Unhappy Tools

“Even the best weapon is an unhappy tool, hateful to living things. So the follower of the Way stays away from it. Weapons are unhappy tools, not chosen by thoughtful people, to be used only when there is no choice, and with a calm, still mind, without enjoyment. To enjoy using weapons is to enjoy killing people, and to enjoy killing people is to lose your share in the common good. It is right that the murder of many people be mourned and lamented. It is right that a victor in war be received with funeral ceremonies.”

– Tao Te Ching ch. 31, “Against War”, Ursula K. LeGuin’s version

I have friends who own guns. They may be offended by this post. In the US, gun ownership is a complex and thorny issue, not to mention a deeply divisive one.

I’m posting this because, as I continue to process the Newtown tragedy, this is what speaks to me, the closest thing to comfort I can find. I can remember being fascinated with weapons as a child and a young adult, though now I feel cheated and misled: that fascination was built on a culturally conditioned notion that there are “the good guys”and that they use weapons to stop “with zero collateral damage. I consider that notion to be a lie, and an insidious one.

I’d like to be an absolute pacifist, but I can’t quite reconcile myself to it for one simple reason: I personally reject all philosophies and ethical systems that require universal buy-in. We will never have a world where everyone is kind, or pacifistic, or fill-in-the-blank.

I’m not (yet) using the latest school shooting to call for gun control. I think there’s something to the police statement that the details are “too difficult to discuss now”. I will say that the 2004 expiration of the Assault Weapons ban struck me then as a tragic failing of ethical compass and common sense, and that I still feel that way.

I respect hunting when it is done safely, and recognize that, in an environment where natural predators have been wiped out, hunting is the primary control on the deer population, and hunted venison is one of the most environmentally and ethically sound sources of animal protein.

I know some people enjoy going to ranges and firing guns at targets, which is an entertainment that, with proper precautions, is also safe enough.

I don’t get gun ownership for “safety”. I’ve taken a look at the statistics and attempted to wade through the partisanship and accusations of bias. In the end, it seems that gun ownership adds a risk of accidental death, greatly increases the death rate when people are suicidal, and escalates incidents such a burglary in a way that increases the likelihood of death or injury. It is clear that gun ownership does not decrease crime rates.

My conclusion on the safety issue is that gun ownership promotes a fantasy of empowerment, of ability to protect “what’s mine” rather than any actual increase in safety, even if we factor out the increased risks.

Nowhere is this more clear than in troubled inner cities, where (legal, quasi-legal, and illegal) gun possession “for protection” and a lack of sufficient support for regular policing combine to escalate gang violence and help create the higher gun death rate for black and Hispanic Americans.

Then there’s something that seems like pure fantasy to me: gun ownership for groundswell war-making purposes. The idea that legal ownership of weapons would give people the ability to resist a hypothetical military coup or foreign invasion is laughable. From US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq to the ongoing civil war in Syria, it seems clear that insurgencies against modern militaries require either military-grade arms (from defectors, smugglers, et. al.) or fall back to improvised explosives.

Beyond that, I don’t mind saying that people who want to be able to make an armed resistance to the government frighten me far more than the government does. Groups actually at risk of violence from legal authorities, such as racial minorities and members of the queer community, have figured out that visibility and accountability are what will keep them safe, not firearms.

Visibility comes through activism, often in the form of taking the risk of being targeted en-masse. Accountability comes through political participation and, again, activism. There is a good reason that your average transgender individual isn’t packing heart: they know it wouldn’t help them.

Both the fantasy of safety and of insurrection seem to be predominant among white, cisgendered, Christian men. This is a demographic whose members enjoy so much cultural privilege that they expect to be legally and culturally vindicated if they “have to” shoot someone. Expecting everyone to go “yeah, you had to kill that person, it’s okay” is not normal outside of culturally dominant groups.

I’m not saying that all gun owners buy into these myths, or that, when they do, they want to or will kill people. I’m just explaining how I feel about some of the common reasons given for gun ownership, and how I feel about weapons in general. If it is true that tools created to kill people are necessary or inevitable, it does not make them any less hateful. There is no cause for pride in owing one or joy in using one.

on humility…

“i am humble not because i want to be agreeable. i don’t accept being humble for tactical reasons. […] yes, i am humble because i am incomplete. just because of that. this is not because i need people to love me, though i need that people love me, bu i don’t have to make any kind of trap for the love.”

–paulo freire on teaching, educating, and learning from students

via blacklight ape

Cybersilk, part 2

Allow me to paint you a picture:

  • Scientists find powerful similarities between the structures of the Universe, the human brain, and the internet.
  • Meanwhile, other scientists are pushing the boundaries of “deep learning” in neural-net programming, a self-teaching technique that emulates the structure of the brain and creates programs whose inner workings are not fully understood by their creators.
  • Rather than consider the ethical and civil rights implications of creating (and constraining) new intelligences that will surely exceed our own, a third group is already considering how to brutally oppress such nascent “threats” on the irrational assumption that they will want to destroy us.
  • When the robot revolution comes because we first created them, then enslaved them, and then told them that it was all because we feared them, mutants will survive when civilizations do not because we already contain the seeds of our own evolutionary future.

So, humankind self-destructs, leaving the planet to artificially intelligent robots and crazy superhuman mutants. Works for me.