Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bonanza Column 263 - A Possible Lesson from Newtown

In the wake of Friday’s tragic killing of 20 elementary school children and 8 adults in Connecticut, it’s almost impossible to write about anything else. Everything – the fiscal cliff, the war in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Gaza – pales in comparison.
At the same time, there is hardly anything worth saying. The 24-hour news cycle has shown the horror repeatedly as if somehow it is still news 24 and 48 hours later. There are the predictable calls for tighter gun controls and the equally predictable disgusting attempts by self-styled religious “authorities” to exploit the tragedy by asserting that it is God’s punishment for not enough prayer in schools and a host of other agenda-based causes.
Mostly what happens in this situation is a carnival of opining which does nothing other than give the opiners some air time. Somehow we have become a society in which the important distinction between opinion and facts has been lost, and opinions are routinely stated as if they were facts. Let’s look at some facts:
·        Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders (killings involving 4 or more victims) carried out with firearms across the country, in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.
·        Of the 142 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns.
·        Half of the cases involved school or workplace shootings (12 and 19, respectively); the other 31 cases took place in locations including shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings, and military bases.
Now you can make any interpretation of those facts you want to – everyone has the right to their opinion – but don’t confuse your interpretation with fact. If you say that the fact that three-quarters of the weapons used were obtained legally means that we should ban all guns, it’s your right to say that and to believe it. It’s not your right to argue it as a self-evident fact; it’s not a fact, it’s your opinion. Similarly for the idea of arming teachers or having greater security in schools.
Here’s an opinion that we keep hearing as if it were a fact: “the problem is that not enough people are armed; if there had been armed people in the theater in Colorado, they would have stopped the shooter before he could kill as many as he did.” Here’s a fact: in all the 62 mass murders cited above, not one armed person attempted to stop the shooter. It’s possible that there were no armed people at any of those shootings, but that seems statistically improbable, particularly in places like Arizona and Colorado that have very loose concealed carry laws.
Here’s a fact: A teacher, Victoria Soto hid her students in a closet. When the killer confronted her, she told him they were in the gym; he killed her, and her students remained safe. My opinion about that is that it was heroism of the highest order.
We are also seeing a flood of statistics regarding gun ownership, crime rates, murder rates, etc., in the US versus the rest of the world. These statistics are facts – in and of themselves they don’t mean anything until they are interpreted, and interpretations are not facts, so it isn’t legitimate to argue whose interpretation is right or wrong, better or worse.
This failure to make the distinction between facts and opinions is (in my opinion) a large part of what has us in the situation we are in now as a nation. Whether it’s economic strategy, environmental strategy, education, you name it, we are mired in divisiveness, and divisiveness is never fact-based – it’s always about whose opinion, whose interpretation of the facts is “right.” Here’s a news flash – no opinion is right, no opinion is wrong. The value of opinion and interpretation is that they create avenues for action – we rarely act based on the facts, we act based on how we interpret those facts. The most useful conversation is not who’s right, but which interpretation gives us the most opportunity for effective action.
This tragedy will be politicized – both sides of the gun control issue will argue that it proves their point. It does not. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King said “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” If we concern ourselves with that, we will be discussing opinions. Here’s a start – when you speak, notice when you speak your opinion as if it were a fact, and then correct yourself – say clearly that it’s your opinion, and open your mind to listen to and learn from other points of view. In that way we can honor the memory of Victoria Soto and all those children who were robbed of their future.

1 comment:

S. Nevel, Reno said...

As usual, Ed, you have provided a powerful mirror to an important issue. The most important element in your blog (IMO) is the shortest..."The most useful conversation is not who’s right, but which interpretation gives us the most opportunity for effective action."

The chosen interpretation/idea/opinion to act upon is what we are all concerned with and trying to influence with our opinions, assertions, straw men, red herrings, and out right lies.

In the end, even much of what can be characterized as facts are a matter of popular acceptance. Let the selling will the entrenchment.