This was published first on my newsletter, Understanding the Public Sphere. Please consider subscribing.
I live in Denver, Colorado, and work on my PhD in Boulder. This past week, a deranged man issued a violent manifesto and holed up in a building near my campus and threatened a mass shooting, disrupting class for thousands of students of all ages, from elementary to the graduate level (including me).
Last year, a deranged tattoo artist killed 5 people in a Denver suburb, some of them former business associates, by shooting them. A drive-by shooting at a public park sent five teens to the hospital. A deranged man killed 10 people by shooting at them as they bought groceries at a Boulder-area grocery store. In their social media, the murderers bathed in the rhetoric of violence.
In 2019, we had a mass shooting at a STEM high school in a wealthy suburb. 2015, we had a shooting at a Planned Parenthood and a gun rampage in Colorado Springs. 2012, the infamous mass shooting in Aurora during a Batman movie killed 12. In 2007, someone shot up a bunch of churches. The year before, an old man took a bunch of high school students hostage with a gun and sexually assaulted several before killing them. And Columbine is practically a household name.
Violence in America exists everywhere, so common to most they barely notice it. In 2017, I was at the Fort Lauderdale airport, having just left my home in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and hoping to visit family on the mainland. While we were in baggage claim, a young man picked up the gun he had checked into his baggage and murdered five people and wounded more. We grabbed our bags and joined a throng of people who rushed outside, listening to hushed cries as people tried to not draw the murderer in our direction. It was upsetting, to put it gently, but it still somehow feels very abstract. We heard a commotion, some bangs, we ran, and we were fine. Life reverted to “normal” with unsettling speed.
It is easy to look at the aggregate statistics for gun violence in America and conclude that nothing is really wrong, since these types of mass slaughters at seemingly random places make up a tiny fraction of the number who die in gun accidents, “killings of passion,” or by suicide. But that is only because America is positively addicted to violence and to the violence uniquely enabled by guns in particular. It’s like the air we breathe: we’d really only notice it if it were to suddenly vanish.
Violence Shuts Down Civil Society
I sometimes lose sight of the fact that most of the global north and swaths of the middle income countries do not have routine experiences of hyperviolence the way we Americans do. When my friends or colleagues who are from elsewhere experience American gun violence, it is harrowing. When they haven’t visited in a while, they are nervous about the risk of being caught in a random act of mass murder. And the casualness with which so many people — including myself — respond is unnerving to them. How can we be so low-key about preventable murder?
I used to ask these same questions. It is unquestionable that America’s gun culture kills people, that guns make everyone less safe, and that proliferating small arms into the population has led to the intuitive outcome of lots and lots of gun deaths every year, of which mass shooting deaths are only a small number. The one common trait common to all acts of gun violence is the presence of guns, and we have hundreds of millions of them flowing through our society beyond any form of reasonable, minimal regulation.
But America’s addiction to guns is only one part of it. Yes, removing or reducing them will reduce the number of dead, but it won’t address the violent impulses that lie behind such killings. In many ways, the U.S. defines itself through its violence, and often struggles to differentiate between “good” violence (fighting a just war) and “bad” violence (fighting an unjust war). From the foundations of slavery to the brutality of Jim Crow, from repeated mass murder of queer people to an ongoing tide of domestic abuse against women, violence has suffused every corner of our society. Even our politics.
Lost in the drama of yet another mass shooter this past week was the ongoing saga of the National Butterfly Center on the Texas border. When President Trump decided to build a wall along the border against the wishes of local Congressional representatives, conservationists, indigenous communities, activists angry at the brazenly corrupt contracting process, and most people who aren’t frothing racist xenophobes, the NBC was the target of nasty social media commentary for refusing to acquiesce to the wall’s disruption to butterfly habitats.
Just to repeat: this is about butterflies, but also not exclusively. You see, the National Butterfly Center exists along the Rio Grande River, where butterflies congregate for easy viewing, which means it exists along an area those same frothing racist xenophobes think is the site for non-white people to dilute the racial purity of white Americans
I really wish that was an exaggeration, but it’s not. In arguably the stupidest story about violent racism I’ve seen in months, a ragtag bunch of far rightwing foot soldiers, including former White House advisor Steve Bannon, targeted the butterfly center because they think it is secretly smuggling migrants across the river, using the butterfly thing as a cover. And of course, they are using the usual weird Q rhetoric about abducted children, cannibalism, and drug harvesting. As such, they have mobilized a mob to flood the center with violent threats, forcing its indefinite closure.
Law enforcement, as is common when far right militants use violence to shut down their targets, is nowhere to be found so far (a federal law enforcement agency will probably be forced to intervene at some point, but the local police are absent). It is a sadly typical pattern.
A Public Sphere That Isn’t
I decided to call this newsletter “Understanding the Public Sphere” because I worry our own public sphere is being systematically destroyed. Just as civil rights leaders rightly worry about the brief life of America’s multiracial democracy in the face of systematic attacks from militants, one of our major political parties, and the Supreme Court, I see even a vestigial public sphere in America as increasingly under threat.
A public sphere is important for a functioning society in two ways: it is a space where citizens can engage in deliberation to settle issues of public concern, and it can “domesticate” the hostility of political factions into debate, rather than open conflict. These are highly idealized conceptions of the public sphere, and they really don’t work at all ever, but they can offer a model to strive for, and highlight how we are falling badly short here.
There has never been a true public sphere in the US. When people wax nostalgically about a previous time of “consensus” they’re really thinking of a white public sphere, and especially a white male public sphere. As an example, no hospital in Denver employed a single black doctor. They did not explicitly restrict employment based on race, but they required a doctor to be a member of the Colorado Medical Society. CMS had a caucasians-only clause in their membership documents into the 1950s. The hoops black doctors had to jump through were so onerous that Colorado’s first black woman doctor, Justina Ford, was Denver’s only black female doctor until her death in 1952. It was a perfect example of what Moya Bailey called misogynoir, a specific type of prejudice directed against black women (it is also an important concept in intersectionality).
The public sphere in America actively excluded people into the 2010s. Despite being with my husband for years beforehand, I was not allowed to marry him until the Obergefell decision in 2015. Minoritized people (whether based on race, gender expression, sexuality, or ethnic origin) are still excluded from full participation in the public, despite halting progress to open it in pieces, here and there.
The January 6th Insurrection last year was a violent whitelash against an important marker of this decline of the public, but it isn’t an isolated incident. The 2010s were a decade where many minoritized groups demanded, and sometimes won, equal access to the public sphere in the US, and faced a concurrent rise in violent rhetoric and behavior. David Niewart documented this change in The Eliminationists, and argued that such a backlash to equal participation was anathema to a functioning democracy.
But a backlash can be part of normal democratic process, if it is limited to non-violent speech. When speech becomes nfused with violent rhetoric, and spills over into violent action, it also becomes anti-democratic. As Sarah Sorial and Catriona MacKenzie noted a decade ago:
“Forms of speech that express disagreement in violent or hostile ways may impede the open dialogue and critical engagement necessary for truth to emerge, and may have adverse consequences for the viability of the public sphere, insofar as they may undermine the normative stability of democratic values and institutions.”
This is why gun violence is not just a side note to how our society is evolving in the 2020s. If people face random, mass murder when they’re buying food or attending school, then there is no functioning civil society — you cannot have a public sphere if the cost of participation is random, yet targeted violence.
Proliferating guns shut down public spaces, but so does violent speech. And many of these mass shootings are accompanied by the murderer engaged in vociferous amounts of violent speech beforehand. Obviously not everyone who uses violence in their rhetoric will commit violence, but when it becomes normalized — when we barely shrug at armed militias storming a state capital while threatening to abduct politicians — we are allowing entire segments of the public sphere to be closed off. Guns and civil society are opposites: I cannot speak my mind freely if I have to worry you might become enraged and shoot me, instead of speaking your mind freely back.
The ideology of American political discourse does not like to talk about such things. The terminal both-sidesism of the mainstream press presents violent speech and non-violent speech as equally legitimate sides of a political dispute, even though it is a contradiction in terms. Violence by right wing actors is routinely downplayed or even encouraged by law enforcement, while left wing violence is exaggerated despite being isolated, rare, and marginal to liberal politics.
Is it any surprise that the U.S. remains awash in guns, freely available to the nearest angry man looking to settle some bruised ego, when we not only tolerate but embrace violence in so many other sectors of our society? Our political elites demonstrate no appetite for addressing the growth of violence as a mainstream feature of modern conservatism (to say nothing of election-rigging, voter suppression, book banning, and so on). Civil society cannot exist in a meaningful sense — a genuinely public sphere cannot coalesce — when so much of it is grounded in violence.
The mass shootings we face so often are exhausting, demoralizing, and traumatizing. The political shielding of proliferated guns, enforced by a minority in the Senate, gives structure and form to how violence is accepted in our society. Until we are willing to address that — until we will take some guns away and restrict their sale — we will not make meaningful progress toward a public sphere, even if we manage to somehow reduce the volume and severity of violence in our discourse and culture.
I hope you’ll join me in this newsletter as we explore it, and hopefully find some way to turn the tide.