idea.  They wouldn’t put it in so many words of course, but that’s the truth of the matter.  There are some ideas that are just so much fun that our brain can’t let go of them.  For the sake of simplicity we’ll call these Sexy Ideas.  Take, for instance, the following XKCD comic.

Now you’ve probably all heard this explanation of the operation of the wing in school.  And the thing is, it makes sense.  You hear about the air travelling faster over the top than over the bottom and you think, “Yeah, that fits.”  In fact it fits so well that I believed the wrong version of the explanation until the day I read this comic.  And when I learned the truth? I was crushed.  Why had I been told a lie? Why were teachers in schools continuing to spread this misconception? What was wrong with the world?

This is the problem: The “air travels faster over the top because it has farther to go” explanation has endured so long and will continue to endure for generations because it is a Sexy Idea.  The truth on the other hand is clunky and boring.  The truth says, “There are a number of complex and hard to solve equations that come into play when you’re dealing with compressible fluid flow around a solid object.”  See what I mean?  That’s not very satisfying at all.  Sexy Ideas are simple concepts.  They stick in our brain because we can wrap our minds around them, and make them fit into our finite understanding of the issues.

The problem is that the world is not made up of simple concepts.

Recently there has been a focus on the tone of political debate in the nation.  They say the rhetoric between the two parties was part of the cause of the Tuscon Massacre and that Republicans and Democrats should tone down the kinds of words they use in their arguments.

The idea that any one thing could be responsible for a disturbed young man going out and killing nine people is a dangerous Sexy Idea of its own, but the debate about having too much debate got me thinking about why our system works the way it does.

In America we have a two-party system.  One the one side you have Democrats and on the other side you have Republicans.  These two parties run up against each other like rams butting horns on nearly every important issue.  But my question is this: are there really only two sides to every issue?  Take the health care bill passed last year for instance.  The Republicans are against it.  The Democrats are for it.  Period.  End of story.

The idea that more than a thousand pages of legislation can be either completely right or completely wrong is a Sexy Idea.  It’s wrong of course, but for a politician that’s not the point.  The point is, it’s really hard to go home and say to your  constituents, “Well see its a complicated issue and some of it may be okay and actually help people, but I believe the overall effect would be more negative than positive.”  It is far easier to say, “This bill will KILL YOUR GRANDMA!”  The idea that the health care bill will kill your grandma is a Sexy Idea.  It’s an idea that sticks with people and makes an emotional impact.

How can we fix this?  Well we can’t.  No really, we’re pretty well screwed.  The society as a whole is going to go on embracing Sexy Ideas and confusing them for Right Ideas.  The only thing we can change for certain is ourselves.

So the next time you hear an idea that makes your heart pound or seems delightfully simple, take a closer look.  Chances are it’s a Sexy Idea.  You still won’t catch them all, but you’ll be better equipped to deal with a world that is more complex than our finite minds can ever hope to imagine.