The scene is unusual. President Barack H. Obama is seated inside George Mason University’s Johnson Center in Fairfax, Virginia, postured sort of awkwardly, plopped on a high leather chair, itself upholstered in deep crimson, positioned at room center. The President is well lit and sporting a finely tailored suit jacket, unbuttoned, a long and double-Windsored silver tie cavalierly adangle. To the President’s immediate left is CNN’s longtime television news anchor, author and personality, Anderson Cooper.
Between the two sits a mahogany end table that supports two glasses of iceless drinking water. The President thanks the crowd, smiling with teeth. Cooper’s iron-gelled combover is the same steel color of the President’s tie. There are cameras in multiple spots, recording live.
- COOPER: Hello, Mr. President. Welcome.
THE P.O.T.U.S.: Great to see you.
MR. COOPER and THE P.O.T.U.S. shake hands firmly. They are nodding nods.
MR. COOPER: Good to see you. Let me start. Have you ever owned a gun?
So, here’s what’s going on. President Obama is holding a live town hall-style address at George Mason University to discuss and defend his recent Executive Order announcement regarding gun violence in America. It is Thursday, 7-January-2016, exactly one week removed from a year that saw nearly as many mass shootings (355) as days on the calendar.
Two self-proclaimed Islamic State militants killed 14 in San Bernardino, California in December. Before that, a deranged man murdered three (including a police officer) at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility. The month before, a shooter murdered eight and then shot himself at a rural community college in Oregon. Dylan Roof killed nine innocent people inside a church meeting room in South Carolina. These were the highly publicized events, but there were way, way, way more. In fact, there was not an eight day period in all of 2015 in which a mass shooting did not occur. I could go on and on and on.
CNN is hosting the event, capitalizing on the spectacle of a live Q&A with the President in the most CNN-way imaginable, treating the town hall address like the major entertainment event it sort of is, ushering in commercial blocks with bass tones and motion graphics, stopping just short of what a p.m. channel surfer would probably mistake as a Michael Bay trailer. 2.4 million people are tuned in to the telecast. That number does not include those watching from laptop screens, which is what I am doing while lying supine on the bed in my tiny sublet in Queens.
- COOPER: Did you ever feel a desire to… feel the need to get a gun?
THE P.O.T.U.S.: I grew up mostly in Hawaii, and other than hunting for wild pig…
- COOPER’s hand rests on his knee. THE P.O.T.U.S. smiles with teeth.
THE P.O.T.U.S.: …which they do once in awhile…
Obama’s polished left dress shoe reaches the floor slightly more naturally than Cooper’s. The CNN star, whose hands are small, turns out, sits at a slight forward pitch to compensate. He clears his throat and looks at the President, who matches his professional smolder.
MR: COOPER: There are a lot of people who don’t trust you.
This is not the format of your typical presidential address. There is no podium, no elevated stage, no grinning Joe Biden, no cabinet members, no Ivy League speechwriter’s prepackaged eloquence. A crowd of roughly 100 people circumscribes Obama and Cooper. The total amount of representatives from the National Rifle Association – the largest single contributor to the U.S. gun lobby, contributing over 9.4 million dollars to Congress since 2013 – is exactly zero.
(According to Obama, the NRA, headquartered in Fairfax, declined his invitation.)
The questions Obama fields are not always friendly. Taya Kyle, outspoken gun rights advocate and widow of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, is the first of the guests to speak. What she does, instead of address any of the actual data points within Obama’s executive order, is immediately criticize the essence of the entire order itself (which called for more stringent background checks on gun sales as well as increased mental health funding) as something that provides Americans with a “false sense of hope.” She is holding the cordless microphone with both hands.
So, this again. It’s surely clear to most people watching that, despite the bold new format, this is to be the same tired conversation that has been making the rest of us sick for years.
“Why not celebrate where we are?” Kyle suggested. Her dress is the same deep, soft blue as the backlit rows of faces behind the President, who sits and hears Kyle out, his forehead wrinkled in Herculean patience, his chin flanked by a motionless thumb and forefinger.
“I guess that’s my question,” she concludes, after not saying too much. “Celebrate that we’re good people, and 99.9 percent of us are never going to kill anyone.”
