Trigger Warning:

Reflections on Politeness, Dystopia, and Concealed Firearms in the College Classroom

On January 19th 2013, gun rights activists convened at the Texas State Capitol to support the remedial erosion of gun-free zones, an idea that became manifest in House Bill 195 and Senate Bill 11, two proposed modifications to the state penal code now known colloquially as “open carry” and “campus carry,” respectively. HB 195 would allow both licensed Texans and permit holders from other states to openly wear holstered firearms, while SB 11 would let license holders bring concealed handguns into buildings on university campuses. Both bills were passed by the Legislature despite vocal opposition from Texas universities, and on June 13th 2015 they were each signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott at different locations, one of which was an indoor firing range in Pflugerville, Texas. Afterward, Governor Abbott took his place at a shooting lane to fire off a few celebratory rounds. Soon after, open carry became law in Texas; campus carry went into effect August 1st 2016, the 50-year anniversary of Charles Whitman’s murderous rampage from the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower.

At the 2013 demonstration at the state capitol, I found myself disquieted by the text of one demonstrator’s sign: framing the silhouette of an assault rifle were the words “An armed society is a polite society.” I’d heard this phrase before — even in Austin, contrary to our reputation as “a blue dot in a red state,” pro-gun sentiments are neither infrequent nor strange — but now it unnerved me, and for an obvious reason: In January 2013, I was just beginning my career teaching English, rhetoric, and literature at a large Texas university. Not only did I now have to consider the reality of concealed handguns in my classroom, but as someone entrusted with teaching argument and discourse, I’d often discussed with my students such slogans and truisms as “An armed society is a polite society,” as well as the various social contexts and situations in which it is more appropriate — and more useful — to be right than it is to be polite.

This “polite society” quotation can be found all over the Internet — and on t-shirts, and bumper stickers — and is attributed to the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, who is best known for his immensely successful 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. However, “An armed society is a polite society” is a quotation from a different Heinlein novel, the “post-utopia” Beyond This Horizon, first published in 1942.

Beyond This Horizon depicts a classist genetic dystopia in the distant future, when all full citizens descend from hereditary lines painstakingly improved over dozens of generations through artificial selection, in which human zygotes are preselected by “genetic planners” based on desirable qualities. In other words, humanity has attempted to breed itself closer toward a genetic ideal. The likeable and aloof protagonist Hamilton Felix is an Übermensch who hails from the preeminent “star line” of optimal humans.

However advanced, this society is not pacific. One bizarre normality of this world is dueling to the death. Most citizens are expected to be armed with phaser-like firearms called “burners.” The only people who are unarmed as a rule are the “control naturals,” a small minority who descend from unaltered genetic lines, kept around as evolutionary insurance in the event the genetic planners need to reference or manipulate unadulterated DNA. (Heinlein’s pet-like control naturals prefigure the underclass proles of George Orwell’s 1984, published seven years later.) Control naturals are compelled to wear orange brassards (arm bands) to clearly indicate that they are unarmed and are therefore off-limits to violent confrontation, which often arises from conflicts of etiquette. Full citizens may voluntarily wear the brassard, as an indication that they are pacifists, or that they are otherwise disinclined to kill or be killed in a duel — however, this comes with a loss of face.

In Beyond This Horizon, the armed citizenry comport themselves with a ludicrously hostile stylization of 17th century chivalry. In a sense the novel is Heinlein’s affectionate caricature of The Three Musketeers, in that upstanding citizens display open contempt for all whom they deem inferior, or in error, and are duty-bound to inflict violence at the instigation of even decidedly minor insults. In an early scene, Felix Hamilton duels with (and severely injures) a fellow citizen over a small faux pas at a restaurant, after his dining partner accidentally sends a slippery crab leg flying, staining a woman’s gown. That a person nearly dies over this harmless bungle is in no way extraordinary. The reader is reminded later that armed people who “appear to have become deceased in an ordinary private duel [are] a matter of only statistical interest to police monitors.”

The phrase “An armed society is a polite society” is from a soliloquy by a genetic planner and primary character named Mordan Claude, who says this after a duel in which a friend of Hamilton Felix is critically wounded and nearly loses an eye. On the subject of duels and burners, Hamilton tells Mordan, “I am beginning to have my doubts about this whole custom. Maybe I’m getting old, but, while it’s lots of fun for a bachelor to go swaggering around town, it looks different to me now. I’ve even thought of assuming the brassard.” Mordan becomes uncharacteristically emphatic, telling Hamilton, “The brassard is an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement of inferiority.” When Hamilton presses his elder, Mordan replies, “Well, in the first place an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization.” This argument may work for Mordan, but to Hamilton his rationale is far too easy. At the least, Mordan conflates politeness with civility. The common usage of these two words may well overlap, but they are not strictly synonymous.

