Thursday, October 16, 2014

Guns and Safety: The Missing Human Dimension

A case that (on its surface) pits free speech against gun rights has been making the rounds. A female scholar invited to speak at Utah State University cancelled her appearance there after receiving death threats. In explanation she cited Utah laws allowing people to carry guns on campus, and the campus police's inability to regulate the presence of guns at her talk. She also criticized the university for not doing enough to insure her safety.

Since the speaker fits the profile of the Left (a feminist scholar engaged in cultural critique of misogyny in video-game culture) and the thing she complains about is one of the banner issues for many on the Right (the right to carry firearms freely), this pretty much guarantees this story plenty of airplay. And while there will be some thoughtful discussions, for the most part this will generate a great deal more heat than light in the coming days.

In an effort to promote the former and try to avoid the latter, I want to pick up on one particular aspect of the larger argument here: the discussion about guns and personal safety. This is a subject on which I have written quite a few times in the past (do a search for Gun Control or Stand Your Ground on this blog and you'll find plenty of references). Readers will note that I am not a purist on the issue, insofar as I have written that there are circumstances under which the carrying or employment of personal firearms can protect someone.

But here is where a dose of wisdom from my academic field - the study of conflict at the international level - comes in handy. Because "security" is really two things: whether you are secure, and whether you feel secure. It is both objective and perceptual. And these two aspects are not at all the same thing.

Objective security is often knowable only after the fact: you either are attacked or you aren't. If no one attacks you, you are objectively secure. However, you may not feel secure. If you feel that an attack is imminent or even possible, you may perceive yourself as being insecure even when, at that particular moment, you are not being attacked. And that's where the trouble lies.

Advocates of concealed-carry or open-carry rights talk a lot about how guns make people more secure. Setting aside the tactical question of whether, and how often, having a gun will actually help you protect yourself, I have no doubt that for these folks, carrying a weapon makes them feel more secure. So they're being sincere when they talk about guns increasing security - meaning their feelings of security.

The problem is that when you carry a gun, you make people around you feel less secure. You present yourself as a potential threat for lethal violence. When you carry a weapon - especially if it's openly visible - people are likely to assume that it's loaded and that you're willing to use it. If I don't have a gun - or, for that matter, even if I do - that may decrease my security substantially insofar as I am now aware that there is someone in my vicinity who is both willing and able to kill me.

In my field, this is called the security dilemma - efforts to increase my security decrease the overall security of the system, and may make me less secure in the long run. This dynamic is just as real at the interpersonal level as it is among nations. We just don't understand it very well in our individual lives.

Ardent gun-rights supporters tend to respond to this observation with, "well, they shouldn't feel that way" - or "well, I have a right to carry my gun anyway". At that point, it becomes clear that you don't really care about security - yours or anyone else's. You're carrying the gun because it makes you feel powerful, or because it's a part of your identity, or because you feel the need to show "them" (whoever "them" is) what you can or can't do. It's an ego thing.

People who are genuinely interested in security should be able to realize that security is not only individual, it's collective. That when one individual carries a gun, it make lower the level of security in the room. Just ask John Crawford III how that works. Funny - I haven't noticed any NRA members picketing because his 2nd amendment rights were violated.

So if you have genuine concerns about security, that's fine - take the legal steps you feel are necessary to make yourself feel more secure. But recognize that by so doing, you may be making everyone else around you less secure. And while that may not be illegal (in Utah or elsewhere), it is reprehensible. Perhaps what we need to seek is not so much personal security as mutual respect and concern for our neighbors. That's a value I would think everyone (Red, Blue, Purple, or otherwise) could get behind.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Student Safety and Assault Prevention: There's Got To Be a Better Way

There's a lot of attention these days to the topic of sexual assaults on college campuses. This has been a good thing in that institutions and students are becoming much more aware of the issues. I hope that all of this attention will reduce the number of assaults, sooner rather than later. Young women (and men) deserve a college experience free from fear for their personal safety.

