I saw this on Facebook today. And my immediate reaction was to attack: Well but that isn’t the same thing at all — people have an inherent right to freedom of religion, which is codified in (though not granted by) the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And religion isn’t used to kill people. And pssh — Iowa. Come on. Like anything intelligent ever came out of Iowa.
Then I immediately thought: but the right to bear arms is also in the Bill of Rights. Even if I think it shouldn’t be. The Second Amendment does represent a natural right, the right of self-defense. Even if I think there are better ways to go about defending one’s self.
And as for religion: seriously, Dusty? It isn’t used to kill people? Even apart from the indisputable facts that have led to the prejudice represented here (more on the prejudice later), namely the sheer number of Islamic terrorists and war-mongers of the last — what, sixty years? — religion is behind most of the wars of human history, or has at least been used as the justification for them, as well as countless atrocities — the Inquisition, the witch-burnings, the Holocaust, the pogroms, chattel slavery, colonialism — Jesus, do I need to go on?
Absurd of me even to take up this argument, if this is all I have.
But that third one — that’s kind of right. Tom Arnold is from Iowa. So is Michele Bachmann. And Steve King, of course (The moronic Congressman, not the author.). Ashton Kutcher. Charles Osborne, the guy with the world record for the longest lasting case of hiccups. Sure, there are a couple of scientists and mathematicians on the list of Iowans, several astronauts, and a few authors I like — Bill Bryson, especially — but you don’t get away from Michele Bachmann that easily. Not even with the Ringling Brothers.
So what does this mean? I’ve been arguing against guns for years and years now, and here I find myself stymied. Does it mean I should be changing my stance on gun control? Have I been unfairly critical of gun owners? Has this meme changed my argument? DID IOWA JUST WIN THE GUN FIGHT?!?
Well, no. It didn’t. The problem with this argument is that it equates religion and gun ownership, claiming that a prejudice against one is as morally and intellectually bankrupt as a prejudice against the other. This much is true: prejudice is always morally and intellectually bankrupt. It is also always instinctive for humans because we evolved to be hunter-gatherers and our minds are evolved to discover patterns, so we see them everywhere, and frequently use them as a basis for action and reaction; when we eat the red berries and they are tasty, then the next time we see red berries, we assume they’ll be tasty. And sometimes they are tasty, and the prejudice is therefore efficient; and sometimes they are toxic and we die, and the prejudice is inefficient. Evolution argues that it is more frequently efficient than inefficient when used as a survival strategy — but that has no bearing whatsoever on the value of prejudice in society. There, the value is almost always outweighed by the costs.
But that doesn’t mean either that gun ownership is equivalent to religion, nor that the argument against gun ownership is equivalent to the argument against Muslims.
First: religion and gun ownership. Sure, both are personal rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Both are defended fanatically on the Fox network. Both are, theoretically, under attack by liberals with an agenda — and neither actually are. And yes, both often catch the blame for atrocities carried out by terrorists.
But religion, however it may have been used in the past, whatever people may think of it, is not a weapon intended to do harm. The goal of religion is truth, and subsequent salvation. The question of relative harm as it is created by religious tenets, as in, “If I allow you to die unshriven, you will burn in Hell forever; therefore I should torture you until you confess your heresy and renounce your beliefs– and then you’ll go to Heaven!” is certainly a troubling one, as religion here grants people a moral justification for doing harm; but that is an application of a specific religious principle, carried out by the person — it is not the intention of the religion as an entity. Christianity was not founded in order to justify torture or slavery or war. I won’t say that those things are a misuse, as that implies that the actual intended purpose is a correct and proper usage of the religion, and as an atheist I don’t accept that; but I think there can be no argument that religion was not and never has been created intentionally to do harm.
Firearms, on the other hand, were invented, produced, and evolved over time intentionally and specifically to harm others. They exist for that reason. The possession of firearms is considered a right, both a natural right and a right in the Constitution, because of that reason; people may own firearms simply for amusement, but that is not why they feel a right to own them — if so, we’d all have the right to a Playstation 4, and I would currently be suing Sony. We have the right to bear arms because arms are the most effective way to harm others so that those others cannot harm us: the ability of firearms to do harm A)rapidly to multiple targets, B) from a distance that keeps the bearer safe from retaliation, and C) without physical strength, dexterity, or training, is unmatched in the world of weapons. This is why people use the Second Amendment to protect guns, rather than, say, swords and spears and personally owned stealth bombers. It is a disingenuous argument to claim that any weapon could be used to kill another person — and therefore the government can’t take away my gun. There is a reason why guns are the focus of the argument: because they are the most effective and efficient killing machine on the planet. The millions — billions? — who have been shot since the invention of firearms show this.
