Thursday, February 06, 2014

Drunk on Mistrust

There have been a raft of gun deaths recently, I suppose there always are; there have been some highly publicized gun deaths recently. I saw an article about another just today. The most controversial are those where someone is killed, purportedly in self-defense, but is unarmed. Trayvon Martin was the most famous case - and those with racial overtones obviously get the blood boiling.

Regardless, they spur heated debate over the way our society owns and handles firearms. I'm talking about guns to start with, because it was this particular issue that got me thinking today. This post is not really about guns - at least not specifically. It's more about the way society handles its own irresponsibility.

The bottom line is: people should be responsible with their guns. There is no reason guns have to be a public hazard. This is what every NRA member and hunting enthusiast says; and they're right. We may not all agree on which uses for firearms are appropriate and which aren't, but I hope we can say, at least intellectually, devoid of specific context, that guns don't have to be a problem in society.

The same is true of alcohol. It doesn't have to be a problem. There are loads of people in the world who drink responsibly. We can argue over how it's sold, marketed, regulated, and enforced, but intellectually, we can say that alcohol doesn't have to be a problem in society.

It is, though. We have massive binge drinking problems and routine DUIs that lead to destruction and death. Simply because it is not a problem for many individuals, doesn't mean alcohol isn't a problem for our society as a whole.

I am a part of the Church of the Nazarene, which has long took flack for it's unabashed abstention from alcohol (and, in it's early days, was driving the bandwagon for prohibition). I think it's safe to say our understanding of our abstention has evolved over time. Still, I think we're pretty firmly committed to it - not because alcohol is inherently evil or because people can't drink responsibly, simply because, as a society, we haven't figured out how to handle our liquor.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with our hyper-individualism. What my neighbor does is none of my business, nor is it my responsibility. Which is true right up until the point he's beating his kids in a drunken stupor or she's crashing a car into a wall of pedestrians. Then it is both our (collective) business and responsibility.

If our society could figure out how to properly interact with each other in supportive and redemptive ways that rendered alcohol unproblematic, the stance of the Church of the Nazarene would likely become irrelevant. It should be possible, it just hasn't yet been realized.

We (I'm talking society now, not my denomination) have generally recognized the real issues with irresponsible alcohol use and we've taken steps to address them. Age limits, purchase limits, accountability for bars and restaurants over-serving, the education of minors, penalties for drunk driving, etc. It can be argued we've gone too far or not far enough.

There are similar measures in place for some guns and some people at certain times. I'm hopeful that the conversation about our societal irresponsibility with guns and our collective responsibility to do something about it is moving in the direction of productive conversation. With each tragedy, it seems people are more willing to talk to each other and figure out how to bridge the gap between what should be and what really is.

In each of these cases, we have to be willing to sacrifice something valuable (usually some measure of individual freedom) for the common benefit. There's a lot of ideology mixed up in that, a lot of stubbornness and pride, but in the end, I think we'll get there. As much as we don't like it, we do (most of us) recognize that we have to live with each other.

I do think perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks to taking action on these two or any of the other societal problems that shouldn't be but are, is a fear that once something is sacrificed, it will never be returned. This is where the fear of big government stems from in the first place. "You take my assault rifle today, you'll be back for my hunting rifle tomorrow."

It's a fear and mistrust that works both ways.

There are plenty in the Church of the Nazarene who argue changing the alcohol stance in any way is a slippery slope to immorality. That argument isn't entirely without merit, but it does betray a lack of trust (justifiable or not).

To see this in action, at least in the US, you have to go no farther than public education. We have a long history and tradition of free public education in this country. It wasn't always universal or mandatory or even popular, but it is part of the cultural fabric.

At some point during the last century, the powers that be realized that education was vital for the next generation to succeed; there were just less opportunities available for an uneducated work force. At the very least, the minimum standard needed to be raised.

That didn't go over too well in some places. This, coupled with the economic and racial disparities across the diverse landscape led to increased control and organization on a federal level.

This was an important and needed change - a sacrifice of freedom (often unwilling) to ensure a sea change in the perception and impact of public education. Local communities should be able to educate their children effectively. It just wasn't happening.

Nowadays, though, people generally understand the importance of a basic education. There may be cultures or families or individuals who don't believe they have a chance to really receive such an education, but no one denies it's value. The movement has succeeded.

Now, instead of local communities fighting higher authorities about public education being a waste of time and money, local communities are fighting to increase and improve their educational experience.

Issues of money and equity and all that still need to be figured out, but it might just be time to give local communities control again - return the responsibility. There's a pretty good chance, at least in this instance, the thing that should be happening, might actually be possible.

This post doesn't exactly have a neat conclusion. I was hoping to illustrate the ways we do, and fail to, trust each other; the problems inherent in our society; and the need for sacrifice and interdependence. Our problems are our problems, even if they're not our (personal) problems. I think solutions work the same way.

No comments: