Sometimes people ask me whether I’m just making up the pro-gun position that I occasionally discuss on this blog (and that I tend to refer to as wingnuttery). I assure you I am not.
The above is the tail end of a conversation with someone who found my blog via the Washington Post and wanted to argue with me about whether or not Florida’s Stand Your Ground law constitutes an example of self-defense as an inalienable right found all the way back in the philosophy of Locke and Blackstone. [You can find the whole discussion here if you want to see how he arrives at this nonsensical position.]
Does Locke think you are justified in defending yourself if someone attacks you and there’s no other way for you to preserve yourself? He does. But, if at all possible, it would be better to let the proper authorities handle the matter; one of the main points of having a civil society is that it precludes every man from being judge, jury, and executioner. Locke suggests this over and over again.
Does Locke think you have a right to wander around with a weapon looking for trouble and then claim self-defense when you kill someone you’ve been following around for no good reason? No, sir; that’s utter madness. The only ones who think this way are people who like the idea of waving guns around to make themselves feel like big men.
I taught John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government in my graduate core seminar in political theory today; it was a really enjoyable discussion about a fundamentally important text in the history of Western political thought.
And, at the beginning of the class, 40% of the students told me they’d never read it before. The rest had only read parts of it. These are students who are pursuing a Phd in political science.
If you’re interested in natural rights or social contract theory or the consent of the governed or legitimate v. illegitimate government or the right to revolution — or, really, anything having to do with liberalism — then I can’t imagine not knowing the arguments found in Locke’s writing.
Incidentally, not a single student could correctly tell me how the Declaration of Independence begins or how it might relate to Locke’s arguments about revolution. Just under half of them went with “We the People…” while the rest thought it had something to do with “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (which, of course, originally appears as “Life, Liberty, Health, and Possessions” in — you guessed it! — Locke’s Second Treatise).
But, yeah, by all means let’s do away with the study of political theory.
In response to my recent post about the fact that no one has a right to be a vigilante, a number of people have argued that I’ve conflated vigilantism and self-defense. The most prominent of these is David French in the National Review:
Of course we give up the right to settle our own grievances, but we don’t give up the right to protect ourselves and our families before the police can arrive. Defending oneself from a home intruder or mugger is not the same thing as exercising a “right to punish criminal behavior.” You are not being punitive; you are being protective.
Thus, most people agree with me that vigilantism isn’t a natural right, but continue to disagree about self-defense. This simply isn’t a distinction that Locke makes in the Second Treatise and to make that distinction today so we can protect a supposed right to self-defense while stopping short of endorsing vigilantism is to misread Locke.
While there might very well be a difference in one’s mind when one prepares to shoot someone to protect oneself rather than to punish the other, the difference is negligible from a Lockean standpoint: Both are examples of people acting as judge, jury, and executioner. The gun owner, rather than a dispassionate third party, is the only person making the determination about life and death for another person.
There might be times when this is an unavoiadable scenario — and so self-defense is preserved as a possible legal defense for homicide — but one of the main reasons human beings chose civil society over the state of nature is to minimize these incidents.
On a less theoretical note, I think it’s important to note that there’s a very fine line between self-defense and vigilantism, as some gun owners today understand themselves to have the legal right to take the law into their own hands whenever they feel themselves to be threatened … whether at home or in public.
The relatively recent proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws — since 2005, about half of the states have passed such laws — has moved our understanding of self-defense from the home, where it was traditionally understood that one could defend oneself, to the public sphere, where one previously had a duty to retreat first and respond with violence second. And it has seemingly increased homicide rates in those states.
Perhaps the best example — and one that I think we’re not talking about nearly enough right now — is that of George Zimmerman and Travyon Martin.
From the Onion:
LHASA, TIBET - Deng Hsu, 14, said Monday that he is “totally getting into Western philosophy.” “I’ve been reading a lot of Kant, Descartes, and Hegel, and it’s blowing my mind,” Hsu said. “It’s so exotic and exciting, not like all that Buddhist ‘being is desire and desire is suffering’ shit my parents have been cramming down my throat all my life. Most of the kids in my school have never even heard of Hume’s views on objectivity or Locke’s tabula rasa.” Hsu said he hopes to one day make an exodus to north London to visit the birthplace of John Stuart Mill.