So we should not make analogies between religion and firearms, not even in criticizing anti-religious prejudice with anti-firearm prejudice. And let me just add: why would you want to do that? When I used to debate online against guns, I was frequently dismissed as a hoplophobe, one who suffers from a morbid and irrational fear of guns; the classic, er, “argument” that goes “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is based on the same objective understanding of firearms as inanimate objects, incapable of independent action, and therefore the incorrect focus for the fear felt by those who promote gun control. But this emotionless, objective, apparently logical stance is lost if one makes the comparison between gun owners and devotees of a religion; now those who own firearms are — true believers. Members of the faith. Followers of their prophet/messiahs, Smith and Wesson and Remington and Colt. This is not an opening which gun rights advocates want to give us hoplophobes.
But the real problem with this meme? It’s a meme. The concept of the meme was created by Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist; Dawkins described the meme as the modern version of genes, now that mankind survives through social adaptation to environmental pressure, rather than biological adaptation. That is, rather than better genes propagating more than worse genes through reproduction and natural selection, we make adjustments for “bad” genes through our society: we take care of people who can’t survive on their own; we use medicine to give those with “bad” genes a full life; we create niches for those with differing strengths, so both the man with the strong back and the man with the strong mind can survive and thrive. The ideas that create those situations, the belief that family members should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, for instance, are spread through our culture, and help that culture survive, along with the people who spread it. Our modern human culture is our survival strategy: we live and reproduce because our culture protects us far more than our bodies do. Because of that, although we are continuously evolving as a species, today, our genes do not change very much; rather, our memes do.
The purpose of a meme, like the purpose of a gene, is not to create the perfect being, or the perfect argument: it is to reproduce. That means it has the qualities that will make it most likely to spread and multiply, not necessarily the best qualities. Blonde hair and blue eyes do not make someone a better human being — but if they make that person more likely to reproduce and spread those genes, then those genes will survive and thrive. Watch Idiocracy: there’s a meme, a reproducible bit of culture, that shows why neither genes nor memes need to be the best to be the most successful. It shows, in fact, how memes are become more powerful than genes in human evolution: successful memes actually make people’s genes worse, and the people themselves less biologically adapted to survive.
is not the best thought, not the best argument, but it is likely to be reproduced and propagated; therefore, it is a successful meme.
What internet memes do — what the meme that started this blog did — is oversimplify, because on the internet, simplicity is king. That’s why so many memes are crude line drawings, or this sort of simple joke. They use the same photos again and again, and the same font, and the same sentence structures and joke patterns because those things have been selected, have proven successful in the past, have been propagated and reproduced.
And all of that’s fine. Memes are jokes, and plenty of them are funny — this one cracks me up:
And this one is not only funny but true:
But none of the things that make these successful memes make them good thoughts or good arguments. Just — good at grabbing people’s attention so they click “Share.”
So for that, this meme
is successful, because it has an interesting enough idea, formulated in an eye-catching way — with a picture that is both relatable and idealized, because that guy looks ordinary and also badass; and using the all-caps font with red for a highlight; short words, simple sentences, rhetorical question — and so it was shared. And it is also successful in that it provokes thought: it took me some time to work my way through the meme’s rhetorical question and come to my answer. Time spent thinking is always good.
The answer is: no. It is not time the 80 million gun owners in America get the same treatment. First because gun ownership is not a religion, and the analogy doesn’t work. Second because although there is a right to self-defense, it should not be realized through firearms, which are unnecessarily deadly even when used to protect one’s self. The Second Amendment is wrong: arms should be regulated, for the safety of all, because private gun ownership creates as much danger as it eliminates, and generally more; the presence of weapons creates a feeling of safety far more often than it creates actual safety, and yet those weapons are most often used to do more harm than could be done without them. We could certainly get into a debate about personal liberty versus safety — so long as nobody quotes the Benjamin Franklin meme. Which oversimplifies and relies entirely on the persuasive power of the author’s name.
Lastly, the answer is No because, simply put, gun owners have never been treated the way that Muslims have. Yes, massacres that have been carried out with firearms have led to calls for gun control — but thanks to the Second Amendment, they have never led to even the beginning of a discussion of banning guns. Armed police and military are expected and appreciated. The only gun law that was passed using a mass shooting as impetus, the Brady Bill’s ban on assault weapons, was allowed to expire, because gun owners and manufacturers made it pointless. We can still buy extended clips like Jared Lee Loughner used in Tucson when he shot Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others — without reloading — and we can still buy weapons online as James Holmes did before he shot 82 people in Aurora. People speak out against guns, as they do against Muslims (And let me note the prejudice inherent within the meme itself, when it claims that every terrorist attack is related to Islam — only days after Dylann Roof killed nine people in a church in South Carolina. With a gun given to him for a birthday present, and therefore requiring no background check. He could also have done what Adam Lanza did, and used his parents’ guns.), but no laws ever pass, no action is ever taken. No innocent gun owners are beaten in the streets as happened after 9/11; no gun owners are unfairly targeted in airport searches; nothing has been done that is analogous to the Bible Belt states’ bans on Sharia law. No Baptist preachers are burning Guns & Ammo.
We have not yet invaded Austria to eliminate the Glock company.
In summation, all I have to say to this meme is this: