In December of 2012, a lone gun-man walked into an elementary school at Newtown, CT and killed a group of over twenty people that included the school principle, several teachers, and a range of students under the age of 10. As news coverage informed Americans of the tragedy in their midst, pundits, politicians, and activists also began dealing with two large, weighted questions:
What role did gun control play in this event?
Is it too soon to consider the role of gun control in relation to this event?
Representatives from the NRA released several statements, with vice president Wayne LaPierre asserting that the organization stands by its beliefs: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Meanwhile, gun-attack victim Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) visited with the families of victims in order to share communal stories of pain and loss, and several gun-shows in the region were canceled out of respect for survivors in the community.
Students of the humanities will recognize that the debates surrounding both the Newtown shooting specifically and the issue of gun control more generally tap into larger, more long-term vocabularies that questions the foundations of humanity and, in connection, the levels of need for human governance.
Emerging from the bloodshed of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes composed The Leviathan as a credo on humanity and its governance. According to Hobbes, human beings struggle with a need for a social contract that will bring them out of a State of Nature and into a cooperative order. Such order is constructed and can only exist with enforcement because humans are by nature selfish and violent, they share a common tendency to war with others in order to achieve individual survival. In such a situation, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Clearly cooperative order is more desirable; the problem is that the social contract can only function when all behave according to its law. So how do you effectively urge such violent creatures to trust one another and to avoid breaking rules when it suits their individual desires? For Hobbes, the answer is the Leviathan: a singular tyrant whose absolute power coerces the masses into performing the social contract together.
While Hobbes’ approach to human nature and political governance echoes in our own lives (one need only listen to recent debates regarding gun control, for example), he is one of myriad philosophers whose work shapes attitudes toward human nature. Writing 38 years after Hobbes, John Locke posited in his Two Treatises on Human Government that human beings were devoid of violent survival instincts because they were born tabula rosa: blank slates. Together in the State of Nature, individuals could live in “perfect equality.” Through socialization and education, humans learn how to generate individual and collective identities; and, for this reason, a humanistic education can teach human beings to create balanced, free societies wherein each individual’s rights count. Much like Hobbes’ views, Locke’s persist. Students of American history and politics undoubtedly hear his voice in the Constitution’s assertion of the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
When we consider contemporary political and legal discussions in our own country and worldwide, what does it mean that two such drastic approaches to humanness exist? In what ways can they be used to triangulate as we navigate our own humanity? And to what degree might these debates also signal our role as animals?
After all, humans are not unique in their squabbles, feuds, and power struggles. Animal communities across species experience the same challenges. Wild and domesticated horses turn to the leadership of an alpha-female, who is powerful enough to provide direction and protective strategies and gentle enough to care for weaker omega horses at the lower ends of the herd. Wolf packs and lion prides, meanwhile, function under the governance of alpha-males who can protect from attacks, lead aggressive strikes against intruders, organize breeding, and direct members toward good hunting. Amidst these groups, leadership is never stable. As documentaries such as Meerkat Manor remind us, even in the animal kingdom there is the odd coup d’etat and a variety of allegiances surrounding them.
Performing Humanity invites submissions from philosophers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists with interest in further discussion of these issues.
Dr. Miranda Nesler is the editor of Performing Humanity and is an assistant professor of Early Modern & Medieval Literature at Ball State University in Indiana.
Image: Shannon Hicks, The Newton Bee (via The Atlantic Wire, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/12/newtown-connecticut-school-shooting/59999/)
Katy Steinmetz, “The NRA Responds to Newtown.” Time: Swampland (http://swampland.time.com/2012/12/21/the-nra-responds-to-newtown-america-needs-more-good-guys-with-guns/)
John Christoffersen, “Gabrielle Giffords’ Newtown Visit.” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/05/gabrielle-giffords-newtown-visit_n_2415720.html)
Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (London, 1651).
John Locke, The Two Treatises on Human Government (London, 1689).