The Problem of False Consciousness

Hello, all – hope that the holiday season has gone well for everyone, and keeps going strong into the new year.
Today, I wanted to add to the criticism surrounding the NRA’s response to the recent spate of gun violence, but I think that there are plenty of other voices rightfully targeting the idea that more guns inside schools will lead to fewer shootings there. Instead, I wanted to focus on the baffling reasons given by NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre for the culture of gun violence in the United States.

LaPierre explicates an unusual spin on the “guns don’t kill people” mantra of his organization for the NRA’s official opinion: he says not only do guns not kill people, we should blame violent movies and video games for glorifying violence. If the media didn’t present violence as cool, his argument seems to run, then tools for violence would be used only when absolutely necessary.

What LaPierre presents in this conference is the classic “false consciousness” problem, or what David McRaney calls in his book You Are Not So Smart, the “third-person effect”. The essential features of this problem are the perception that there are opinion-influencing messages out there, and that other people might be persuaded by these blatantly propagandistic messages. The problem emerges when one realizes that people never perceive their own opinions to be in any way influenced: you (or some unfortunate third person) have false consciousness, while I hold only rational, intelligent opinions.

What LaPierre is implicitly arguing is that there are more impressionable minds than his own that have been fooled into violent acts by portrayals in the media. What his argument misses are the countless portrayals of violence in both movies and video games as at best an ambivalent force, capable of both cruelty and defense of the good. Rarely do even the most virtuous protagonists escape violent situations completely unscathed – and in fact the only common point of all portrayals of violence is that it is a destructive force, and inescapably leads to loss. Whether that loss is visited on the good guys, the bad guys, or both depends on the medium and the message.

There is, however, some sense in what LaPierre is saying. He merely ignores the effect that his own organization has on the message he denounces so roundly. The problematic message isn’t so simplistic as “violence is cool, kids”. It’s that the gun itself is, in American national discourse, always treated as a totemic (and very basic) object of power. Both gun supporters and gun-restriction advocates recognize and defer to its powerful status.

One conversation I had with a gun-rights supporter over the holiday break resulted in this remarkable statement: “Liberals want to take guns away from people because they want to take power away from the average person.”

Notice the implications of that thought: guns are a symbol and source of power, gun restrictions are really about long-term politics, not safety, and more guns implies a more democratic power base.

The problem with all of these is that ownership of a gun is a false sense of empowerment. Gun ownership does not imply participation in government, in society, or even in one’s own self-determination. It gives no empowerment in a broad sense. If it does confer power, it is merely the momentary power to kill. Momentary, because the power of others to stop a single gun owner (through bombs, other guns, or sheer numbers) is always greater than the power of that owner to resist.

Empowerment is better conferred through education, open political participation, and economic opportunities. Returning to a symbol of primal death-dealing power does no one any good, and continuing to see it as a source of true power will only encourage those who feel powerless to keep turning their guns on the innocent.


One comment

  1. Very well said!

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