Guest Post: Another Shooting

Some of you may have read my response to the Sandy Hook school shooting back in 2012.  Today, I am featuring a response to yesterday’s school shooting in South Florida, this one by a guest blogger, my dad, Todd Stockslager.  Dad is a thoughtful observer of recent societal trends, and whether you agree or disagree with his arguments (most likely, you’ll agree with some and disagree with others, which is how normal argumentation works), you’ll have plenty to think about after reading.  If you like his writing and want to know what he thinks about books and the topics they address, you can follow him on Goodreads.

Here’s the post:

Another shooting.  Another round of press conferences with first responders and politicians expressing shock, grief, and prayers for the survivors and the families of the victims.   Another round of tweets and condolences and visits from President Trump.  The places and faces change.   The words and responses don’t.   It’s time for change:  Gun control or mind control?  Pick one.

President Trump called the Las Vegas shooter a mentally ill “very sick” person, apparently to deflect the issue away from the call for banning the assault weapons and the kits that can convert other weapons to fully automatic weapons.    Now the same terminology is being applied to the Florida shooter, again for the same apparent reason, and already even though I have not paid full attention to the story I am seeing headlines that we need to do a better job keeping guns away from the “mentally ill.”  Is anyone else as frightened by this trend as I am?

With a portion of the American population, access to assault weapons or these converter kits is an absolute political right that can never be taken away or even limited, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment.  President Trump seems by his actions and words in these mass shooting incidents to support this position.  So the only option is to increase psychiatric testing and monitoring of behavior, speech, association, and social medium usage to be able to better detect, predict, and restrict the freedom of speech, association, and belief of those who are deemed “mentally ill”.    Behavior that is not wanted—bullying, membership in certain groups like white nationalist groups, or the reverse, seeking isolation from social contact—is to be not criminalized, but medicalized:  identified as “mental illness.”

But who gets to identify what qualifies as “mental illness”?  Who enforces the actions—legal, medical, social, financial—that being labelled “mentally ill” brings to bear on a person?  What recourse does that person have to appeal the labeling and remove themselves from the action brought to limit their legal, medical, social or financial freedom?  Have we forgotten that within the last century thousands of people were identified (by families, doctors, and others) as “mentally ill” and forcibly placed in mental institutions against their will with no recourse, where things like forced sterilizations, abortions, electroshock and drug therapy and lobotomies were performed, against their will with no recourse?  Have we forgotten that Hitler labelled groups of people as undesirable and thus worthy of extermination based on characteristics such as ethnic and religious Judaism and mental illness?  In labelling them together as undesirables, he made Judaism and mental illness equivalent and sent them all to concentration camps for extermination—all legally within the government policies of Nazi Germany, all against their will with no recourse, all ignored by the rest of the population?   In case we have forgotten, it is history, it happened, it is called the Holocaust.

We started down this slippery slope with the criminalization of “hate speech” in the last few decades.  As much as we may hate speech we disagree with and find despicable, absolute freedom of speech is the one true inviolable right that every American has and should have defended but gave away.   Some speech, which should never be criminal, has now been identified as “hate speech” and criminalized.  The next slip down the slope is medicalization of some behaviors that we disagree with and find despicable, and as should be clear from the argument I have already made, medicalization of behavior is potentially more dangerous than criminalizing it, and is just one short slip away from the Holocaust.

As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to a white nationalist group is not a sign of “mental illness.”  As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to and training with a paramilitary group is not a sign of “mental illness” and should not be criminalized.   The headlines I saw identified the Florida shooter as having these behaviors, and he has already been identified as “mentally ill”.   He is not mentally ill.  He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people.  Full stop.  That is the crime for which he should be charged and punished.

Note that I didn’t say: “He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people with an assault weapon.”  Had he killed 17 people with a knife, or a handgun, he would be just as guilty.  However, had he tried to kill 17 people with a knife or a handgun, it is highly unlikely he would have succeeded.  The speed and effectiveness of what are essentially military-grade automatic weapons enable one person to fire off thousands of rounds indiscriminately and cause more death much more quickly.  Just close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the Las Vegas shooting and remember that one person firing one weapon at a time fired all those shots and killed all those people.

