I have now spent roughly half of my life in Europe (growing up in the U.K., a few years in France) and half in the U.S. (most of my adult life). Over the years I have developed a pet theory that in the U.S., people define themselves by taking a stand and sticking with it - often in defiance of those around them. Being yourself and fulfilling your potential is a foundation of the American Dream. There is space enough in this country that disparate groups and identities can carve out their own territory and if threatened, the right to defend yourself with deadly force is embedded into the "stand your ground" law in many states. Whereas in Europe, different countries and cultures are so up in each others' business as a simple consequence of geography that they are more frequently forced to talk it out. While Brits delight in debate and the power of persuasion, Americans cheer for the hero who shouts the loudest, the one who most vehemently (or entertainingly) dismisses the opposition. You might say Americans admire people who stick to their guns.
Now of course British politics involves more than its share of posturing, and I’m not suggesting that the Europeans have it all figured out because clearly they do not. But if you’re puzzling over why the U.S. so dramatically outranks other nations in the incidence of gun violence, and you wonder not only about access to guns but about what causes people to use them with such tragic consequences, then hear me out.
Regardless of culture or national origin, it is human nature to seek out information that supports our existing point of view, this phenomenon is called confirmation bias. Scrolling through my Facebook feed and making my own choices about what to post increasingly feels like a textbook demonstration of this bias. Of course we don't get all of our news from social media, but a recent Pew study states that 63% of Facebook users report using it as a source for news. I have a lot of journalist friends and convince myself there is a decent level of critical thinking going on in my feed, but ultimately, by definition, this is my social network. It is a self-selected bubble of people who think more or less like I do. I find myself propagating information that supports my view, and I am rarely challenged to engage in serious debate with an opposing perspective.
Today's New York Times editorial about the gun epidemic was popular in my feed. It was bold and compelling, and I nearly reposted it, but something held me back. Aside from noting that its lauded status as the first editorial to run on the front page of the newspaper in 95 years suddenly struck me as more archaic than authoritative, I was bothered by this:
“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment. No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.”
I absolutely agree with the sentiment. I even copied it so I could highlight it in my repost, but then I thought, how can you say “it is not necessary to debate...” one of the most persistent elements of the opposition’s argument? Like it or not, that is exactly what we must debate! If we simply dismiss what is so clearly important to our adversaries that leaves us no grounds for negotiation.
It is interesting to me that this particular mass shooting -- of the hundreds this year -- has been the one to unleash such universal outcry. Timing is everything, I suppose, and it came so soon after Paris and Colorado. But so many of the reactions, including this editorial, just seem like louder shouting. And I'm sorry to say that in a competition for the loudest shout, even the front page of the New York Times is unlikely to win out.
If we actually want to solve problems -- gun violence, racial inequality, climate change, reproductive rights -- I think we need to change our strategy. So I am presenting myself with a challenge, and invite you to do the same: Stop focusing so heavily on the things that confirm your position, and start looking for those that don't. Instead of shouting louder, think about listening harder. Instead of reinforcing a culture of defiance, seek out the common ground.
I did an exercise in a communication workshop years ago that has stuck with me. The goal was simply to find common ground with someone who held an opposing view. I was paired with someone who supported the death penalty -- I vehemently do not. It seemed an impossible exercise, like being asked to change who I am. But sure enough, through conversation we began to share common experiences and common emotions, and I started to understand how this person's experience had lead to her perspective. Even if I still struggled to arrive at the same conclusion, I could empathize with her experience. Empathy allows us to see the humanity in others – in the end, it's what stops us from killing each other.
The more strongly we commit to our existing perspective and ridicule opposing points of view, the less we are able to empathize with those who think differently from us. Instead of reinforcing our positions and preparing for battle, we have to ask ourselves: is it really so important to stick to our guns? Or might we, just for a moment, be persuaded to put them down?