Getting Guns Out of Our Heads

Orginally published on Nation of Change, May 18, 2012

What do the following possibly have in common?

One, Woolrich, the venerable 182-year-old clothing company, recently brought out a new line of chinos with a second pocket that has been especially designed for carrying a concealed handgun. The clincher is that the pocket has been designed so that it wouldn’t destroy the “stylish look of the pants.”

Two, Levi Johnston, former fiancé of Bristol Palin and father of their child, not only has another baby on the way, but he plans to name her “Breeze Beretta” after his favorite Italian-made pistol.

Three, over the stringent objections of Tampa’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Florida Governor Rick Scott upheld the decision to ban water guns during the Republican National Convention, but not concealed handguns.

If you said that these three items have nothing in common, you’re wrong! Dead wrong!

Viewing each of them in isolation not only misses a key point, but a key pattern. Taken together, they show that controlling, if not eliminating altogether, handguns is more difficult than we ever imagined. Guns have insinuated themselves so deeply into our culture that they have literally taken over our minds. The outrage that I feel towards each of these “items” individually is dwarfed by the feelings I experience when I consider their combined effect and what they say about us as a culture.

In an earlier op-ed, “Confronting Shame-Based Politics: The Biggest Challenge of All,” The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012, I made the point that shame underlies most, if not virtually all, of our major political issues and societal problems. If in addition, fear, a deep sense of powerlessness, and a growing contempt for public institutions are combined with shame, then we have a potent mixture indeed that not only underlies, but perpetuates an out-of-control gun culture.

If we are to have any hope of breaking its stranglehold on our culture, then it is imperative that we understand shame. Shame is the deep unconscious belief that one is irredeemably bad to the very depths of one’s Being. Because the feelings it unleashes are so powerful, it is not surprising to learn that shame typically leads to intense anger and hostility in the form of violence towards others (homicide) or towards oneself (suicide), both of which are typically seen as responsible for making one feel worthless. Coupled with other intense feeling such as distrust and powerlessness, shame is so overwhelming that it makes gun control virtually impossible.

Nonetheless, the situation is neither hopeless nor impossible. However, this is true if and only if we can acknowledge the incredible power of shame, and honestly face up to it.

That’s why I believe that shame is the most challenging problem and social issue facing us. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats both use it but in different ways. For Republicans, just thinking about the possibility that the U.S. is no longer Number One is too shameful even to contemplate. For Democrats, having the poor bear the major brunt of tax cuts for the rich is a shame on us all.

To attack shame requires a four-fold strategy. One, we certainly need the best academic analyses that we can muster. At the same time, we need to understand that while absolutely necessary, the best analyses are not sufficient to move the great body of people. If anything, they turn people off because they don’t address the deep, unconscious feelings that are the basis of shame.

Two, while it is also necessary to understand the bigger, underlying, cultural patterns associated with guns, this too is insufficient for most people to make a lasting dent in overcoming shame.

Three, there need to be massive, ongoing educational campaigns like those that have been successfully waged against tobacco.

And, four, there need to be continuing PSA announcements spread over years by major celebrities on the linkage between guns and shame. Most of all, we need to talk about breaking the cycle of shame so that we can stop passing it on to our children and theirs as well.

The point is not that our most pressing problems do not require the best logical arguments and policies we can fashion. Of course they do! Rather, the point is, however essential, all the logic in the world is only a small part of the solution.

The great English wit and writer Jonathon Swift said it best of all: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into.”

To make serious headway against our most pressing problems, we need to combine the best programs of logic with a deep understanding of human emotions. Until we do, the assault on our minds will not only continue, but become worse.

Orginally published on Nation of Change, May 18, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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