I have blogged on these issues several times, including a response a couple of years ago to a highly-publicized case from Amherst College. More recently there was the hashtag battle between #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen, which served to illustrate some of the battle lines in the ongoing struggle to redefine the culture of sexuality and relationships on our campuses. This is a fluid discussion in which there are stops and starts, advances and retreats. Overall I think progress has been made, but there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

One of those challenges is the tendency for people who are really on the same side of the issue to get in fights with each other. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than the continuing battle between what might be called the "don't blame the victim" perspective and the self-defense perspective. An article in today's Inside Higher Ed showcases an excellent case of this:
U. of Wisconsin faces criticism over list of safety tips
Because I work in higher education but am also involved in the self-defense community, I can see both sides of this issue. The "don't blame the victim"/sexual assault awareness folks have a point: historically, rape and sexual assault have been protected by a culture that tolerated arguments such as "she was wearing X" or "she was flirting" or "she was drunk" or "she had it coming, what did she expect to happen when Y". Many a rapist has walked free because our culture took these kinds of arguments seriously. That is changing, which is good. But these kinds of arguments still need to be rendered entirely off-limits and illegitimate, much as we have done with "boys will be boys" and drunk driving.

So I understand both the legitimacy of concerns about victim-blaming, and the sensitivity to the issue. This can be a very touchy subject because real victim-blaming has been used to mask and protect rapists in much the same way that the Confederate battle flag was used to mask and rally racists in the 1950s and 1960s.

The problem is that this sensitivity is being turned against a different point of view altogether - the self-defense community. From the self-defense perspective, nothing that was on the now-removed U. Wisconsin website was problematic or controversial. Advice about awareness ("keep your head on a swivel") and forethought ("don't look like a victim", "make yourself a hard target") are stock in trade for a community of people who, in my experience, are both extremely well-meaning and extremely knowledgeable about what they deal in.

These are folks who study the problem (interpersonal violence) closely and understand it in ways the rest of us don't. Their advice is practical and effective. And many of them dispense this advice for free out of a sense of wanting to help people lead lives free from fear and victimization. In other words, they're on the same side of the issue as their critics - both sides want the incidence of sexual assault and rape to be reduced to zero.

Certainly there are elements of context which can help. Sexual assault awareness campaigns often point out - quite rightly - that the strong majority of such assaults are committed not by strangers attacking while you are out walking in the dark, but by acquaintances who are known to the victim and who gain the victim's trust first. That kind of assault calls for a whole different set of responses, chief among them teaching college men not to engage in assault and rape (and their peers to punish them when they do).

That said, there are sexual assaults and rapes by strangers, just as there are muggings and robberies by strangers. The kind of advice that the UW police put out is standard anti-mugging advice, which nobody questions. And while we also want to engage in other strategies that reduce the incidence of such stranger-based attacks, it makes sense to educate students about how to avoid them. With other kinds of crimes, this is not a controversial idea - but then, other kinds of crimes don't have the history that rape does.

This seems to be the real crux of the matter: how can we encourage women (and men too!) to learn to be smart and take basic steps to protect themselves without sending the message that we are blaming victims for what happens to them? This is a political and linguistic problem, not a real contradiction. There is no logical way to get from the statement "I am learning self-defense in order to better protect myself and my friends" to "it's my fault if someone else attacks me". In my field we call this a conflict of perception rather than a conflict of interests.

There's a side point here that illustrates the gap in perceptions and cultural misunderstanding between these two communities. It shows up nicely in this quote from the Inside Higher Ed article linked above:
Referring to the post's suggestion that a student should keep his or her "head on a swivel," one Jezebel commenter asked, "So literally live every moment like I'm an Army Ranger deployed to Afghanistan?"
I have heard this same reaction from some folks I've trained in self-defense. They take advice about awareness to mean that they need to be afraid all the time in order to protect themselves. That's a real turn-off, and I can understand why untrained civilians would run away from that kind of "advice".

But the truth is very different. I do live with my "head on a swivel" most of the time, in that I try to be aware of the people around me at all times - where they are, which direction they're moving in, and some basic impression of who they are and what they're up to. The fact that I do this - and the fact that I have some physical training in the martial arts to receive and counter attacks - means that I am not afraid. Awareness doesn't create fear, it dispels it. It is part of a package of living in confidence that, I think, is a goal shared by nearly everybody.

But I also get that, until you have undergone some training and experienced this kind of confidence, it's counterintuitive. People outside that circle mistake awareness for hyper vigilance and decide they don't want any part of it. And because it is an experience that is difficult to convey solely with words, the words that the self-defense community (including the UW police department) uses are often inadequate to the task.

This is where we need something else I've written about recently: mutual respect. Rather than attacking each other, I hope that the self-defense community and the sexual assault awareness and advocacy community can come together for an open and honest dialogue that starts from a simple premise: they are both on the same side and they both want the same thing. Both sides need to understand the other better, and both need to recognize that the other has something important to bring to the table. If that happens, perhaps we can overcome this particular challenge and find a way to incorporate the wisdom of self-protection into our larger societal response to sexual assault and violence.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Confederate Flags and Aggressive Identities: When Did "Just Being Me" Become an Offensive Game?

