Sunday, January 12, 2014

Goosebump Politics: Warriors and Worriers

My kids were watching "Goosebumps" for the first time tonight. For those not familiar, it was a TV show in the '90s made from a popular line of horror books for children. Watching a few episodes with them, I noted a heavy reliance on a standard trope in horror, a fear we all learn as children: being dependent on someone else to protect you, and then having that person dismiss or disbelieve in immediate threats to your safety. There's a monster under your bed, and only Mom or Dad can protect you from it, but they refuse to even come look under the bed because they don't believe there's anything there.

It occurred to me that there's a similar thing going on in the gun control debate, and that this is why it becomes such an emotional conflict. Observant people see that in instances of interpersonal violence, the police typically don't show up until after the fact. They're not there to head off the attack. They just snap the pictures and interview witnesses after the damage is done. Some folks react to this by preparing to fend off attacks themselves until the police arrive: arming themselves, training in martial arts, buying stronger locks, etc. Others simply call for better prevention—more police, more cameras, block watches, training in anger management and conflict resolution, etc. The first group doesn't necessarily rule out the methods of the second group, but the second group wants nothing to do with the methods of the first.

The first group is convinced of the inevitability of violence. They don't trust any prevention method to be 100% effective. When they ready themselves for an attack and other people dismiss their concerns or try to outlaw their solutions, they're experiencing what our monster-under-the-bed kid is experiencing when he screams for his parents to investigate the growling under his bed, only to be told he's going to be punished if he doesn't go to sleep.

The second group of people, who prefer preventative solutions rather than tackling threats head-on, feel that attackers cannot be defeated, only outwitted. To them, the only way to stay safe is to scour from their lives all potential for danger. It's like they're in a zombie movie where the zombies are unstoppable, so the only way to be safe is to prevent people from becoming zombies in the first place...and just to be safe, they chain up anyone who's at risk of becoming a zombie. Common rabble with guns are what are scaring these folks in the first place, so they see letting even more civilians have guns as being like trying to protect yourself from zombies by making more zombies.

These are both visceral fears, and people who are viscerally afraid tend not to think clearly. That's a bad engine for politics.We can never reach consensus if the only agreement possible looks to at least half the people like letting the zombies eat us.

As any thriller fan knows, there's another character who regularly appears in survival-horror flicks: the one who's paralyzed with fear. They either panic or go immediately into deep denial, and they invariably do something incredibly stupid that endangers all the other characters. These people exist in the real world, too. In the movies, they often act as a stand-in for the protector who won't do anything. In the real world, they tend to align themselves politically with the people who say prevention is enough. If you want to pretend a problem doesn't exist, you'll be able to maintain that illusion longer if you hide from the problem rather than locking horns with it. 

Some stories will have a pivotal moment where the panicker gets it together and turns into a warrior. Other times, he just get killed off--usually fairly early on--and viewers from the first group celebrate. Of course, these movies are made for them. I'm not sure what a movie made for the second group would look like, but you can be sure it wouldn't be at all exciting. The conflict would have to all be in the backstory. The film would open in Utopia, and we might hear a tale of how a noble visionary crafted an elegant solution that enabled her society to evolve into something like a cross between Pandora and Lothlórien...but without all the monsters and scary weapons.

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