The roots of the U.S. gun culture

To the Editor:

In all the current commentary about gun violence in the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook, little if any attention has been give to the roots of the problem in our Western/American culture.

Three aspects come to mind:

• Individualism — The rights of the individual are supreme. “I want what I want when I want it.” Personal advancement, competition, recognition are primary. Community well-being, social cohesion, the common good are subordinate.

• Superiority — We’re different, better than those others. The perpetrators are different from us, inferior, something’s wrong with them — never with us. We stigmatize them, set them apart as needing to be treated, ostracized, locked up. We could never do anything like that. We’re different.

• Violence as a legitimate means of winning, dominating, controlling. Whether in the form of military invasion (Iraq), fighting crime (mass incarceration, the death penalty), being Number One (sports, test scores), or asserting who’s boss (corporal punishment, video games, spouse abuse), or exploitation of the environment, violence is OK.

To be sure, this is not all there is to American culture, but these three attitudes are front and center, and combined they make violence acceptable — and inevitable.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and in fact it isn’t in most traditional cultures around the world (several of which I’ve lived in). Rather than Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” — which sets people apart — their motto is “I belong, therefore I am,” which draws folks together. Among the indigenous Hawaiians, for example, whom I visited last year, the three pillars of culture are: (1) “Olu’olu” (compatible, non-conflictive, mellow, comfortable, affirming); (2) “Lokahi” (importance of family, seeing things holistically); and (3) “Aloha” (caring, sharing, inclusiveness, love).

Such sets of fundamental values, learned from early childhood, shape our self-understanding and relations with one another — and with religions (Islam), nations (Iran), and cultures (Hispanic) different from our own. Realizing that there are alternatives to ours is a first step toward making a deep cultural shift. Are we up to it? Or are we resigned to more Sandy Hooks around the corner?

Doug Wingeier


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