Archive for May, 2012

Real Gun, Fake Gun, Squirt Gun

Posted: May 23, 2012 in Culture, Politics
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From the Beyond Disbelief Dept. at the Chicago Tribune comes the news (slightly late to me as always) that

Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s request that firearms be banned during the Republican National Convention in August. Scott argues that all citizens, including, presumably, inebriated party-weary conventioneers and angry protesters, will be safer if everyone is packing heat.

I’ve always been of two minds about the gun debate. First, the genie’s already well out of the bottle and will never be stuffed back in again, so the idea of regulating guns any more tightly that they now are only removes them unjustly from the hands of citizens. Ne’er-do-wells, whether they be from among the military, civilian police, state militias, felons (lots of overlap in those categories), or merely everyone’s crazy Uncle Ted (Nugent, clearly), will always figger ways to possess guns. Second, the utility of guns for self-protection is questionable, as many gun owners end up injured with their own weapons (I couldn’t verify this meme, so don’t hold me to it) or simply succumb too readily to solving problems with violent force. So while I think it preposterous to restrict gun ownership too heavily, to say nothing of that niggling problem with the, um, U.S. Constitution, I don’t own one nor do I particularly want one — yet. (A decision on private ownership of flying killer robots, or DIY drones, is to be expected sometime soon.)

The insistence of the Florida Governor that everyone packing (but concealed, since that makes it safer!?) at the Rep. National Convention will make everyone safe rather than provoke a wild-west shootout just boggles the mind. It reminds me of the other doctrinaire position taken by many economists of either the armchair or professional variety, namely, that a deregulated economy will sort itself out in time. We can see just how well that’s working out, though one could reasonably argue we’ve never really, truly had a laissez-faire economy.

According to the article, the list of items banned from the convention includes clubs, spears, lumber, hatchets, gas masks, chains, and squirt guns, but apparently real guns made the cut. This put me in mind of something I read recently. I took my own advice and read Metaphors We Live By, jointly authored by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Lots of interesting stuff in the book, but one bit that applies here is a discussion of what it means to distinguish between categories of gun. They show that because “our conceptual system is grounded in our experiences in the world,” the very idea of defining something is based on interactional properties and can never be purely objective or outside of human experience. With respect to guns, they identifies five such interactional properties:

  1. it looks like a gun (perceptual properties)
  2. it handles like a gun (contextually relevant motor activities)
  3. it serves the purpose of a gun (purposive properties)
  4. it works like a gun (functional properties)
  5. it was built to be a gun (history of function)

People with normal cognition (not Republicans, apparently) can see how a (real) gun, a fake gun, a broken gun, or a squirt gun fulfills or falls outside these interactional properties and is therefore either a gun (no modifier necessary) or a ______ gun (modifier necessary), making it a “not-gun.” The broken gun is a very interesting case, since its history of function trumps the properties it fails because of being broken. In fact, until the doctrinal spin machine goes to work, it should be abundantly clear that to allow squirt guns at the convention and risk getting wet is far preferable than to allow real, working guns and risk getting pumped full of lead.

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I caught an episode of Real Time where Bill Maher interviews Charles Murray (see embedded video at bottom), the latter of whom became notorious with his book The Bell Curve and is now hawking a new book called Coming Apart. Murray is a psychometrician, a type of scientist Wikipedia describes as follows:

Psychometrics is the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments.

Using psychometrics, a researcher can take the pulse of society and presumably make observations and spot trends virtually impossible to obtain through other means, but as Murray discovered, can also lead to killing the messenger if those observations run counter to conventional wisdom or cherished fables we tells ourselves, such as gender and racial equality, which we have not yet achieved or even really approached very closely in spite of earnest protestations pointing to great strides we have made. Psychometrics give the lie to those self-congratulations.

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