Like virtually everyone, I've been in the grip of anger, frustration and confusion over the repeated school shootings that seem to have become our national new normal; together with the furious and unending political debates they have provoked.
I've been reflecting on what history teaches about the natural processes that societies go through when they finally confront long-lasting, powerfully established and emotionally satisfying dogmas. In our instant case, pro-gun control and anti-gun control. And I think that getting an idea about the underlying “dogma dynamics” at play might help us all get through what will certainly be a time of fierce conflict between tribes of Americans.
Start with generally accepted Wikipedia definition of "dogma": "Prescribed doctrines proclaimed as unquestionably true by a particular group." When societies buy into dogma of whatever sort, it's common for them to fixate on all kinds of "objective" evidence intended to confirm or rebut one dogma or another.
So how can you tell when a dogma may be finally losing its hold on a society? One diagnostic test: Look for gradual breakdown of belief in the “objective” dynamics that sustain a dogma.
For example, consider the religious conviction that the sun rotated around the earth. Factual evidence to disprove this particular dogma didn’t appear till the 17th Century, when Galileo Galilei used mathematical calculations and hard physical evidence from newly invented telescopes to show factual evidence that opened the way to our modern conception of the way the solar system works.
So I thought we might find it useful to look at recent examples to help us tell whether the current uproar over the Parkland, Fla., school shooting foreshadows any change in the long widely accepted fundamental dynamics of the arguments over guns and schools.
Based on our recent history, it looks as though the shootings in Newtown, Conn.; Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs, Tex., have played out in much the same ways - initial public outrage, followed eventually by political stalemate and widespread (if grudging) acceptance that repeated school shootings is our new normal.
Could it be that new elements have emerged in the Florida case?
The kids have become an extraordinary galvanizing force. High school students around the country seem to be executing the transformation from observers of repeated classroom shootings, to survivors, and finally to drivers of political protest and media presence. Parkland high school students were old enough to form their own strong emotional reactions to the killings; and articulate enough to be powerful spokespeople on TV and cable.
Another element is changes in technology. These days, virtually everybody has a cell phone that can take pictures of ghastly events, just as they are taking place. And those pictures can be distributed in a instant on nationwide TV.
Previous episodes lacked the real-time emotional tale-telling of terrified kids with cameras in their hands.
Another factor is President Trump, who has hardly been the soul of consistency on school shootings. He wants to "harden" schools against nuts with guns, but at the same time says it's silly for somebody to be able to buy a gun when they're on a no-fly list. Pro-gun and anti-gun folks have no real idea where he's coming from. And things are uncertain enough that a compelling presidential statement could make a real difference.
And so maybe a case can be made that things are changing, the result of cumulative blows to pro-gun dogma administered by repeated instances of school massacres that never seem to stop.
Or maybe not. Anybody who looks carefully at the power the National Rifle Association holds over Republican office holders is going to have a tough time thinking much is very going to change quickly in Washington.
There is powerful evidence that the passage of events has powerful resonance over the inner dynamics in the evolution of even deeply held dogma. Back in the 1960's, the government's line was that if we didn't go to war in Viet Nam, the whole of Southeast Asia would fall to the communists like a house of cards. Not so.
And students in the 1960's who marched and demonstrated for civil rights in the South knew perfectly well they were going up against regionally deep-seated dogma of white racial superiority. Yet today, civil rights for all is a powerfully helpful American attitude.
My reading of casual conversation and statistically powerful polling is that most Americans are shocked at how repeated shootings in school have become a banal part of our national landscape. It won't come about overnight, but it's hard for me to believe that any dogma can last that says we need to have AR-15s to guarantee social stability and freedom.