Gun Control and the Archaeology of Difference

 
 

French philosopher, Michel Foucault, made the case that society is governed by an archaeology of knowledge, a set of unwritten rules that influence what is stated about a particular category of knowledge at any particular time, and how that statement of knowledge is related to other statements of knowledge. These ‘rules of formation’ of the discourses of society are what Foucault describes as an ‘archaeology of knowledge’.

We are living in a time of such a discourse, a discourse about mental health that has been co-opted into the political struggle over gun control. Early on in the public debate over gun control following the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, mental health entered the scene, touted as a serious contender for American society to find a lasting solution to the problem of mass shootings. As well as the assertion that ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun‘, the National Rifle Association made the case in its very first public statement of substance following Sandy Hook that what was needed was an ability to know who is sane and who is not:

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame …A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI), in its own response to the tragedy, attempted to soften the growing association in the public eye between mass shootings and poor mental health by stating that ‘the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small‘. Citing data from a study of nearly 18,000 subjects, NAMI makes the case that over a lifetime, violence occurred among 16% of people with serious mental illness – like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – compared to 7% of people without any diagnosed mental disorder.In spite of these findings, the case that mental illness has a marginal influence on violent acts in society is increasingly hard to make. The White House is currently highlighting a slew of measures that, we are told, will offset decades of under-investment in mental health services. For instance, in 2011, according to a survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 10 million people had a serious mental illness, and of those more than 40% did not get care. The Affordable Care Act will ensure that 65 million mostly poor Americans every year, will get access to  mental health benefits under Medicaid.


Mental Health advocates have rightly cheered the efforts being made to bolster mental health services that could help millions of individuals and families gain access to preventative care and on-going support and advocacy. Yet, beneath all of the rhetoric is an archaeology of our society’s discourse about mental health. A mass shooting of children is such a hauntingly terrible loss of human life that we are inclined to look for apparently productive ways forward wherever we can find them. Yet, the rules of the formation of our discourse of the past several weeks have led to a conversation about an archaeology of difference: the point about Adam Lanza that all of this public narrative drives home is that he was different to us. The photographs, the descriptions of the life he led, the covers of magazines all seemingly cement this view.

Yet, what this accumulation of image and word around Adam Lanza’s supposed difference to the rest of society most reveals is not difference but sameness. In a society such as ours where between the Sandy Hook massacre and the President’s Inauguration there were over 1000 fatal shootings, the conversation that we are yet to have is why we are so easily inclined to react violently to one another. Sandy Hook stands at the apex of a vast trend in our nation where angry outbursts aimed at complete strangers are not only common but to be anticipated, so much so that our lexicon has enlarged to accommodate the shades of rage we should expect on one another: road rage, web rage, air rage, even desk rage.

We equate freedom of expression as our ability to say what we want, when we want, and how we want. We live in times when our ability to customize our daily experiences – from our music to our Facebook friends – is in danger of making our worldview myopic. Ours is an age of profound impatience and excessive demand for consumer satisfaction. And all of this, in all of its ubiquity across America, is the context within which a desperately deranged young man tragically took the lives of 26 human souls two and a half months ago.

One of the most essential gifts of the Christian tradition to our world is the theological assertion that we are fundamentally the same. Each of us is made in God’s image. Each of us bears his likeness. Each of us is beloved by him. Christianity’s voice in the public square is one that says to the world that an archaeology of difference is ultimately a flawed project. One of the Church’s great gifts to the societies that it finds itself in is that it has been willing to offer public voice to the deep need we have to reflect on our life together. Our current debate in this country about gun control and mental illness is too narrow. We need to look at ourselves and ask why it is that we are willing to live so estranged from one another, and the Church needs to offer a word of hope to that conversation that says a customized and ego-driven universe is not the only one on offer.

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