“Civility” is a term used to describe obedience to law and order — adherence to the rules and directives of civilization. Civil disobedience — a concept that reaches my students through Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — are actions that improve civility, not besiege it. This idea that vigorous debate and mutual criticism can make a good idea better — and inoculate us from wrongheaded notions — is absolutely fundamental to the college classroom.

On the other hand, “politeness” bears a different bent, and a different etymology, stemming from polish, or refinement, or genteel elegance. Whereas civility is the bundle of behavioral codes without which society cannot peaceably function, politeness — while important, certainly — is the relatively superficial burnish we give unpleasant truths in order to avoid seeming malicious or inelegant. Civility is the license to speak, and to hear and be heard. Politeness is about how things are said, and more importantly what is not said, and is less a prerequisite of humanity than an indicator of class. Politeness precludes embarrassment and discomfort, sensations that occasionally become necessary in the exercise of civility, which is at its core our shared understanding that tolerance and sociability must suffice when heartfelt mutual acceptance is impossible. As an instructor of discourse for young people, my experience has taught me that politeness can either engender or prevent the full expression of authentic civility.

The typical college freshman may sometimes take it for granted that emotion, argument, and opinion are all aspects of one sticky mass, and not three discrete things. While persuasive rhetoric does in fact employ all three modes of discourse, in the classroom reasoned argument is our obvious focus, while emotion and opinion, if not recognized for what they are, quickly become impediments. However, encouraging students to isolate or simply examine the emotional components of their rhetoric can sometimes cause these emotions to inflame, especially if these feelings are attached to enshrined ideas the student perceives as interchangeable with their morality, values, or world view. It seems futile at best, and perilous at worst, to invite firearms into any space where rationality is expected to supersede emotions such as fear, loathing, and anger.

In February 2016, the University of Houston faculty senate outlined suggested modifications to UH teaching practices in the post-SB 11 environment:

These guidelines represent a significant modification of typical instructor behavior and inculcate an expectation that violence is a likely response to problematic student-instructor interactions. This is precisely the chilling effect of concealed guns on campus that has been vocally predicted by educators, administrators, and students. Widespread private firearm possession is antithetical to the reasonable assumption that controversy and conflict will not necessarily entail grievous or life-threatening penalty — an essential expectation on the college campus, where conflict is expected, normal, and even desirable.

It was such an academic conflict that led, in June 2016, to the murder of UCLA professor Bill Klug, who was shot and killed in his office by Mainak Sarkar, a former PhD student and mentee of Klug’s, who came to believe Klug had stolen some of his code and given it to another student — allegations described by a colleague of Klug’s as “absolutely untrue,” adding that Klug “was extremely gracious” to Sarkar and helped him finish his dissertation, even though Sarkar “was a sub-par student.” Klug was a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and was investigating the structures of things like cancer cells and the HIV virus. He was memorialized as “kind, helpful and patient,” and “the nicest professor at UCLA.” He was not one of those archetypal ogres of academe who sometimes gain tenure despite their hostility, or other flaws of character, to the lamented disadvantage of their colleagues and students. All Klug did to invite this tragedy was help a struggling, unbalanced student, and his story has unsettled so many college professors, especially those in states with campus carry laws (Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), because a large part of our time is dedicated to doing exactly that: helping and becoming familiar with students who are struggling and “unbalanced,” broadly defined. Part of what college is meant to provide is an experience that challenges students, destabilizing the psychological structures of their so-called comfort zones. This is intended to result in growth and insight, not actionable rage.

While campus carry supporters have described SB 11 and similar legislation in other states as measures meant to increase campus safety, overall violent victimization has been on the decline in the United States, and 18-to-24-year-old Americans in college are safer from homicide than their counterparts in the general population. And while sexual violence on college campuses is troubling and far too common, data suggest females in college are less likely to be assaulted than nonstudents. Conversely, statistical analysis positively correlates gun homicide to gun ownership, while the 10 U.S. states with the weakest gun laws collectively have a level of gun violence 104% higher than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws. However, there are two other statistical assessments that are particularly problematic for American college students. The first comes from a recent study of firearm epidemiology, which found that of the over 313,000 firearm-related deaths in America from 2003 to 2012, nearly two-thirds were suicides. The second is from a 2013 pilot study of college-student mortality — the first comprehensive study of its kind since 1939 — which found that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students, after vehicular injuries. However, if one separates alcohol-related traffic fatalities from auto accidents in which alcohol was not a factor, suicide then becomes the leading cause of death among college students. In short, there is every reason to believe that increasing the number of firearms on a given college campus will increase the number of violent deaths among the student body — even if there is never a single firearm-related accident, homicide, or killing in self-defense.