Another conflict over the display of the Confederate Flag has cropped up on a college campus. That's not particularly remarkable; such conflicts occur all the time. What's interesting about this one is that it has stirred up an institution north of the Mason-Dixon line generally thought of as a more liberal/progressive place - Bryn Mawr College.

Despite its unusual location, the conflict has played out predictably as an argument between those asserting their rights to display their heritage under the basic doctrines of free speech, and those asserting their rights to learn in an environment free from coercion or oppression.

As usual, almost everyone is disappointed in the outcome. The students who displayed the flag eventually took it down, likely disappointed that their rights to free speech and to their cultural identity had been trampled on. On the other side, many minority students were disappointed that it took so long to affect that outcome, and are now blaming the college for being insensitive to their needs and voices. I feel bad for the college administration - if ever there were a higher ed version of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, this is it.

What interests me about this story is not so much where it takes place, or the predictable nature of how it has unfolded. It is the origin of the conflict itself - the decision by two students (unnamed, at least in the story above) to put the flag up in a public space in the first place. That's a decision I both understand and find puzzling.

I understand it, in that college students do a lot of things out in public as a means of asserting and experimenting with their identities. Clothes and hairstyles change; attitudes and arguments are adopted, often loudly; posters and flags put up in decoration. This is the time of life when students are growing into their own identities. As southern young women in a predominantly northern institution, it doesn't at all surprise me that these two would choose to assert their southern-ness. I imagine that they, too, felt the pinch of being in a cultural minority (which they undoubtedly were).

I also get the "they have every right to" argument. Yes, we all believe in free speech, even speech that offends. But we see what happens when the argument turns only on rights. It bogs down in anger, recrimination, and division. Rights are important, but they are not the highest good here. They are necessary but not sufficient if the goal is building real human community.

Given that, what I don't understand is why these two young women chose to assert their cultural identity in a way that they must have known would cause pain and anger in others. It's possible that they might argue naiveté - that they didn't see this reaction coming. I find that hard to believe; even relatively sheltered young women from the south must know how incendiary the Confederate Flag is as a symbol. So I can only imagine that this was done deliberately - not necessarily to cause anger but indifferent to whether it bothered others or not.

And there lies our great failing. 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, we have not yet found a way for two important identities - African American and White Southerner - to coexist. The two groups pose no existential threat to each other anymore, yet they continue to behave as if they do.

Some of this, of course, is the difficulty of coming to terms with history. But this far removed from that history, that is an obstacle that should be overcome. Most White Southerners who fly the Confederate Flag today don't want to enslave African Americans, and many of them have overcome the racism of their ancestors. They, and their African American colleagues who are generations removed from slavery and Jim Crow, are free to forge their own identities for themselves.

The problem is not that we can't fashion identities that are both true to their roots and yet coexist with others. The problem is that we don't know how. We know what doesn't work - flags and snarky memes and "in your face" combativeness don't get us where we want to go. Sadly, that's a lot of what these young adults see the rest of us doing - we're no better at it then they are.

But there is a better way. Its details vary from context to context, but it starts in the same place every time: I am who I am. You are who you are. I respect you for who you are, and I ask that you do the same for me. After that, everything else is conversation. If I respect you, I don't demand that you change who you are. But if you respect me, you may change anyway. Everything begins and ends with respect.

If I act out of both identity and respect, I don't throw my symbols in your face. I don't put up flags I know you hate and mark the floor with tape to cordon off "your side" from "my side". I hope that out of this latest kerfuffle at Bryn Mawr, a few of their students - some of the best and brightest we have - will figure this out.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Blame Game: America's National Pastime

The headline on today's New York Times Magazine screamed at me this morning:
Every Hour an Acre of Louisiana Sinks Into the Sea. Who is to Blame?
Interestingly, in the online version the title changes to "The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever". That's an interesting shift, but I'm not sure what to make of it.

What grabbed me about the in-print headline was not the declarative statement of fact. That Louisiana's coastline and wetlands are slowly being drowned is not news; Hurricane Katrina but a big red exclamation point on a process that's been going on for years. The really interesting part is the question: Who is to Blame?

This is a reasonably accurate representation of the article, which is about a lawsuit (or a movement to create one) to pin responsibility for the encroaching water on the oil and gas companies, and thereby get them to pay for remediation. The details of that fight I leave to others to get into. I doubt the lawsuit will go anywhere, but I could be wrong.

But the broader "Who is to Blame?" question seems to me emblematic of our culture today. We are so tribalized and balkanized into different subgroups that there is no more "we", only "us" and "them". Every problem that confronts us becomes a battle over whose fault it is. Pay attention to Tea Party News (or even Fox News) for a week and play Bingo with how many of the world's problems they blame on Obama. I doubt it would take you seven days to win that game. E pluribus unum indeed.

"Who is to blame?" has become our default question, the first response to every issue. Coverage of the lone Ebola case in the US has focused to a large extent on whose fault it is that the patient was turned away from a Dallas hospital the first time he visited. Don't get me wrong - that's an important question if you run that (or any other) hospital. For the other 99% of us, however, it's irrelevant next to the information we need to know about Ebola and the kinds of collective action we need to take to protect ourselves.

Organizations that are perpetually engaged in blame-fights almost never do well; many a business has gone under in a blaze of blame-throwing. Why should we expect a country to be any different? Problems don't get solved by asking whose fault it is; they get solved by coming up with solutions.

Some will say, but don't you have to diagnose the causes of the problem? Of course you do. But diagnosis and blame are not the same thing, as any good manager knows. It's one thing to identify mistakes and errors; it's another to engage in punitive witch-hunts. The former is productive, the latter is not.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE bad actors out there, and maybe the oil and gas companies are among them. But many of those actors are "bad" (in that they pursue their own self-interest to the detriment of everybody else's) precisely because there is no "we" anymore. They are not "part of us", they are their own tribe looking out for their own interests and screw the rest of the world. The Wall Street hubris kings who broke the financial system a few years ago suffer from the same problem - they think of themselves as a breed apart, not as Americans or citizens or even New Yorkers.

I have no idea how to fix this, of course. I have a small blog read by maybe three dozen people. The New York Times is rather bigger, and they're hardly the only one feeding the Blame beast. But somewhere I would like to see people start to ask not "Who is to blame?" but "How do we fix it?"

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why the Debate Over Guns Doesn't Make Me Angry - It Makes Me Sad

I've written plenty of blog posts about gun control over the last couple of years, including a number on the relationship (a complicated one) between guns and self-defense, and the toxic nature of the politics that surrounds the issue. Yesterday I saw yet another Facebook meme that pushed my thinking in a new direction:

It would be easy to lampoon this piece for its obvious logical fallacy. I cannot prove a point by finding a single instance of somebody who does something differently. Looking around the world, there is no obvious correlation between the number of guns and the safety of citizens. Australia banned many weapons a number of years ago, and remains (so I understand) a pretty nice place to live. The UK is so devoid of guns that half the time the cops don't even have them, but also seems to remain a civilized place. Somalia and Afghanistan are awash in guns, and I wouldn't want to live in either. Switzerland has military weapons in nearly every household (albeit under lock and key) and remains one of the safest places on earth.

We can go round and round with such examples; all we prove is that the correlation between "gun control" (however defined) and individual safety is weak if not non-existent.

But that's not what really caught my eye here - the internet is full of memes that don't make any logical sense. What strikes me here is the almost fierce joy with which the facts above are presented. The possession of half a billion guns is offered as something to be celebrated, a source of rejoicing. And that bothers me deeply.

In our argument about gun regulations and the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, we have lost sight of the main point: guns themselves. With a few exceptions, small in number overall (hunting rifles, shotguns), guns are devices designed and built for a single purpose: to injure and kill other human beings. They are, in fact, by far the most effective tools we have ever devised for that purpose.  They are small, portable, cheap, ubiquitously available, and lack the collateral damage problems of high explosives and nuclear devices. From a strictly technological and economic perspective, they are a marvel of engineering.

And that should bother anyone, at least a little bit. It is a sad thing - if not a tragedy - that one of the greatest achievements of the human species is our ability to devise such an efficient and widespread means of killing each other. And that killing - which takes place at extraordinary rates all over the world - is very nearly always senseless and unnecessary.

People of all political stripes and persuasions talk about leadership and the need for a vision. Ronald Reagan was famous for his "morning in America" speech; Bill Clinton had his "bridge to the 21st century". We know from almost all realms of human endeavor, from politics to business to culture, that people respond best to a positive, uplifting vision of the present and the future.

