Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Toxic Narratives of Slavery and Gun Ownership in the United States

Image of black slaves being mistreated
Narratives are not only stories we tell ourselves and others, but they also comprise stories that are built and construed around the existence and development of countries and nations. Narratives are powerful themes that often define us and highlight our relationship with others, including our identification with our respective cultures and nationalities.

As we are continuously surrounded and, in some cases, even bombarded with certain narrative strains and trends, we come to not only accept and embrace them, but we often - consciously or unconsciously - come to identify with them. This can be problematic in various instances.

Narratives take place in various forms and dimensions and have different effects on their proponents and recipients, but I shall focus or limit my views here merely on the nation known as the United States. Since the citizens in the early days of this nation had to contend with constant fear of their safety, certain strains of narratives took hold and cast a spell on them and led them down a path quite different from that of citizens of other nations.

Historically, the United States had to fend off its territories and would fight against its original inhabitants, the indigenous people. In such cases, there loomed the constant threat of potential attacks from Red Indians onto the newly established settlements.

Furthermore, to have, refine and even re-define their own national identity and independence, the settlers, moreover, had to fight against British rule through the American revolution and had to create their own separate and distinguishable identity. This double threat of original inhabitants and controlling colonizers made it important for the settlers to ensure not only that their freedom was guaranteed and intact, but also to disseminate and propagate the ability to protect themselves against any kinds of threats to their lives and ideology.

In fact, to accept as well as face and deal with the brutality of the Wild West, there were two narratives that needed to be reinforced to bind and unite its citizens.

The first one I simply call the cowboy mentality. In fact, this is essentially an Us versus Them approach to daily life. Yet beneath this approach lies the juxtaposition and the implicit ideology of good versus evil. Put differently, the settlers used morality as a means to justify the usurpation of the land and the slaying of indigenous people. Since the pioneers regarded themselves as more civilized and, ipso facto, morally superior, they believed that their actions were right as well as guided and approved by divine forces.

Politically, this ideology has also continued and is known as the manifest destiny of the United States that - at least in the eyes of its own citizens - makes even objectionable and questionable actions morally right.

The cowboys then are regarded as good and pure and as upholders of the faith, whereas others – be they Indians, communists or terrorists - were assigned indiscriminately to the THEM bulk, that is, they were immediately and automatically stapled as threats to their ideology and, by extension, to the American way of life. This is also the moral backbone and justification for the fact that the United States often acts as a police state and takes the liberty to interfere globally while aiming to ensure that their own needs and interests are met.

This would also explain the penchant for celebrities and presidents who espouse such sweeping views, be it John Wayne or President Ronald Reagan (an ex-actor who played cowboys as well), both seen as prototypes of American stamina or even the current sitting president Donald Trump who uses rhetoric of harsh force and retaliation mirroring the language of gung-ho cowboys.

Yet the narrative of moral superiority has led to various dangerous and morally ambiguous interpretations, among them the existence and practice of slavery. This is due to a misconceived and downright racist view of African people, which allowed slavery not only to exist in the first place but to actually thrive and flourish in the United States; in fact, worse, slavery endured even when and long after other nations around the world had abolished its practice.

Although racism against black people is and has been prevalent all around the world, it was never as pronounced as in the United States. For example, Europeans were no less racist in thought and attitude, but this was not as systematic nor as vicious as in the land of the free, the land of the white settlers. Segregation in its systematic form did not exist as strictly nor as vehemently elsewhere, with the noted exception of the Apartheid system in South Africa.

A hatred that was so strong and even led to lynching and mob attacks against black people had always disturbed and puzzled me. How was it possible for these ordinary citizens to hate black people so sweepingly and fervently, not unlike the ways the Nazis hated the Jews? 

Yet the documentary I Am Not Your Negro based on the work of James Baldwin shed some light onto the issue. I realized that it was because of the toxic narrative of supposed moral righteousness and superiority that not only brought into being (and supposedly justified) the existence of slavery but also ensured its endurance and continuity. 

The underlying problem with such narratives is that they do not go away on their own. Despite slavery being officially outlawed, the idea of it continued to remain and fester in the minds of many Americans. How else could you justify the fact that it was illegal to have a mixed marriage until 1967, let alone, recent racist acts and attacks of the police force on members of the black community! 

None of this was based on economic benefits anymore. It is an often underplayed fact that the booming cotton industry brought wealth to the nation thanks to the free labor of the slaves. Even long after this, the narrative of slavery still lingered and was so entrenched in the fixed minds of many white Americans that black people continued to suffer throughout the years (and even up to modern days). Regardless of being officially and legally liberated from the yokes of slavery, people of color are unconsciously seen - and in some cases even tend to see themselves - as continuous victims of slavery.

Slavery does not only create and propagate deep trauma, it takes away and drains human rights and dignity from black people. According to the misguided and lingering narrative of slavery, black people are still seen as nothing but objects. And objects have no souls, no dignity and are easily used, abused and disposed of. These have been the deep wounds and scars that the practice of slavery has left on black people, which has been passed on from generation to generation.

Although I applaud the noble intentions of shows and movies like Roots and 12 Years a Slave to dig up the tremendous amount of pain and suffering that the practice of slavery has caused on people from the black race, I also find it troubling that these ideas would inadvertently be primed in the minds of many people; certain white people would continue their racist ideology based on these attitudes, while black people might unconsciously espouse the views of being victims and identify themselves with the troubled past of their ancestors. 

The second main narrative of the United States has to do with the Second Amendment to which many hold onto fervently and feverishly. This was regarded as a sign of freedom, particularly in the days of the settlers. Yet it was perhaps less a sign of freedom but an issue of practical use as the possession of firearms ensured that settlers could fend off enemies.

The enemies would include not only Indians but also fellow settlers. Even one’s property had to be fended against with acts of violence in those early days where chaos reigned in the towns, and law and order had yet to be firmly established. The roads were dangerous and for safe travel it was necessary to have guns and rifles to protect against robbers and bandits.

All this was seen as a necessity for life and not so much as a matter of freedom. Guns – and we are talking about rifles and revolvers of the past not modern automatic weapons - provided protection and could also be used as a form of rebellion against undermining and unjust government control. By ensuring that each citizen had their own gun, it made it difficult for totalitarian regimes to take over or for the British to take back their ex-colony, for instance.

Personally, I have never equated ownership of guns with freedom or safety, but I see it as a dangerous form of enslavement. In my view, life without any weapons would be the most ideal solution. Arming citizens against others would only create a more dangerous and volatile environment, the same way the nuclear race between nations will not make us any safer, but quite to the contrary.

Fostering a society that is based on empathy and that does not condone violence or aggression would be the best manner for ensuring safety. The symbols of violence must be eradicated to the best of our means and abilities, hence I strongly oppose educators to carry weapons because it would inadvertently or symbolically promote violence. 

We need to be receptive towards others and more importantly accept them and not isolate or segregate others. If anything, history brings us face to face with our mistakes, but now is the time to make amends with others and with one's own troubled and violent past.