I've been reflecting recently on how we as human beings have an infinite capacity to rationalise away the most indefensible of things, and on how when we do this in the most determined fashion it's usually because we're defending something we've known since childhood. If an activity, an object, an attitude, a state of affairs was 'normal' and 'comfortable' to us in childhood, it can't possibly be wrong, can it? My own minor examples are that, as a child, one of my favourite toys was a golliwog, and I also sometimes used a racist term to describe a corner shop run by a Pakistani. I recall my absolute incredulity when I first encountered suggestions that there was anything wrong with either of those things - and it was dangerously easy to sustain that incredulity given that the reaction of my peer group was almost unanimously the same as my own. How could any reasonable person find such trivial, silly things offensive, we asked in unison. In retrospect I can't believe that it took me literally years to accept how wrong I was, and to recognise that in a frequently hostile environment ethnic minority communities have every right to complain about the invidious effect of casual, unthinking racism. I wouldn't open my mind to that powerful argument because for some reason it was too painful to let go of a couple of the certainties of my childhood, however unimportant those certainties were. This same pattern can be seen played out time and time again - and people will construct the most astonishingly complex defensive arguments just to avoid having to let go of their familiar certainties, whether those certainties be that cruelty to animals can always be justified because life wouldn't be so easy without it, or that wealth inequality is justified by differential intelligence, or that there was no immorality in the mass slaughter of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (because it was the US that dropped the bombs, and the US doesn't do genocide). The more well-rehearsed these complex arguments become (and the defence of the Hiroshima atrocity is a good example of one that has become extraordinarily well-drilled), the more you can see the signs of insecurity in the individuals putting them forward. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the defenders of the indefensible have evidently realised "we need something bloody good here, or everyone's going to see straight through us".
And so let's recap. A few weeks ago, I present a very simple proposition that fewer people die in the UK as a result of gun violence than in the US. I suggest this is directly as a result of there being fewer guns around, which in turn is at least partly due to the much stricter gun laws here. I also refute the argument that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' by pointing out that it would simply not be possible for an individual to kill as many people in a short space of time with virtually any other weapon, whatever their degree of murderous intent. People kill people, but they do so with guns, and could not do so with anything like the same degree of efficiency in any other way. A third proposition I put forward is that increasing opportunities for legal gun ownership would inevitably lead to a large number of lethal weapons ending up in the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or to others. All these common sense propositions are easy to explain. Why then, does it take a 10,000 word (yes, really!) incomprehensible, logic-bending, pseudo-scientific 'analysis' to refute them? And this dissertation has randomly appeared several weeks after the 'debate' ended, remember! If I could make sense of much of it, I might be provoked into breaking my word and responding directly to some of Mr Baker's points, but frankly I can't (doubtless a lack of intellectual capacity on my part). The only thing I will respond to is Baker's convenient wheeze that the huge difference in the murder rate in the US and UK can be explained away with just one word - 'culture'. America is simply a more violent culture, apparently. Hmmm, two wee problems there, Kevin. Firstly, culture doesn't generate itself out of thin air, it's moulded by facts on the ground - one of which happens to be the presence of an absolutely mind-boggling number of lethal weapons. I think that may just have something to do with America having a more 'violent culture' (along with other important factors such as jingoistic American militarism and the legitimisation of violent vengeance through policies such as the retention of the death penalty). Secondly, if as Kevin earnestly believes, he has 'statistically proved' the most important benefit of the prevailing American cultural norms - that more liberal gun laws actually make people safer - why can't he show that the level of violence has not just fallen as a result of such laws, but has fallen to a lower level than in a comparable country that has had stringent gun laws for a prolonged period? As I've said repeatedly, that's the kind of 'statistical proof' that would impress me, and it's distinct absence is one of the reasons why most people in this country are secure in the knowledge that, at least on this one issue, we've got it right and countries like the US have got it disastrously wrong.
And from our perspective we wonder, why can't they see what's so blindingly obvious? As Mr Baker has brought up the issue of culture, that's not a bad place to look for the culprit. It is indeed culture that drives Kevin to write these dissertations of such extraordinary length - at some level he must recognise that the arguments ranged against him are simple, powerful, well-supported and have resonance with many people in his own country, and he feels that if he gives an inch to them he stands to lose something of great value to himself. But that thing only seems valuable to him because of the cultural certainties he grew up with. Viewed objectively, the loss of the right to own a luxury item like a gun really isn't that big a deal, especially not when you consider the benefits both to individual liberty and society of asking people to make that small sacrifice. I will obviously never convince Kevin that those benefits exist, and he will doubtless continue to try to disprove their existence by resorting to a barrage of voodoo statistics, but I remain more than content that I am on the right side of this argument.
Comments policy - As the sainted Kezia Dugdale would say, this is my own little corner of the internet, and I make no apology for setting my comments policy myself, and not allowing it to be dictated by presumptuous visitors from Arizona or anywhere else. Rachel Lucas - the owner of the blog in which this 'debate' commenced - takes precisely the same view. She moderates comments she finds offensive, and closes threads to new comments completely after a certain period of time. Evidently Ms Lucas is a staunch believer in 'reasoned discourse'.