So what kind of vision is it that celebrates the possession of half a billion devices for killing other people? Is this what the NRA, or the "Right Wing" (the meme above was posted by a group called "Right Wing News"), wants to trumpet as the highest ideal of humanity? Is this what the "city on a hill" looks like - an armed camp?

In this regard, some of the comments posted in response to the meme above are nearly as instructive. Here are a few examples:

    "All you gun haters move to Iraq an try living there without being a target"

    "OK Pilgrim I think it's time to play COWBOYS & MUSLIMS" (accompanied by a photo of John Wayne carrying a rifle in one of his westerns)

    "First they take your guns, then they take your freedoms, then they take your life. Fools, stay armed and buy more guns."

    "America was built on God, guns and guts ... leave it that way or leave!!"

For me, this is why I cannot understand or find much sympathy for the hard-core 2nd Amendment tribe. I can understand logical arguments about guns as a necessary evil for defense (civilian or otherwise) in a dangerous world. And to some degree I can understand the pleasure of firing guns in sport (though recent events have shown that this can be a deadly exercise). But to celebrate the possession of large numbers of guns as good in and of itself strikes me as not so much politically problematic as both tragic and morally misguided - even fundamentally uncivilized. I wonder what vision of God allows such a close relationship between the divine and killing machines.

This, I think, may be why we have such a hard time having conversations about guns. It isn't because we disagree about facts, or about the analysis of those facts, or about policies, or even about the Constitution. It's because we have vastly divergent views about what human beings should aspire to, what the ideals of "civilization" should be, and what "good" looks like. The really difficult differences are not so much between Americans and foreigners (ISIS or otherwise) as they are among ourselves and within our own communities.

For myself, I value peace and harmony. I believe that the highest ideal of humanity is working together for the good of all - not because we are forced to by a central power, but out of love and mutual respect for one another. I recognize that many of the problems of the world are tragic obstacles to this goal, and that those problems call forth solutions that are less than ideal. But I also believe that nearly all of those problems can be overcome among people who hold to a similar ideal of peace and harmony. Whatever our other differences, if that is our common goal we will find common ground and the means to pursue it together.

If, on the other hand, your highest value is the possession of tools to kill other human beings than I am afraid we simply have nothing to say to each other. And I find that a very sad thing.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Blood on our Hands": Moral Responsibility and Modern Life

It has become characteristic of a certain kind of political protest to demand that some institution - the US government, a university, your local town, a company - take extraordinary steps to disconnect, divest, or otherwise disassociate itself from a political situation or conflict. Institutions that fail to take such steps are, in the eyes of the protestors, "morally responsible" for whatever atrocities or horrific crimes are being committed elsewhere. And since the crimes in question often involve a lot of bloodshed, this tends to lead to some pretty hyperbolic protest language.

A student at Ohio University treated her university, and the world, to an especially silly version of such a protest this week. You can read a full news account of the incident here. The original video has unfortunately been taken down, but you can watch the debate it set off on the OU campus here.

It is worth noting that the student body president did recant and apologize for her silliness and appears to have recognized the error of her ways. But I would guess that this is an argument that will linger for a while on the OU campus.

While dramatic (turning the Ice Bucket Challenge into a bucket of blood will certainly draw attention), the argument that this student made is a familiar one. It's worth noting her statements, captured in transcript from the video:
In the video, posted on Vimeo, Marzec states, "I'm sending a message of student concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state. I'm urging you, and OU, to divest and cut all ties with academic and other Israeli businesses and institutions," she said during in video. "This bucket of blood symbolizes the thousands of displaced and murdered Palestinians atrocities which OU is directly complacent in your cultural and economic support of the Israeli state."
Now, I assume that she meant "complicit" rather than "complacent", but you get the drift. Because OU's investment portfolio and international activities include ties to Israel in some fashion, the university itself has "blood on its hands" for all of those innocent Palestinian deaths.

There is a practical silliness to this, of course: OU could do as this student asked tomorrow, divest itself of every investment connected to Israeli companies, cut all ties of cooperation with Israeli universities, and not a single thing would change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, if every last university in the US did this, it still wouldn't change a thing. This seems like the opposite of the Peter Parker Principle - if great power brings great responsibility, shouldn't no power absolve one from responsibility?

But the real reason for such protests isn't the practical impact of the actions demanded (though protesters often delude themselves into thinking that they will in some fashion change the world). What these folks are primarily after is the self-righteous rush of feeling that, whatever evil happens in the world, their hands are clean.

