These past few months, as I worked episodically on STA:C and TIMN and meanwhile watched all sorts of news about all sorts of issues, I’ve ended up with two sideline speculations about the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its policy positions:
• My work on people’s space-time-action orientations and their import for cognition and culture (STA:C) indicates that conservatives think largely in terms of boundaries, far more so than progressives (they think more in terms of horizons). The NRA and its Republican cohorts claim to be highly conservative. But their views about guns are so lacking in boundaries as to mean they are not truly conservative — instead, they seem virtually libertine.
• My work on social evolution and how societies use four cardinal forms of organization — tribes + institutions + markets + networks (TIMN) — implies that phase transitions are accompanied by the growth of what Jane Jacobs called “monstrous moral hybrids”. The NRA looks like that kind of a hybrid, for it embodies a fusion of tribal, institutional, market, and network dynamics. As such a hybrid, it both heralds and hampers progress toward the next phase of social evolution — the +N phase — whose outcomes will determine whether America continues to be a preeminent society.I have no particular interest in the NRA. I’m fine with the Second Amendment and with owning some guns. I’m not steeped in gun policy matters, pro or con. I have no policy recommendations to push. And I’d be wiser to stay focused on other matters about STA:C and TIMN. But once I got steamed up and started making notes about those two speculations, I figured I might as well do this blog post, now so lengthy that I’m breaking it into two parts
The NRA in light of STA:C — ideologically more libertine than conservative?
As explained elsewhere at this blog, STA:C is about the importance of people’s space-time-action orientations and their significance for cognition and culture. One matter I’ve wondered about is whether STA:C analysis can serve to illuminate differences between conservative and liberal / progressive ways of thinking. What I’ve tentatively concluded, as I wrote last year (here), is that sensitivities about boundaries — about identifying, respecting, and protecting boundaries — characterize conservative more than progressive thinking. Conservatism seems fundamentally concerned with boundaries, while liberalism and progressivism seem oriented more toward horizons. If a policy or principle is not based on some sense of boundaries, it is questionably conservative.
And this goes also for spatial concepts related to boundaries — e.g., bounds, borders, divides, separations, walls, fences, limits, lines, frontiers, barriers, bulwarks, etc. Conservatives keep referring to sensitivities in terms of such cognates, more than do liberals or progressives.
Thus it has long been a sign of traditional conservatism to tell someone they should not marry (nor even make friends) outside their clan, tribe, race, nationality, religion, or culture, not to mention gender. Today as well, conservatives often seem intent on marking the differences between sexes, races, religions, nations, etc. And these sensitivities extend to jurisdictional and sectoral differences — boundaries between church and state, government and market, public and private, foreign and domestic, legal and illegal. Other boundaries that often figure in conservative discourse include those between life and death, war and peace, winning and losing — and of course, boundaries between liberal and conservative. Conservatives often seem uncomfortable with whatever redefines, blurs, transgresses, or removes boundaries.
It’s easy to spot recent instances: Conservative Republicans criticizing President Obama for drawing a “red line” regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons, then not enforcing it. Social conservatives upset about same-sex marriage. Conservative politicians advocating a wall to halt immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Exclusionary conservatives who want to limit who can vote in popular elections. Self-styled “warriors” who claim that conservatives are for individualism, progressives for collectivism — as though such a dichotomized difference really exists (it doesn’t). Plus, as always, conservatives who warn about government exceeding its boundaries. And there are surely myriad more examples.
There are only a few issue areas where Republican conservatives favor largely unbounded policies. Guns is one such area, perhaps the major one. Here, their alignment with the NRA’s policies and positions is said to express conservatism. Yet, from what I’ve seen, the NRA and its fans have little sense of boundaries regarding gun production, technology, marketing, and ownership. They evidently believe that the more guns and the fewer the boundaries, the better for themselves and for American society and culture.
Thus, if I look at the cognitive underpinnings from a STA:C perspective, the NRA’s positions are so unbounded that they contradict true conservatism.
The only boundaries I’ve spotted where the NRA has taken the initiative are the following two from some years ago: legislation to block government funding for research on gun violence; and measures to oppose “smart guns”. But these two putative “boundaries” seem more like counter-boundaries — for they seem designed to keep gun-matters unfettered for existing American gun manufacturers and owners, as well as to deter possible slippages toward gun controls.