My general position has always been that I will allow any comment, as long it isn't abusive and it doesn't contain strong language. However, I changed that position solely on this gun issue, because people were clearly putting their points to me as an individual and I felt I needed to respond in most cases. It was taking over my whole life and that was why I decided to make a clean break. I think that's a perfectly honest, straightforward position, and if Mr Kevin Baker has a problem with that, well tough. This blog is not written (to the extent it's written at all anymore!) for his benefit, or to satisfy his personal preferences. As I said at the time, another factor in my decision was that it rapidly became obvious that Kevin was not remotely interested in a genuine debate, but only in an ego-boosting gladiatorial contest involving lots of delusional triumphalism on the part of both him and his adoring fans (I Could Not Have BEGGED For Better, Now THIS is Reasoned Discourse, etc, etc). I was also concerned at Joe Huffman's semi-abusive blog post title, directed towards me personally. (Joe, incidentally, seemed astonished that I didn't bother reading the contents of that post - did he seriously expect me to consciously choose to read a post entitled What Did James Say That ****** You Off So Much?) No-one with an ounce of self-respect would persevere with a 'debate' that had descended to that level. But if anyone feels strongly that they want to comment on anything I've said here or in previous posts, they have the opportunity to do so at Kevin's blog, where in any case they can be assured of a much greater audience. For the avoidance of doubt, however, I'd just like to confirm that when I talked about Kevin's quest for 'ever more detailed statistical evidence', yes, I was being sarcastic (I understand some Americans have difficulty picking up sarcasm). Lots and lots of noise jumbled up with big numbers does not a credible statistical analysis make.
UPDATE - Kevin has 'updated' his blog in a kind of non-update sort of way, to point out that I've 'responded' to him in a non-responsive kind of way (which was always my intention given that the vast bulk of Kevin's dissertation genuinely makes no sense to me at all). And don't worry - reliable as ever, he has included the words 'Reasoned Discourse' in his update, yet again without explaining the reference. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect a form of Tourette's is at play here (which I seem to be in danger of picking up myself). However, I'll hazard a guess as to what this tedious in-joke might be referring to - I'd imagine that on many occasions when a proponent of gun control has decided not to continue in debate with Kevin, the stated explanation has been "it's simply impossible to have a reasoned discourse with you". If I'm close to being right, I'd like to gently suggest something to Kevin. If something like that keeps happening again and again with so many different people, isn't it at least worth considering the possibility that "it's not them, it's me"?
Incidentally, Kevin is most certainly misleading his readers on one point. He says in his update "James has disabled comments. I never expected anything more (or less, for that matter)." That being the case, why did he say this to me on April 8 - "they close their comments and often delete them. I don't think you'd do that"? By definition, one of those two contradictory statements must be untrue. A minor point, maybe, but it is a useful illustration of the insincerity that lies behind some of Kevin's rhetoric.
UPDATE (Friday 15th May) - A few extra thoughts. Some members of the Kevin Baker fan club have taken issue with my characterisation of their hero's notion of statistical-based evidence as 'voodoo statistics'. (In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies - "well they would, wouldn't they?") Not being American, I'm afraid I'll have to rely on British examples to explain what I mean by that phrase. In the 1993 local elections in England and Wales, both the Conservative and Labour parties produced detailed statistical evidence purporting to show that council tax was on average lower in authorities run by them. Even in a world of 'lies, damn lies and statistics' that just doesn't seem to stack up - one party must have been lying, and the other must have been telling the truth, right? Well, actually, wrong. Both parties were telling the truth. As it turned out, it was Labour who were misleading the public, but they were doing so on the basis of a superficially honest statistical analysis. The deceit (and it was without doubt a conscious one) was that they failed to put those statistics in their proper context and explain what it was they didn't show. A few of you have suggested that I have by default 'lost the debate' (the KB fan club thinks that KB has won 'again'? Astonishing!) because I haven't put myself through the torture of going through Kevin's plenitudinous prose line by line, and pointing out where I think his statistics or logic don't stack up. Even if I had a mind to do so, it simply isn't necessary. We live in politically savvy times, in which everyone has been exposed to endless examples of the 'voodoo' approach to statistical analysis that I set out earlier (Lib Dem bar chart leaflets, anyone?). I trust the intelligence of people enough to know they'll instantly recognise Kevin's latest dissertation (and his earlier one) for what it is, without needing someone to hold their hand with a line-by-line rebuttal. If anyone is in any doubt that there are plenty of anti-gun equivalents of Kevin ready and able to compete with him toe-to-toe on who can produce the biggest barrage of seemingly unanswerable statistical evidence, you need only look here for one of the many, many examples on the internet.
But I haven't gone down that road - I've stuck to arguing on the basis of what I believe in, without recourse to voodoo statistics. In a sense that was precisely what Kevin invited me to do - "it's all about the philosophy, James", he said in his original honeyed invitation for this 'debate'. What I didn't fully appreciate was that Kevin possesses the strange notion that his philosophy is literally 'provable' (the last person who believed that was Karl Marx). Well, that's Kevin's delusion and I'm happy to let him wallow in it. But what I won't accept from him or his groupies is the demonstrably absurd suggestion that because I have stuck to arguing my philosophy and Kevin has stuck to arguing on his voodoo statistics, that somehow means my argument has been all emotion and 'hand-waving' (??? - must be an American phrase) where his has been 'cool', 'detached', 'logic-based', etc, etc. Again, I trust the intelligence of any casual readers to see through this in an instant - because Kevin's whole driving force for endlessly debating on this subject (and for learning his lines and his statistics backwards) is emotion. Specifically that emotion is anger at what could be 'taken away' from him, and that leads to the mask of 'reasonable debater' slipping again and again and again. I've already flagged up his descipable debating tactic of producing a photo of a woman with horrific injuries and juxtaposing it with words to the effect of 'this is what James Kelly would call mere bumps and bruises'. So that's the KB fan club's idea of emotion-free debate, is it? Anyone brave enough to read through Kevin's dissertations in full will find quite a few other choice examples of how he breaks up his endless stream of epic quotes and voodoo statistics with similar 'emotion-free' rhetoric.