This is, of course, an absurdity in the modern world, especially if your standard for "bloody hands" is "any financial connection to the perpetrators". Do you pay taxes to the US government? Do you participate in the international economy? The reality of modern trade and global production is that nearly any economic activity is likely tied, in some fashion, to some questionable behavior that you probably wouldn't like to be associated with.

It is the merging of these impossibly high moral standards with the obvious (if unintended) hypocrisy of those who promote them that makes the whole thing fall apart. What starts as impassioned moral protest degenerates quickly into cheap theater, screaming, and useless diatribe that accomplishes nothing.

If you are truly concerned about the great moral issues of the day, whether they are in Missouri or Israel, the appropriate response is much harder. Rather than trying (fruitlessly) to disassociate ourselves and our institutions from whatever side of a conflict we don't like, what we need to do is engage with the issues and the people involved. Talk to all sides and hear their stories. Listen to their humanity, their dreams, their aspirations. Understand their weaknesses and failings - and how little you may be able to change them.

You cannot end an intractable conflict by dumping blood on your head. But you may be able, in a small way, to heal some of the damage that conflict causes, even if it's far away from the bombing and the killing. And in the process, you will discover something far more valuable than angry self-righteousness. If you're lucky, you may just discover the peace that comes with connecting with another human being.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Are We Excommunicating Each Other?

I have written before on the corrosive effects of tribal identities in American politics. Far too many folks have adopted exclusive identities that increasingly shut everyone else out and label them enemies (often in dehumanizing and even violent terms). A couple of recent examples of such posts are here and here; you can also search this blog for the label "tribalism".

My hunch that this is an accelerating phenomenon was reinforced this morning by not one, but two stories in Inside Higher Ed:
Southern Utah Removes Senator's Name From Building
Public School District Drops Ties to Gordon College
The first case involves classic party labels. Utah is a pretty conservative state, dominated by Republicans. Apparently the fact that the one Southern Utah University alumnus to rise to the prominent position of Speaker of the House was a Democrat was too much for these folks, demonstrating that party loyalties outweigh alumni loyalties. The University claims that that's not why Harry Reid's name was taken off the side of a building, but I'll bet those local Republicans will crow about their "victory" in getting a hated Democrat's name removed from the public square.

The second case comes from the other side of the aisle, and appeals to the same tribes without the party labels. The president of Gordon College, an avowedly Christian liberal arts school in the Boston area, had signed a letter asking for an exemption from a new federal Executive Order on hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Like many conservative Christian organizations, Gordon College argued that it should be exempt from the law on the grounds of religious liberty. In response, a local school district which had partnered with Gordon for years ended their relationship - presumably because the school district disagrees with the college's position on employment discrimination and sexual orientation. Like the Utah case, no doubt there is plenty of self-righteous congratulatory feeling going around.

Both cases illustrate a fundamental tribal behavior: separate yourself from The Other as much as is humanly possible. Have nothing to do with them. Do not allow their names to adorn your buildings. Do not allow your students to mix with theirs. No cooperation, no compromise, and no recognition of shared interests. They are to be excommunicated, cast out, and considered Unclean.

Humans, of course, have been doing this sort of thing for as long as there has been human behavior. But there had been a general sense that, all other things being equal, the less of it we engage in the better we are. This drive to unite rather than divide is one of the founding principles and aspirations of American politics. It used to be that E pluribus unum was widely understood. Today it seems to be more often translated, "I'm right and you're wrong, so go to Hell."

These small acts of excommunication have very little practical effect. Southern Utah will raise money to build more buildings (with or without Reid's name), and I'm sure the school district in Lynn will find a source of student helpers. These are symbolic gestures - and that is why they are so important.

Are we as a people really so consumed with our tribal self-righteousness that we need to fight over whose name goes on a building? Can Harry Reid's life and contribution be reduced to a single label, overriding everything else he may have ever done? Are the students of Gordon College all the same because their institution's president signed a statement, and does that statement overshadow the good they might be able to do in a classroom?

In the end, of course, these symbolic gestures aren't really about their intended targets, whether they be House Speakers or college students. They're about the egos and identities of the self-righteous who want to stand on the street corner and trumpet their virtue to the world - or at least, to the members of their own tribe. They would rather beat their chests and shout their own praises than engage in real conversation with someone they might disagree with.

The real danger of such conversations, of course, is not that the participants will be made Unclean. It is that they might discover they have more in common with their "enemies" than they thought, and be forced to regard them as valuable human beings rather than as foils and talking points. I, for one, would rather live in a society of people than a Balkanized collection of warring factions shouting at one another.