This, to reiterate, is her counter-solution to the 30,000 annual victims of gun fatalities in the United States. Celebration of where we are right now, rather than, say, some discussion about sensible legislation that could curb the violence that plagues tens of thousands every year. I sigh and rub a pair of tired eyes so far back into their holes that they might as well stay there.
The argument we’re perhaps actually having
Taya Kyle’s comments to the President are a perfect example of the current discursive paradigm in the United States right now. The absolute polarity of our rhetoric applies to almost every social dispute across the board – seriously. Insert “police violence,” “social programs,” “immigration,” “women’s healthcare rights,” or whatever else comes to mind, and you will most likely find two prevailing thought camps – “Liberal” and “Conservative.” Coincidence? There is a problem in the way that we think about one another, and the gun debate is a clear example.
The weird reality of the American gun violence argument is that both sides largely agree with one another on many of the data points. That sounds impossible, until you consider that, excluding fringe extremists and/or those dwelling in the moist underbellies of large boulders, everyone in this country acknowledges that there is a serious problem.
Both “Liberals” and “Conservatives” tend to agree that background checks are a good idea. Every sane and emotionally capable person mourns for the elementary school students slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut in 2013, and all the other innocent people before and since, and desires solutions to prevent it in the future. Both “Liberals” and “Conservatives” want increased help for the mentally ill. Both “Liberals” and “Conservatives” want to reduce the amount of illegal 9mm handguns in the inner cities that are killing people every day. Both “Liberals” and “Conservatives” want things to be better.
So why aren’t they? Why aren’t things better? Why can’t we even agree on what we agree on? Let’s be fair here. A good amount of this problem is still about a very real difference in opinion. Gun owners are furious at the prospect of having to give up certain conveniences. Gun control advocates shake their heads bitterly from across the aisle, unable to reconcile with the perceived selfishness of conservatives’ fury. How silly is it, then, that both sides actually agree on way more than they even (desire to) know?
This gun argument is, at its ideological nucleus, drifting further and further away from any sort of actual reality that it is seldom about the data anymore at all. In a very real and serious way, the debate is now much more about personal identity – meaning, one’s position on the “Liberal” vs. “Conservative” binary – and whatever ideals are connected to those labels, than it is about the facts. In many cases, the rationality of the conversation takes a backseat to the identity factors attached to the prepackaged opinions to which we choose to subscribe.
Conservatives and liberals are in large part no longer arguing about how to curb gun violence, but rather, how wrong and stupid the other side is. As soon as that happens, the argument we are having ceases to be productive in any way.
Let’s back up a step. The fact that opinion-allegiance supersedes the gun violence issue itself is not to be mistaken with a claim that gun violence is not a real thing and is not a major problem that we have to deal with – because it is, and we do. People are dying everyday as a direct result of the financial stranglehold the NRA has on Congress. But, unfortunately, one more online argument about the ludicrousy of the NRA is not going to do a single thing to tip the scales either way. Not to say that posting online about how inconceivably stupid the people that disagree with you are is not fun, because it is. However, such divisive rhetoric on gun control, while effective in terms of generating support from those who already agree, provides little in the way of progress in the overarching debate itself.
The tragic part is, both sides tend to be unable to see past their own self-defined stereotypes of the other side to realize how much they actually agree when it comes to the nuts and bolts of this issue. The gun control vs. gun rights argument has transcended into a new, second degree argument of bitter cultural rivalry, of Us versus Them, a rivalry that exists, as most rivalries do, outside of objective facts and logic. The guns themselves – just like the police violence, social programs, healthcare, racism, et al. – are merely a cosmetic symbol for a much deeper divide in the cultural body. That needs to be addressed.
Tweed jackets & Truck Nutz™
Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of inaccurately labeling the other side of any argument that is going on. In the police brutality argument, liberals tend to view conservatives as brutish, racist, and dumb. Conservatives, on the other hand, see their liberal counterparts as criminal loving, cop-hating sucklers off the teat of Political Correctness. Both prejudices are equally incorrect, obviously, and the reality is that both halves tend to oppose legitimate police brutality and champion quality police work.
The same pattern can be seen in the gun control debate. “Conservative” and “Liberal” have become shorthand for a whole other slew of inaccurate, mentally lazy stereotypes. We see this all the time in citizen-level political discourse. Facebook pages like Right Wing News and Occupy Democrats are ruthless in their hateful depictions of those on the Other Side.