But we’re back to the apparently absolute political right to access assault weapons or these converter kits, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment, so we have no choice but to medicalize the behavior.  At least that seems to be President Trump’s position and the position of those identified as the “gun lobby.”  Then who decides?  And which behaviors are medicalized?    Every person of faith, of every faith—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—should be frightened by this, because faith will be the next behavior to be medicalized.  Again on that slippery slope we’ve already started down:  business owners who refuse to serve homosexual customers because of their religious faith already face criminal prosecution.  The next step is medicalizing the belief so that people who believe this way can be medicated, or institutionalized, or sterilized, or lobotomized, or—subjected to the final solution?  That could never happen here, could it?  If you are counting on President Trump to make clear moral decisions based on a consistent philosophy rooted in 5000 years of Judeo-Christian moral principle, in 500 years of Enlightenment philosophy, and in the Constitution that encoded both of those cultural legacies in our founding political document, you are expecting more than an amoral and incompetent businessman and reality TV star has ever demonstrated himself capable of even attempting.   I do not trust anyone in American politics today on either side of the political aisle to make decisions about which of my behaviors and beliefs constitute mental health or illness.

For that, I might have to take up a gun to defend my freedom.   OK, so let’s talk about gun control   since we’re done talking about mind control and how horribly frightened we all should be by the prospect (I am reminded of Aragorn’s exclamation to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when he said that he was frightened by the events he had just witnessed:  “Not nearly frightened enough!  I know what hunts you.”).   I’m not talking about hunting rifles, vintage collector’s items like muzzle-loaders and Civil War weapons.  I’m not even talking about handguns.  We already have restrictions on buying, licensing, and carrying them, which may not be 100% effective, but limit use of them to either individual acts of robbery or murder on the one hand, or self-defense on the other.  Handguns and hunting rifles are not being used to kill dozens of people in Las Vegas and Florida, and the incidence of misuse of handguns and hunting rifles, while sad, is an acceptable price to pay for the freedom to own and use them.

Can we then agree to ban the sale of assault rifles, automatic weapons converter kits, and other military-grade weapons to civilians?   I would say again, close your eyes and listen to the video of the Las Vegas shooting and ask yourself in what context any civilian has any valid use they can make of weapons that can cause such instantaneous destruction.  The instantly available horror of these events in the cell phone video era have made it unacceptable to allow such events to continue to occur without some political and legal response.  If the choice is to accept control and limits to some types of guns or to accept control and limits to some types of beliefs and behaviors, then the smallest loss of freedom is in the controls on guns.

Those who are unwilling to accept these controls because of their interpretation of Second Amendment rights in the Constitution are ignoring their much more fundamental and important First Amendment rights.  I am not arguing whether they may be right on the Second Amendment; legal scholars and the courts have been debating the intent and meaning of that amendment for 200 years, so I certainly have no insight on any of that debate that is better than that already expressed over those years. I just know that not all of us own guns that may be protected by the Second Amendment, but all of us own life, liberty and the freedom of speech to pursue happiness that are protected by the First Amendment.

And the alternative to that freedom is holocaust.

Advertisements

the Babel podcast

Dear readers, this has been a stereotypical Monday, which means that I don’t have the energy to write a full post.  But here is, as I promised last week, a link to the episode of my colleague Clifford Stumme’s podcast The Pop Song Professor in which he and I discuss Mumford and Sons’ 2009 album, Babel.  Let me know what you think, especially if there’s something on the album we didn’t discuss that you have an opinion about.

Also, I watched one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part 2, on Saturday, and was thoroughly depressed, as always.  Expect to read more about this next week.

 

Advent week 1: a Christmas post roundup

Considering my interest this year in finding practical ways to observe the rhythms of a healthy Christian life (e.g., giving up checking email on Sundays, taking a quarterly three-hour meditation “retreat”), you might think that I have a great plan to celebrate Advent.  I don’t.  I’m just going to do what I always do, which is to break out my Christmas decorations and music on December 1.  (I actually jumped the gun a little this year–I got my Christmas tea towels out yesterday.  And now for the big confession: I’ve been listening to the Celtic Holidays station on Pandora for weeks.)  But I have decided to write a Christmas post every Monday of the four weeks of Advent.  I have no idea what I’m going to write in most of these posts, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  Some of the posts may be better than others, but won’t that be more exciting than those chocolate Advent calendars that reveal the exact same square of bland chocolate every day?  I think so.

I feel a heavy, but probably totally imaginary, weight of expectation on my proverbial shoulders as I prepare to write these posts because I’ve always made a point of writing excellent Christmas posts ever since I began my blog in 2011, a tradition I’ve kept up even during periods when I’ve largely neglected to post  My first Christmas post , written just days after I started the blog, was short but profound.  Since then, I’ve written about topics as widely varying as A Christmas Carol adaptations, the school shooting that occurred in Newtown, CT, near Christmas in 2012 (a post I didn’t want to write but felt compelled to), Danny Kaye’s socks, a Charles Dickens Christmas story that’s NOT A Christmas Carol, and my bird ornaments.

In college, when I couldn’t figure out how to start a paper, I used to take up a page or more on introducing the topic, telling tangentially related anecdotes, and apologizing for what was to come.  By then, I was already well into my required page count!  I guess I haven’t changed much since then; I basically just did the blog version of that exact thing.  This post won’t be an entire waste of your time, however, if you click on the links in the preceding paragraph.  And I promise not to waste your time in my remaining three Advent posts (and my Boxing Day post!  It’s on a Monday this year).  When I next write to you, I’ll have all my bird ornaments up and will have listened to Harry Connick, Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas (another vintage Penelope post topic) at least once.  See you then.

 

 

Fantastic EQ and How to Have It

Well, I couldn’t wait until next week.

I know there are some people who read my blog who love J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world as much as I do, but there are also some readers who aren’t great fans of that world but are interested in the psychology/personal growth topics I often write about.  This post is for all of you.

Last night as I was leaving the theater after seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where I Find Them, I ran into several friends and acquaintances, and as we briefly exchanged expressions of love for the movie, I noticed that I kept putting my hand over my heart, as if I needed to keep it inside my chest.  That’s how the movie made me feel.  I felt like my heart was overflowing.

Another way of saying the same thing: Sharp-eyed viewers (and people who have been on Pottermore recently) will notice that the protagonist, Newt Scamander (whom I loved just as much as I hoped I would), has a Hufflepuff scarf.  I remarked to one friend that even though Newt is the only Hogwarts graduate in the movie, all the inner-circle characters seem like Hufflepuffs to me.  Despite their different personalities, they are all kind, awkward, earnest, and almost painfully empathetic.  And I think that’s why I loved the movie.

Emotional intelligence (EQ), of which empathy is a big part, is a topic that fascinates me, so I can’t help noticing when fictional characters show that they have it–or don’t.  In Fantastic Beasts, I saw the main story as a piece of Newt Scamander’s EQ development journey.  At the beginning of the movie, he doesn’t make eye contact with people (he does with animals, though), he behaves bizarrely in social situations, and–most importantly–he’s very, very guarded about his personal life.  By the end, he hasn’t become a different person, but he’s learned to trust a few people who have earned it, he makes the (for him) difficult admission that a human being is actually his friend, and he seem to take the first tiny steps toward falling in love.

But yes, this is a fantasy, not an introspective drama.  Yet I think the splashier plot, the one involving dark magic and wand duels, also hinges on emotional intelligence.  At the end of the movie, empathy saves New York City.  (How’s that for a superhero movie title?)  Seriously.  Unfortunately, it comes too late to save the lost soul whose personal conflict has been spilling over and wreaking havoc on the city.  As in the Harry Potter series, we see that children who don’t receive love usually (unless they’re special, like Harry) have no love to give others.

