So last week Crises and Conflicts, an anthology celebrating the first 10 years of the superb NewCon Press, was released, along with its companion anthology Now We Are Ten. The last story in Crises and Conflicts is by yours truly and is called the Beauty of Our Weapons (with apologies to Leonard Cohen) and I have to say I’m very pleased with the story. It is set in the same world of the Age of Scorpio trilogy, and contains a number of cameos from a few familiar faces. It tells the story of a technological immortal who is present at a number of turning points in military history connected to weapons development (with the normal: it’s fiction caveat). I was lucky enough that Ian Whates, the owner and editor-in-chief for NewCon, chose BoW as inspiration for the cover art. There is however a problem with the story, it is inspired by a facet of my personality that I am not entirely comfortable with: my fascination with weapons.
I’m not sure where the fascination comes from. Perhaps it was a result of all the role-playing games I played growing up, though I suspect it was earlier than that. Action Man? Or the way that World War II still seemed to being fought on TV screens, in comics, and even in the conversations of my elders in the 70s? Who knows? Doubtless, like anything else it is the result of a number of different things. I remember similar obsessions in many of my friends as a child. Perhaps I just didn’t grow up.
I don’t own any weapons other than a Native American stone-axe that’s a wall decoration, and a broken taiaha. (My partner owns a katana but it’s in our relationship agreement, under the no-edged weapons clause, that she can’t use it for conflict resolution.) I am pleased that I live in a country with very strict gun controls, and I wouldn’t like to see that change. I did briefly own a realistic-looking airsoft replica rifle but I wasn’t terribly comfortable with it in the house. In fact I could never really think of a good reason for owning a weapon. On the whole I’m not really a fan of ‘gun culture’ but I keep on coming back to the same question: do I tacitly support it by writing about such things, which opens a bigger question of personal responsibility and social cost.
When something like the Pulse shootings in Orlando happens and we try to find a reason, because we desperately have to understand, so that things can make sense again. How can so many people be enjoying themselves one moment, only to be cut down in the next. And the even more powerful urge beyond the need to understand, is the urge to punish. So we pick our favourite scapegoats: easy access to guns, mental illness, religious beliefs, computer games, lifestyle choices and so on and there’s lots of shouting.
The problem is of course, often regardless of actual information, we’ve already made our decisions based on based on our own particular preconceptions, on our political, social and/or religious beliefs. And as anyone who’s ever gotten involved in the zero-sum game that is an online argument will know, we become bullet-proof, or rather information proof, blind to anything that doesn’t fit our own, often narrow perceptions of the world around us. This is particularly the case if we rarely move from behind our keyboards, if our window into the world is only a high-res monitor.
Using the American gun-control argument as an example of my particular confirmation bias here’s what I think: I admit that gun control is a much more complex issue in the US than it is in many other countries, and more so than many who are pro-gun control are prepared to admit. I also concede that gun control wouldn’t eliminate illegal weapons over night. However at the end of the day if guns are more difficult to get hold of it’s more difficult for them to be used in mass shootings that target civilians. To my mind this is common sense.
Part of the problem I think is two fold. Firstly the discussion is being led by powerful lobbyists with commercial interests, there’s not a lot in it for them to have a fair and honest debate on the subject. Secondly, and most importantly, and this is something I talk about in Beauty of Weapons, I think there’s a hypocrisy in why people want to own weapons. I find many of the reasons that are put across by the likes of the NRA as somewhat spurious. I think if people were really honest about why they want to own guns it would be similar to the reason that I write about them. They really, really, really like them. Whether or not that is ‘okay’, why we are fascinated by tools of destruction is a question for a psychologist rather than this blog. I suspect such fascination has been going on since the first ape caved another ape’s head in with a rock. We long ago imbued instruments of violence with awe, with supernatural significance. I suspect it’s now part of our racial psyche. Think you’re above it? I’ve seen the most liberal pacifist suddenly feel imbued with a sense of power when handling a firearm, which is one of the reasons that I have nothing to do with them.
This love of weapons has a social cost, however, and that is 7,241 firearm related deaths and 181 mass shootings in America in 2016 as of writing this in mid-July. (And please bare in mind this doesn’t include the knock on costs to society such as the cost of treating firearms injury, bereavement associated costs, the costs of law enforcement in a heavily armed society etc.) To my mind that is the real gun control question. Is the society in question prepared to pay that cost? If so, then have at it! If not, then perhaps the issue needs some examining.
So there’s more to it than the above but in a nutshell this is what my particular opinion, pending more/better information, is on the issue of gun control at the moment. Now before you reach for the keys to type angry messages agreeing or disagreeing with the above remember we’re talking about confirmation bias and individual responsibility not gun control, it just happens to tie in to the story.
So I’m in favour of gun control. For complicated reasons I’m not going to go into I have had access to firearms over the years, and even had the opportunity to work on the periphery of the arms industry, all of which I have turned down. I have no interest in owning a firearm. This means none of it’s my fault, right? Yay! I can abrogate responsibility! I can take the high moral ground when something awful happens! What’s more I can make myself feel better by looking down on other people who do tacitly contribute to gun violence! Because me and my friends ‘know’ they’re stupid, right?
What happens we start to self examine? What happens if instead of screaming into the echo chamber of social media we ask ourselves difficult questions? And then what happens if everyone did the same thing? It raises some tricky questions. With so much bias in our increasingly counter-factual age where do we find information rather than opinion?
So let’s see if I’m capable of this: I write action packed stories… no let’s call a spade, a spade. I write violent stories, and I write violent stories because I enjoy writing violent stories. Hopefully they have a lot more to offer but that’s for others to decide. An ingredient of said fictional violence is the weaponry used to commit the violence. So do I contribute to ‘gun culture’? Do I have some responsibility in this matter? It would be easy to say no, after all people don’t have a Pavlovian response to the media we consume, we’re just not wired that way. However I remember years ago interviewing a clinical psychologist who worked at Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital in the South of England. We were discussing the refusal of the BBFC to (at the time) allow a video release of Reservoir Dogs and a cinema certification for Natural Born Killers. She agreed that there was not a Pavlovian response to such films but that if you saturate a society with violent imagery then it can’t fail to have an effect. We know that society and the arts (sorry, couldn’t think of a better word) interact, we know that they both influence each other, it would seem foolish to assume that influence is always beneficial. Now this is open to interpretation, there’s no real way to measure that effect on a society as a whole, there’s arguably a catharsis in consuming violent media, and we are, statistically speaking, living in one of the safest and least violent periods of history (though some areas of this part of history are lot safer than others). If, however, I accept her point and I did and I do, then I can’t just wash my hands of it all and say: ‘Nothing to do with me?’ Liberal hand ringing? Perhaps, but this isn’t about guilt, it’s about whether or not we can examine what we do, how we think, and our most precious beliefs.
Pissed off about the idea that the violent media we all love so much could bear any responsibility for the seven-thousand-plus firearm related deaths? Clearly it’s the ready availability of guns, right? (And if you like violent media and guns you’re probably really pissed off.) But what if instead of getting angry we looked for some information on the matter? A possible place to start could be On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Dave Grossman. (I think anyone who ever wants to write about violence in any genre should read this book.) In the book Grossman discusses how first person shooter style simulators are used by various military organisations to help overcome the moral and psychological difficulties inherent in taking another person’s life. He goes on to conclude that FPS games are in effect murder simulators. Now I have worked on the fringes of the computer games industry. I have written tie in fiction for Crysis 3, a first person shooter, and when I do play computer games they tend to be FPS games. Having read the book, however, I really struggled to disagree with his findings. Now perhaps you’ve got more better information on this matter. Great. My point, however, is that I didn’t want to believe what Grossman was saying, I didn’t like his findings, just as I didn’t like what I was hearing from the Broadmoor psychologist. I want to enjoy my simulated fictional violence guilt free. I want the bad things to be someone else’s fault. I want to abrogate responsibility.
So what should I do? Pack it all in and write Rainbow Brite fanfic, well maybe, but not today. I guess my rambling point is that we need to question, all the time and not just externally. I’m not setting myself up as a paragon. I’ve got my own set of prejudices and preconceptions, but we should at least try. We need to question what we think and more importantly why we think it. And it’s exhausting, and perhaps sometimes we disappear up our own arseholes, but the reasons that bad things happen are complex, solutions to those problems even more so. We’ve got no chance of arriving at those solutions if we’re all just screaming into an echo chamber desperate for validation. Then we’re just part of the problem.
“Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.”
-Sir James Dewar
(I’ve closed the comments on this because I don’t like WordPress for discussions. I’m not terribly interested in yet another rehash of the gun control argument, purely because the sides seem so entrenched and I’ve not seen anything new brought to the argument for a long time. If you want to talk about the blog or the story, or anything else then I’m happy to on my Facebook Page.)