Of course, statistical indicators seldom guide our behavior when it comes to firearm possession. University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman has attempted to explain why, describing gun rights advocates as proponents of a “protected value system,” or the deontological philosophy that allows for certain moral obligations to impute their paramount value upon specific choices, such as carrying a firearm in public, in such a way that no trade-offs whatsoever can be accepted. This is also sometimes called obligation-based ethics, and the gist of the idea, in terms of campus carry, is the total insignificance of overwhelming statistical evidence in the face of individuals’ perceived obligation to arm themselves in the face of an anticipated threat. The paramount value is on agent relativity, in that an individual’s desire to carry a gun, or simply their ability to decide to intervene in a crime in progress, is significant and can be weighed against the risk of amplifying the same tragedy they would attempt to reduce. If there is a patron saint of deontology — and an apt encapsulation of the pro-carry argument’s resistance to damning empirical evidence — it is Immanuel Kant, who advocated the rationale, Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus: “Let justice be done, though the world may perish.”

Ultimately, the most disconcerting aspect of protected value systems has been the observation of an emotional component: anger. When an individual perceives an attack on what they understand to be an inviolable right — such as what they interpret to be protected by a constitutional amendment — they are understandably prone to let their decisions be informed by their emotions, and may even feel justified in consciously doing so. Note how often, for example, democratically-elected lawmakers who push for gun reform are labeled “tyrant,” or “despot,” and how frequently President Barack Obama was compared to Hitler, Mao, and Stalin — implying that the speaker sensed imminent subjugation. This anger and charged rhetoric may be instigated even by seemingly modest proposed trade-offs, such as the prohibition of high-capacity magazines, or allowing “carve-out” gun-free zones on Texas campuses post-SB 11. This is troubling. On numerous, horrific occasions, we have observed a similar type of deontological thinking demonstrated by perpetrators of heinous acts: the 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; the 2014 shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas; the rampage in Isla Vista; the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina; the rash of mass violence in 2015, including shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, a Lafayette movie theater, and in San Bernardino; and, most recently, the 2016 massacre of nearly 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

We can focus on the specific or overt motivations in each of these instances — white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, radical anti-feminism, homegrown extremism, homophobia — or we can identify the most obvious, recurring theme: armed individuals acting out of rage and resentment, who feel justified in using deadly force to resolve their grievances against what they see as a moral catastrophe.

We find this template in many campus shootings as well. In Germany in 2002, 19-year-old Robert Steinhäuser, who felt his job prospects had been irrevocably damaged by his recent expulsion, returned to the campus of his former secondary school and killed 17 people before taking his own life. Statements made by Seung-Hui Cho before his 2007 killing spree at Virginia Tech cited his painful sense of alienation, especially his frustration at being unable to make friends. In 2010 Professor Amy Bishop shot and killed three faculty members and wounded three others at a department meeting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, shortly after she was denied tenure. The past century has seen hundreds of spree killers who decided to act in response to what they felt was an enormous and irremediable injustice, even though their personal disasters could also be seen as simply unfortunate, at least partly their own fault, and relatively unexceptional.

When a spree killer’s first unequivocal expression of homicidal violence is also intended to be their last actions on earth, there is literally no realistic, practicable recourse at our disposal other than to reduce the worst of these mass-casualty homicides by making the deadliest of consumer firearms — semiautomatic, military-style rifles — either wholly unavailable or meaningfully restricted. And yet because of the deep disconnect in the United States between parties adhering to protected value systems and those espousing an ethics of consequentialism, there is no polite way to have this conversation. Because politeness means not pissing people off. Politeness means hedging a truth. Politeness means, “agree to disagree.” And yet, if we can recognize the occasional, situational tension between simple politeness and essential civility — discourse that is respectful, reasonable, and humane — we can prudently and equitably speak the truths that need to be spoken, and we can keep speaking them, again and again, until they are heard.

[The preceding essay first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of The Texas Review. To buy a physical copy, which also includes the work of many other excellent contributors, please click here.]

Ben Reed is a real person who lives in Texas. You can read more of his writing at benjamin-reed.com