There’s also a beautiful metaphor for empathy in this movie.  One character that I didn’t except to love (I forgot that Rowling can write really great female characters, unlike so many authors) was Queenie, who is a Legilimens (for you non-fans, that means she can read minds).  Mind-reading tends to be portrayed as a sinister skill, but in Queenie’s case, it’s a literalized form of empathy: I actually do know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, but instead of using that against you, I’m going to help you if I can, and just accept you if there’s nothing else I can do.  I think my favorite line in the whole movie was when Queenie said to Newt, talking about a girl that Newt used to be close to, “She’s a taker.  You need a giver.”  Right at that moment, Tina (Queenie’s sister and Newt’s–I think–love interest, and the one whose empathy, along with Newt’s, saves NYC) walked onto the scene, as if on cue.  The next second, so did Jacob, Newt’s new friend–a guy who’s so giving that he wants to open up a bakery and spend the rest of his life feeding people (insert emoji with heart-shaped eyes).  So it was just a whole room full of real and honorary Hufflepuffs–people whom you really, really want to be your friend.

Maybe I’ll write more about Fantastic Beasts next week.  (I haven’t even said anything about the fantastic beasts yet!)  But I just wanted to explain why I’m not just being sappy and fangirlish when I say that I had to rein my heart in after watching this movie.

 

Is grit good?

This post is going to be fairly similar to one that I wrote a few weeks ago entitled “Satisfaction is not in my nature.”  Today I’m taking a slightly different approach to an issue, or constellation of issues, that I wrestle with a lot.

If you read a post I wrote about a year ago, “I am not fast,” you know that I’m a little cocky about having a high degree of what is, admittedly, an unglamorous character quality: endurance, persistence, tenacity, grit…whatever you want to call it.  Basically, it takes a lot to make me quit.  That last term, grit, has become a buzzword in psychology and education over the past few years.  Studies are now showing, or at least we’re being told that they are, that grit is a better indicator of success in college than IQ or even high school GPA.  And other studies are corroborating the common-sense conclusion that grit remains a useful characteristic in various areas of one’s life, including career and relationships.

So even though it’s not as exciting as being fast or amazingly creative or highly articulate, having grit has become a bit of a source of pride for me.  It’s closely related to a quality that I’ve often been complimented on since childhood: being disciplined.  With that one, it’s a little easier to see how I could start to become smug and feel morally superior to people who do hit the snooze button at least once before they wake up.

In several of my recent posts, I referred to a book I read recently, The Gift of Being Yourself by David G. Benner.  It’s actually the second book in Benner’s Spiritual Journey trilogy, of which I’m now reading the last book, Desiring God’s Will.  (For no strategic reason, I will be reading the first book, Surrender to Love, last–that’s just the order in which I acquired them.)  Benner has spent the first couple of chapters of Desiring God’s Will shattering my pride in being disciplined.  While he doesn’t completely discount the value of self-control (after all, it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit) he shows, from Scripture and common-sense observation, that discipline can lead to pride and rigidity and–most disturbingly–lead us to believe we don’t need God, and therefore cause us to pass ignorantly by the surprising blessings that God reserves for those who gladly participate in the fulfillment of his kingdom.

Having demolished my pride in being disciplined, Benner goes a step further in the section I read this morning and casts doubt on the unqualified value of grit (though he doesn’t use that word or refer to any of the recent scholarship on the topic).  Heretically (especially to American readers), Benner posits that there are times when it may be not only okay to quit, but even sinfully stubborn not to quit.  I need to go back and read the section again to make sure I really understand, but I think he’s right.  I can think of one situation in my recent life in which I probably should have given up on something a lot sooner than I did.  It makes me cringe to write that, but there it is.

As I’m reading this book, I keep thinking about Perelandra, the second novel in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, and the Adam and Eve-like characters who lived on a floating island and had absolutely no control over where they went.  They just had to trust their creator.  Could I live like that?