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Gun Control Needs Honest Debate, Not Neurohype



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In an article making its way around the liberal blogosphere, Tim Phillips, the co-founder of the peace-and-reconciliation organization “Beyond Conflict” proposes the idea that “neuroscience can help settle the gun control debate.” Applying psychological theories to politics, and especially to the political ideas of conservatives has been a strategy of the left going back decades and has been particularly fashionable in recent years, especially with the controversial work of writers like Chris Mooney.

As usual, the scientific basis for these ideas is thin, to say the least, and in most cases the appeal to some supposedly hard science like neurobiology is just a way to lend some credibility to abstract psychological theorizing. Phillips, for instance, in his recent article is really arguing that the reason gun-control debates are so difficult to resolve is that they involve “sacred values” that get in the way of making utilitarian trade-offs or rational calculations. Research in neuroscience, he assures us, has shown “that sacred values actually have a biological basis in the brain and are experienced in ways observable to scientific study.”

It is of course very plausible that “sacred values” have some “biological basis in the brain,” just as all mental phenomena, from “utilitarian calculations” to reading this sentence, depend on the existence of a well-functioning human brain. But except in those rare cases when some injury or disease in the brain is responsible for changes in thought or behavior, as happened to the famously unfortunate 19th-century railway worker Phineas Gage, neurobiology is hardly better than simple discussion at helping us understand or explain someone’s beliefs or actions. Over the last few years, neurohype like this has been thoroughly debunked in many excellent books, essays, and blogs, and it is almost surprising that anyone would still think that referring to some brain-imaging study would lend any credibility to their ideas.

But beyond the silliness of the appeal to neuroscience, the attempt to psychologize political debates has a troubling tendency to reduce important components of arguments to merely emotional drives that cannot be subject to rational discussion. On the gun-control debate, Phillips disagrees with those who believe that “this is a policy debate that needs to be determined by facts and figures and the emotional component should be set aside so rational debate can take place,” maintaining that psychological research shows that “emotions, symbols and narratives must be engaged rather than dismissed in order to make progress.” His solution would seem to be to have “conversations” where both sides of the debate “respect the identities and sacred values of their opposition” so that “we can bring this debate back into the arena of facts and figures and make it a rational discussion.”

All this happy talk about respecting one’s opponents is rather vague, and perhaps Phillips is simply joining the chorus of those well-meaning commentators who bemoan polarization and call for greater civility in public discourse. But it also seems to suggest a limited and problematic idea of what respectful rational discussion involves, and the role that so-called “sacred values” should play in rational debate.

It would seem that Phillips identifies “rational discussion” with “the arena of facts and figures,” and “sacred values” with “emotions, symbols and narratives.” When we substitute the actual issues in the gun-control debate for these buzzwords, it would seem that Phillips might identify the demand that the government respect the Second Amendment as one of the “emotional” aspects of the debate, one that is part of the “identity” of those conservatives who cling not only to their guns, but to their constitutional rights. (Strangely, in this article about sacred values and the gun-control debates, Phillips does not give us much of a hint about what he thinks those “sacred values” are, but surely for conservatives in America at least, respect for the Second Amendment would be one of them.)

For gun-control advocates to follow the kind of approach endorsed by Phillips here, they would seek to “respect” conservatives’ emotions about the Constitution so that they could return to a “rational discussion” of matters like gun-violence statistics. But what does it mean to “respect” the putatively “emotional” conservative position that the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms while nevertheless seeking to carry on a “rational discussion” about restricting that right on the basis of “facts and figures”?

For liberals to respectfully engage conservatives in the gun-control debate, they need to first recognize that the “sacred value” of the Second Amendment is not merely an “emotional” aspect of the debate, and that it deserves to be a part of the rational discussion of the issue. Gun-control advocates ought to forthrightly argue that conservatives are wrong about the meaning of the Second Amendment, or to join with progressives like Louis Michael Seidman in arguing against obedience to the Constitution.

Trying to respect the “sacred values” of one’s opponents by pretending that they are beyond rational discussion is perhaps the most insulting and counterproductive way to carry on an argument. And the implication that reverence for the Constitution is a problem to be managed by conflict-resolution experts on the basis of the latest trends in psychological research has, to say the least, distressing implications for the perpetuation of our political institutions.

In public debates civility toward and respect for one’s opponents are preferable to incivility and contempt. Certainly in resolving conflicts between warring parties, striving for even a modicum of civility is a praiseworthy goal. But in political debates we should not confuse intensity for incivility, or mistake avoiding the crucial premises of our opponents’ arguments for respectful rational discussion.

— Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.



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