This is going up on my office door.
Since when do people think they have an inalienable human right to be vigilantes?
I understand that people want to feel safe and believe that having a gun in the home will enable them to defend themselves. And I understand that acting in one’s self-defense is a legitimate legal defense. But using the language of self-defense to defend oneself in the (rare) case of shooting an assailant is not the same thing as asserting a human right to defend oneself.
To be sure, if we read a foundational text like John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, we find a natural right to punish anyone who would harm us in our life, liberty, health, or possessions. In the state of nature, Locke tells us, each person is effectively judge, jury, and executioner unto herself. And, of course, it’s precisely the problem of a lack of independent judgment in the state of nature that leads people to join together to form a political community.
But for people to establish a political community, Locke asserts that people must give up to the government their natural right to punish criminal behavior and agree to have the government settle grievances. This is why we have standing laws that are meant to be applied equally by independent officers of the law and by the courts.
So, again, where is all of this talk of self-defense and vigilantism coming from?
The ridiculous and offensive meme that’s been making its way around Facebook and Twitter for the past few days, linking the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and gun ownership today, is being grounded in the language of human rights.
Insofar as they are both expressions of fundamental human rights, yes, they are the same thing.
The civil rights leaders of the Jim-Crow-era South knew that having a gun was the only thing that would protect you from the KKK, because the local police wouldn’t. Even MLK himself had guns; one of his advisors described his home as “an arsenal”.
Gun Rights Are Civil Rights.
The amazing thing about a response like this — and there are lots of these sorts of posts all over the internet right now — is just how amazingly wrong it is, both in terms of the way we think about rights and in terms of historical accuracy.
Let’s start with human rights:
First of all, there is no human right to gun ownership. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Leaving aside the intentions of the Founders, as I’ve already written about this extensively, we can clearly see that there is a right to keep and bear arms afforded by the American Bill of Rights. But this right, like all of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, has never been understood to mean that citizens have the right to own any weapons they want or that there should be no barriers at all to gun ownership. We regulate a citizen’s ability to procure weapons today without any constitutional problem and we restrict the types of weapons that are available for sale to the public today; it would be difficult to make an argument that further regulation or restriction would somehow be ruled unconstitutional.
Further, no such right to gun ownership appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The closest we get is Article 12:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
This language seems to refer both to governmental and private interference: The government cannot arbitrarily interfere with a citizen in these ways and, further, the UDHR notes quite clearly that the government and its laws exist to protect citizens equally against private attacks. Nowhere does the UDHR suggest that citizens have the right to arm themselves to protect themselves against criminals or that armed insurrection is the way to deal with the threat of a government that might become repressive.
If we go all the way back to John Locke’s argument about natural rights and resisting tyranny in his Second Treatise of Government, we find that in Chapters 18 and 19 he recommends a system in which the people can change their leaders with relative ease, thus allowing them to withdraw their support from a potentially repressive government and to replace it with a better one rather than resorting to rebellion and armed insurrection (which would bring with it a whole host of evils).
Now, a few words about American history:
Did Martin Luther King, Jr. own guns? You bet he did.
William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that once, during a visit to King’s parsonage, he went to sit down on an armchair in the living room and, to his surprise, almost sat on a loaded gun. Glenn Smiley, an adviser to King, described King’s home as “an arsenal.”
This was in the mid-1950s in Alabama, when King and his family were the targets of constant, credible, specific death threats; after his home was bombed, King even applied for a concealed carry permit (and was rejected).
There’s not a lot of discussion of the reason that King owned guns. Gun advocates would like us to believe that King owned them solely because he had the right to do so or because he liked having them around, not because he lived under the sort of constant threat that exists today only in the minds of wingnuts who think our tyrannical government is out to get us. What’s more, here’s the most important part of the MLK story that gun advocates aren’t quite so interested in discussing:
Eventually, King gave up any hope of armed self-defense and embraced nonviolence more completely.
So, gun advocates, if you want to emulate Dr. King, then you’d better start working to highlight for us the constant, credible, and specific threats against you that require you to own guns for your personal protection. And then, of course, I’ll remind you that you’re not really emulating Dr. King, since he later gave up on the gun and embraced non-violence. Are you ready to do that? Why not? Worried that someone is going to bomb your house or assassinate you?
