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Culture, philosophy and experience

January 30, 2019

I recently responded to a question on Quora (part of my “don’t spend all day on Quora” resolution means I have to be selective about the questions I answer). Part of my answer referenced an answer by someone with whom I disagree rather strongly. I didn’t make the reference, though, because I disagree with him, but because he gave a really good answer. I call it “really good” because he expressed himself well, the answer was honest, lacked anything approaching vitriol and addressed some aspects of the gun control debate that are often ignored. That’s what this post is about, the debate itself rather than who is on the right or proper side of the debate. More specifically, it’s about those often ignored aspects that seem to go a long way in explaining why at least some people take the position(s) they do.


When I was a kid in high school, one definition of culture was that “culture is the lens through which we see the world.”  It’s still a pretty good definition. I would even argue there may still not be a better one out there. If one comes from a culture of which privately owned guns are a significant part or one in which they played a significant part, or both, then it seems likely that one is more rather than less likely to have a positive view of both guns and the private ownership of them. Likewise, if one comes from a culture in which privately owned guns did not (and/or are not) a significant part, it seems reasonable to conclude that one would be somewhat more likely to have a negative view of guns and their private ownership.

There is more to culture than a country’s dominant culture, of course. Most countries have both various subcultures and even some counter-cultures, each of which has varying degrees of influence over their members. Subcultures can be defined as a group of people who have a culture with marks them as somewhat different from the dominant culture. Typically, they exhibit some aspects of the broader cultures within which they exist. Examples include the family (arguably the single most powerful subculture in existence, and one which tends to have multi-generational influence), military people, law enforcement officers and Star Trek fans.

In addition, there are countercultures. These are cultural groups whose values, norms, mores, etc run counter to the dominant culture. They are a sort of “opposition” culture. The hippie movement of the 1960’s is probably a good example. Others might include some feminist movements and the green movement.

All of these, cultures, subcultures and countercultures, tend to exert or exercise influence over their members, effectively changing how they see the world – including guns and gun ownership. There is, however, more to the debate.


If culture is the lens through which we see the world, then philosophy is the framework on which that lens is built. We might further define philosophy as “everything you know and how it affects you (or even how you let it affect you).” Philosophies, I submit, underlie cultures and influence their development. The US seems to be a good case in point.

More than any other nation, the US was an outgrowth of the Age of Enlightenment, especially the Scottish Enlightenment (along with the writings of John Locke, of course). Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (including, very specifically the Bill of Rights) are very much Enlightenment documents. One makes the Enlightenment case for why a group of colonists should be viewed as something other than the most base of traitors. The other seeks, among other things, to prevent the very things against which those colonists rebelled.

It is hard to overstate, I think, the influence of the Enlightenment, with its views on individual liberty and the proper relationship between the people and government, on the US. If we accept the dates often given for it (1685-1815), then we might say the US was a product not only of the Age of Enlightenment, but of the Age when it was at or near its peak. Had events in the colonies occurred just a few years earlier or later, then it is arguable that those colonies would have remained loyal subject of England or become their own nation in a much more peaceful and mutually agreed upon manner (a la Canada). It seems equally likely that had that been the case, the view of many US citizens regarding guns would be different than they are.


One of the things I tell my coaching and hypnosis clients is that many of our behaviors, including the ways we tend to think, are habits. How do habits develop? A number of factors tend to produce habits, including experience. Our experiences tend to lead to habit formation based upon

  • how often we experience something
  • the emotional intensity attached to the experience

As regards guns, then repeated and emotionally positive experiences might be expected to produce a favorable view of them. Likewise, repeated and emotionally negative experiences might produce the opposite. More than that, if one has little experience, then the emotional intensity of one’s limited experience, and whether that was a positive or negative experience, would also seem likely to influence one’s view.

What about you?

All the above seem to be borne out in my life. Here’s some of what I know about myself. Perhaps it will at least serve to illustrate my point a little better.

My family of origin, on my father’s side and several generations before him, is from Scotland. The steward of the clan of which my ancestors were a part has noted two things. First, that my family is, indeed, of Scottish descent and second that “they did not leave Scotland willingly,” which has reference to the dangers of having alliances with too many people (leading to effectively having alliances with none). Regardless, though, what I find interesting is this: though I don’t remember my dad or any of my aunts, uncles or grandparents making any reference to family history in Scotland, these are names from my father’s side of the family: Thomas, Robert, Kenneth, Edwin, George, Evelyn, Nora, Fanny, Morris, Douglas. Let’s move on.

I was raised in a particular Protestant tradition, one that began is this country as a result of the efforts of a number of ministers, particularly Scottish Presbyterians (Scottish Presbyterians, incidentally, were highly represented in, you guessed it, the Scottish Enlightenment). One of those ministers had as his favorite philosopher, John Locke, who also happened to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite philosopher. One of the primary points of this tradition, at least at the beginning, was that as pertains to Christianity, believers only needed to agree on a few major points. All the points of disagreement which had sundered believers over the years were viewed as not worth fighting over. To put it another way, other than for a few major points, which virtually all who claimed to be Christians accepted anyway, people were to be free to believe and practice entirely as they chose.

You could argue, based on the above, that I was predisposed to read Locke, or the Constitution (especially the Bill of Rights), or the Declaration of Independence, and agree with them. You would probably be right.

In terms of experience, I would note the following:

I’m a retired military officer, who began his career as an enlisted person under arms. I have spent my whole life around firearms, with the vast and overwhelming majority of my experiences being positive. They served for recreation, putting food on the table and defense of self and others. To the last point, I along with some friends and family members at different times and places, am alive because of firearms.

For me, then, culture, philosophy and experience contribute to my view of guns and gun ownership. It would, I submit, be odd indeed if I were to hold a negative view of guns and the civilian ownership of them.

What about the other guy?

The person whose answer I referenced above is different. He comes from a different culture. That culture is one which was not a direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Likewise, his experience with firearms has been markedly different than mine. While I don’t know the specific details, the little I do know leads me to describe his experience as both limited and truly tragic. I rather doubt that anyone who has not had an experience similar to his has any real idea of what it was like for him and those close to him. With all those things combined, it would be unlikely for him to have a positive view of guns and the civilian ownership of them; not impossible, but unlikely.

What does it all mean? 

Let’s start with what I think it does not mean.

  • It does not mean that every conclusion is equally valid in terms of its relationship to fact and truth
    • “your truth and my truth” is still specious nonsense
  • It does not mean that everyone who holds a different point of view has a legitimate and justifiable reason for doing so

On the other hand, it does mean that

  • not everyone who disagrees with me does so for nefarious reasons
  • not everyone who disagrees with me is inherently dishonest
  • honest people can look at the same data and disagree…honestly

There is a reason I seldom debate the right to keep and bear arms on the basis of numbers or statistics. I believe they are irrelevant, because I find liberty to be of far greater value than safety. Arguing about numbers is, at least many times, little more than ceding ground to our opponents. I’m a retired military guy. Why on earth would I do such a thing?

To the one whose answer I referenced above, should he read this, I would say this: I cannot adequately express my regret for what you experienced. That you were able to produce such a clear, honest and balanced explanation of your views says a great deal about your character, including your basic honesty. I wish you good fortune for the rest of your journey.





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