The Human Condition:

Aggression in a Polite Society – October 16, 2011

Robert A. Heinlein once wrote:1 “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.” One may not always wish to live in such a society—where a sudden wrong move might put you in a crossfire, or a careless word or gesture provoke a meeting at sunrise accompanied by seconds—but it would certainly be a different society than the one in which we live. If the people who promote Second Amendment rights to the extent of concealed carry on the public streets gain ascendance, we may soon find out just how different.

One anecdote may illustrate. Our young cousin and his wife used to belong to a gym in Vacaville, California. Among the other clients were the tattooed members of various local gangs. The wife noted that these people, for all their fierce appearance, were unfailingly polite: “May I please use the weights when you’re done?” In a subculture where any display of rudeness or temper is considered “disrespect” and met with a mortal challenge, you pick your words and your battles carefully. She also noted that these people were polite not only to other gang members but to the civilian clients and staff as well. Guarding your words and emotions appeared to be a full-time occupation.

Compare this to the world we see around us, especially as mirrored in popular culture—the movies and television episodes that feed back images of our society as entertainment. In the media, we see an endless display of “attitude,” whereby the hero or heroine establishes personal space through challenge, confrontation, and aggression. In life, we see people pushing past each other on the sidewalk, cutting each other off on the road, snarling, shouting, and finger-gesturing. Think of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy: “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”

In your neighborhood things may be a little better. I grew up in the East—in the Boston area and then in central Pennsylvania—and can remember a fairly high level of courtesy in everyday actions. I was raised to smile at people on the street, step aside when others are coming on three-abreast, hold the door if someone is following close behind me, help someone whose hands are full. Such actions cost a minimum amount of energy and provide a large amount of the grease that lets the gears of social interaction turn smoothly. The underlying thought was: Why aggravate people? Why make their day a little worse when you can make it a little better? This was part of every child’s training. It basically depends on thinking about and caring for others. It’s a matter of routine, short-form empathy.

I now live on the edge of Berkeley, California. This is the home of the Free Speech Movement and an enlightened, progressive society which is particularly caring for Planet Earth and for people who are less fortunate than others. It’s also the abiding place of the hippie ethos of peace and love. I guess people who have taken on such karmic sweetness give themselves a pass when they go out in public, because I am always amazed at the residual amounts of anger and disdain on display. Drivers cut you off on the road. Shoppers push ahead of you in line. Pedestrians saunter through the crosswalk at green lights—and slow down if they think you notice. And if you attract their attention at all, you get a snarl and a foul word.2

It wasn’t always this way, of course. California and much of the West grew up in ranching and mining communities. When you’re out riding the ranges or carrying around gold nuggets, it’s handy to holster a gun against encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, cutthroats, and card sharks. The sheriff’s jurisdiction usually stopped just beyond the last saloon in town, and you were on your own as soon as you got into the hills. That tended to be a polite society, unless you intended mischief or detected it in your vicinity.

With some of that earlier culture still in mind—and being an avid reader of past and future historical fiction, including Heinlein’s—I am generally appalled at the careless way that too many people in modern society push their attitudes in others’ faces. Of course, given the restrictions on weapons ownership in California,3 rude people will generally assume that the strangers they might be angering are disarmed. But some of those strangers might still have strong arms, hands that can be balled into fists, bad tempers, and a disinclination to be trifled with. Of course, if you swear in a stranger’s face and he hauls off and hits you, the law allows you to sue him for assault and battery. But that would be after the fact, wouldn’t it? In the meantime, you do run a risk of injury. This doesn’t seem to occur to most people.

Not only does our current society provide too many instances of outright verbal if not physical aggression, we also seem to have a growing epidemic of passive aggression. That’s when someone cuts you off at a corner and pretends not to see you. Or you ask someone to pass the salt and he or she drops it just short of your grasp. Or the person smiles through an encounter and then, when you’re not looking, spits in your soup, kicks your dog, or scratches your car. Passive aggression is any behavior that is actually meant intentionally but, if challenged, can be excused as carelessness or inattention and requited with a sing-song “Sorree!” Passive aggressiveness is enemy action under the cover of inoffensiveness. It is the choice of the weak, the powerless, and the cowardly. It is the aggression of slaves.

Overt aggression, verbal assault, passive aggression, and personal carelessness seem to be artifacts of a stressed society. People who are pressed for time, frustrated at the limits of their lives, and pushing uphill against burdens of job, family, commute, cost of living, taxes, and other stressors, will give themselves a license to “share the pain” with total strangers. Since you’ll never see these strangers again, why not make their day go a bit worse to match your own? Or such people believe it would take a saint like Mother Theresa to resist biting someone’s head off if he really got in your way. These are people who have lost their equilibrium and their sense of grace and honor.

On a crowded planet, with people stacked vertically into high rises, and even in suburbia the houses are wall to wall, with my picture window facing into your garage, with pressures building all around, and with more people self-medicating on alcohol and drugs in order to take up the strain—I’m not sure we want to introduce concealed firearms into the mix.

I am susceptible to the Second Amendment-inspired notion that incidents of casual street crime and house breaking tend to go down when the perpetrator can’t be sure the property owner won’t respond with deadly force. And I do most strongly advocate self-defense training and awareness for anyone.4 But I’m also not convinced that universal concealed carry—or even open carry—is the answer to our problems.

Until we begin to heal our society of its residual anger, thoughtlessness, and selfishness, arming that society might simply be an invitation to a war zone.

1. In the novel Beyond This Horizon (1942).

2. Some of this, granted, may go back to the progressive motto: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You rarely see these people harassing homeless panhandlers or pushing around the disabled. But as someone who stands tall, tries to dress presentably, and tends to smile at strangers, I seem to draw their generalized anger as one of the “comfortable.”

3. The law goes far beyond firearms to include almost any concealable weapon that might be used for attack or defense. See California Penal Code Section 12020.

4. The personal force that one learns in karate, judo, jiu jitsu, boxing, or other self-defense training requires awareness and application. The defense reflex may be instantaneous, but the situational awareness that ignites it is always a choice. Unlike a pistol, a punch or a kick can’t go off accidentally. And the responsible sensei works on the student’s emotional and moral balance as much as on stance and center of gravity.