Of course, I’m not actually in favor of taking all of the wingnuts’ guns away from them. As I noted above, I think the Second Amendment pretty clearly affords Americans the right to keep and bears arms and I don’t think we’ll be doing away with the Second Amendment any time soon. I am, though, in favor of further regulations and of further limiting the kinds of weapons that citizens can own. And that’s why the civil rights meme going around is so foolish: It attempts to establish some sort of right to an assault rifle based on either a human or civil right to own every possible kind of gun (which is obviously false) or to defend oneself. But even if citizens had a human right to self-defense, which they don’t, such a right wouldn’t establish the right to own an assault rifle since those are terrible weapons with which to defend oneself.
On a related note, but with regard to Beyoncé, why does anyone care if she did or did not lip sync her performance at the presidential inauguration? Do we really not have any problems that need to be addressed today?
Apparently this is something I do now.
Want to make your own? Just find yourself a quote from a good old-fashioned political liberal and let Žižek smash it.
On Friday, I began to respond to Colin Downes’ interesting critique of my own lengthy critical piece on Slavoj Žižek. Having discussed, at length, Downes’ first complaint — that I have misrepresented Žižek’s true feelings on Lenin and, in particular, on whether or not Lenin and Stalin can be separated from one another — I turn in this post to his second complaint, that I have failed to provide a compelling critique of Žižek by demonstrating that he is an authoritarian because illiberalism isn’t necessarily problematic in and of itself.
In Downes’ own words:
[P]erhaps Kohen is right: Zizek is an authoritarian. Within our dominant ideological coordinates, this is all that needs to be said to place him beyond the pale. But Zizek’s commitment to revolutionary terror consists precisely in his desire to challenge the dominance of those coordinates. This is why Kohen’s critique is inadequate. One cannot wave away Zizek’s critique of liberal democracy by pointing out that it does, in fact, entail a certain degree of illiberalism. A successful critique of Zizek’s along these lines would require one to identify and argue against the reasons Zizek adopts this stance – to perhaps say that the structure of liberal democratic capitalism does not, in fact, maintain a state of brutal exploitation and oppression under which the world groans (and which is rapidly hurtling the planet towards environmental disaster). To call him an authoritarian and to invoke the specter of failed revolutions isn’t enough to dismiss a writer who has grappled with questions of the terrible exercise of power and failed revolution at such length.
I’ll begin by saying that it feels incredibly weird to have to defend liberalism against authoritarianism in 2012. But I suppose the fact that we’re going to rehash the debate between Hobbes and Locke today is a testament to the power of the cult of personality that’s grown up around Žižek over the past few years. Of course, Žižek’s authoritarianism isn’t exactly Hobbes’ authoritarianism; despite his infatuation with Lenin (and sometimes Stalin and Mao), Žižek almost certainly wouldn’t care for the idea of an all-powerful Hobbesian sovereign. He might be an authoritarian thinker, as I’ve argued, but this doesn’t mean he wants to establish an authoritarian state.
This is actually one of the central tenets of modern political philosophy in the West, dating back to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.
Here’s a very brief run-down:
Locke hypothesizes that, in the absence of a government, people are all free, equal, and have the ability to enforce as they see fit what he calls the law of nature, which says that no one should infringe of the rights of anyone else to life, liberty, health, and possessions. But there’s a great deal of instability and uncertainty that arises from individual executive enforcement, as there are no hard and fast rules about how much or how little one should punish an offender. And so people band together, give up their right to enforce the law as they see fit, and establish a commonwealth that will do so on their behalf.
In short, the concept of a monopoly on violence by the state is actually one of the principle reasons to have a state in the first place. Without a legislature to make standing, unchanging laws and an executive in place to equally enforce those laws, Locke says, everyone is a legislator and an executive unto himself. But this amounts to vigilantism and, in a situation where everyone is equal, it can lead pretty quickly to a spiral of violence that no one can effectively stop.
This isn’t to say that the state can do whatever it likes with its monopoly on violence or that the people become sitting ducks once they give up their right to enforce the law of nature as they see fit. Nor is it to say that people shouldn’t be able to own guns to protect themselves (especially against the possibility of a tyrannical state).
It is, however, to quite clearly affirm that you ought to call the police when there’s a suspected gunman on campus, rather than pulling out your own weapon and blasting away.