Pro-gun advocates tend to view gun control proponents (“Liberals”) as over-educated outsiders, meddling where they don’t belong, intellectual city folk, with all the connotations that term entails. To the gun rights advocate, a liberal is a gun-grabbing idealist sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong, an overly-sensitive tweed jacket, horned rimmed glasses wearing guy who owns actual mustache wax and can’t change a tire. Soft, out of touch with reality, they imagine, because how could someone in his right mind be a liberal? They support Obama, they bow down to their PC overlords, they get off on crying microaggression, they support Socialism, they need safe spaces to protect them from mean words (read about it on Breitbart!), etc. To support gun control is, thus, to be a Liberal. Could even God forgive?
Conservatives, typically the loudest Second Amendment defenders, are vocal and often vitriolic in their distrust of “Liberals.” However, those on the left are often guilty of the exact same behavior. They are just perhaps more sneaky about their aggression by pining it off as steadfast humanitarianism. Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Rachel Maddow have made careers out of being witheringly snide, painting all conservatives as drooling nincompoops, dragging their low-hanging knuckles across the socially-backward half of the political spectrum. The vocal liberal often makes it his duty to skewer gun rights advocates in broad, inaccurate strokes, labeling them all as bloated middle-America types with chin-strap facial hair and fake testicles hanging from their truck bumpers, blaring Rush from their Chevy speakers and sipping a flat Coors while idling in the Carl’s Jr. drive-thru, contemplating the many layered nuances of taxidermy…surely an image conjures.
These of course all being examples of how not to label each other, remember. See the problem here? To immaturely label one another as immediately “other” and, thus, “bad,” before even allowing them to explain that you pretty much agree on gun control, impedes the process of getting something done and saving lives. Anger is the antithesis to understanding, not the gateway.
A large percentage of political discourse in this country is petty and immature. Regardless of the sides we happen to occupy or the latent intelligence we may possess, the exact same logical short-circuiting will ensue if we succumb to the temptation of hating those that think differently. The way it works now, for a gun control advocate to discuss anything with a gun rights advocate would be to instantly stoop to the level of that guy. That idiot. That mental midget who has the audacity to be from a different cultural demographic than my dear and personal own. Also, just to be clear, that model can be charted identically in the reverse direction.
Taya Kyle eventually sat back down in her chair. Obama assured her, as well as the several other gun rights advocating speakers that followed, that this proposal will not impact a law-abiding citizen’s ability to purchase weapons to protect him- or herself. The speakers, Kyle included, did not seem able to conjure up any hate or vitriol in response to the President’s respectful and tempered attitude. Was he being transparent? I can’t say. What can’t be doubted, though, was that he was genuinely listening to concerns from the other side, and responding with respect and temperance on live television. That counts for something, sure, but in regards to any actual progress in this debate, and surely in other debates too, the next move is ours.
If we stopped excluding one another from the conversation that both sides are trying to have, we could realize how symbiotic our two missions really are, and we could begin to advance the agenda that actually matters: saving innocent lives. Wasn’t that the goal when this argument began in the first place?
Somewhere along the line, it seems that many people on both sides of the gun control debate have lost sight of that original goal in lieu of advancing personal narcissism and self-righteous ideology. At the end, both sides want the same thing – to protect as many innocent people from gun violence as possible while at the same time infringing minimally on the Constitutional rights of law abiding citizens. Accomplishing that task seems to me to be worth talking about, but we won’t get there with this current state of antagonistic, soft-boiled political debate.
Obama’s tempered approach in the Johnson Center at George Mason University seemed to me to be an attempt to put liberals and conservatives in the same room, allowing them to air their grievances regarding perceived misconceptions on the other side. Hopefully, those watching were able to see, once the typical “Us” vs. “Them” rhetoric subsided and facts were exchanged calmly, that the people on the other side of the opinion divide are living, breathing people after all, and people with surprisingly similar intentions. Though the president’s approach to discussing this issue was fresh, the conclusion drawn from the town hall event is nothing we haven’t seen before. This could be a step toward saving some lives, or it could just be the latest chapter in an ongoing saga of anger and confusion.
Whether the gun control debate is a lost cause or not remains to be seen. I believe there is still hope to be had here, but as usual, the whole thing hinges on us. It should be little surprise that, at the end, the conversation will be made or broken by our willingness to pay attention to each other.