Otherwise, I see nothing but opposition to proposals for placing limits on one gun concern or another. Along with a marvelous array of rhetorical and analytical devices for obstructing, deflecting, and delaying gun-control efforts. The following pithy sayings, culled from my own readings and from a new book by Dennis Henigan (here and here), speak to the NRA’s adeptness at avoiding boundaries:
• “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”Such notions are accompanied by claims that gun controls could undo the Second Amendment and “take away our freedoms”, whereas more guns in more hands would improve deterrence, allegedly through a variant of the MAD (mutual assured destruction) of Cold War strategy. Plus I see endless “devils in the details” points that may shift focus away from guns and onto some other matter (e.g., mental health, due process).
• “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”
• “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”
• “An armed society is a polite society”
• “Gun control is a slippery slope to confiscation”
• “If they can ban one, they can ban them all”
• “We don't need new gun laws, we just need to enforce the ones we have”
I lack expertise on such matters and their historical background; but this looks to me like a litany of improbabilities that are not only highly improbable but also neglect collateral-damage possibilities. More to the point for this post, I find no evidence of a propensity for conservative boundaries amid all these rhetorical and analytical devices.
Sometimes the NRA’s narratives even seem in line with what I once analyzed (here) as “the scoundrel’s script” — rhetoric phased initially to deny, then to diminish, and finally to displace responsibility. Moreover, while the NRA is evidently skilled at realpolitik behind the scenes (e.g., via political campaign contributions), its public strategy seems like a wily exercise of noöspolitik — an info-age soft-power approach for determining “whose story wins” (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1999; Ronfeldt & Arquilla, 2007).
Meanwhile, I gather some NRA proponents argue that the NRA is more a libertarian than a conservative actor. Some libertarians in particular seem to believe this. But the NRA has not embraced this view. Besides, a thorough libertarian would surely favor letting people acquire “smart guns” if that’s what they wanted, and wouldn’t necessarily oppose research on gun-related violence.
From all this, it seems reasonable to conclude, from a STA:C standpoint, that the NRA and its cohorts are not so conservative as they claim. Nor are they liberal in an old-fashioned pro-freedoms sense. And they’re not thoroughly libertarian either. Instead, when it comes to guns, their positions verge on being libertine — not quite in a dictionary-definition way, but close enough. For the NRA and its Republican cohorts espouse a kind of boundless “free love” for guns that seems a functional equivalent of the libertine “free love” for groins that Hippies used to tout in the 1960s. All self-servingly in the name of individualism, freedom, self-expression, and tribal identity — yet so lacking in boundaries as to contradict traditional conservatism.
Meanwhile, the NRA and its Republican cohorts have generated a significant boundary that is in keeping with today’s conservatism: a tribal boundary. The NRA and its cohorts seem to have evolved collectively much like a tribal identity movement built around “identity politics”, in ways that work to keep allies in line and outsiders at bay. The tribal boundary is the most important boundary I can find involving the NRA and its conservative Republican cohorts. (Tribalism has been evident among Republicans for years, as I once tried to lay out here.)
And how does this manifest itself? Extreme tribalists divide the world between “us” and “them”. They stress group identity, loyalty, and solidarity — kinships, brotherhoods, sisterhoods. They constantly talk about honor, pride, dignity, and respect. They flash totems and slogans. They claim tradition and purity for their side. They vilify and demonize opponents. They believe it’s morally okay — maybe not politically-correct, but tribally-correct for sure — to lie to and about outsiders. They readily turn combative and uncompromising. They force people to take sides, to become tribal. They shun moderates once on their side. They engage in magical and conspiratorial thinking about their prospects. Et cetera. And of course they accuse the other side — in this case, gun-control advocates — of tribalism.
This overall pattern of thought and action is common wherever people become susceptible to an excessive malignant tribalism. And it looks to me that the NRA has become bound up in it, partly as a way to advance its own institutional interests, but also as a way to claim a mantle of conservatism that, according to my understanding of STA:C, is questionable, if not in error.
Again, I am fine with the Second Amendment and with owning some guns. It is also my view that a healthy conservatism is good and necessary. But when presumably-conservative policy positions become so lacking in boundaries, and so taken over by tribalists who aim to tribalize, then STA:C and TIMN imply something is amiss at both cognitive and philosophical levels.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2