A Civil Society

I think I was 14 when I read Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon. One of the world-building details was that in this society many people went armed (almost all of them men, but that’s another essay) and ready to duel at a moment’s notice.* Those who didn’t wore a “peace brassard,” a signifier that they were not armed; they suffered a lack of status thereby. The argument was that an armed society is a civil society, because if everyone has a gun, everyone is going to be civil to each other, right? My recollection is that this leads to a good deal of affronted bristling and dueling in the same tone as the duels of the 17th and 18th century (“My seconds will call upon you, sirrah!.”)

I have recently heard this “armed society is civil society” argument applied to current American society, and in the words of a 1920s New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and to hell with it.”

This is the portion of the post where I say that I’m not anti-gun, that I grew up with rifles, and while I never wanted to go hunting, I was happy to eat the venison my father brought home on the one occasion he hit a deer. All this is true. We had three or four rifles (from the rickety old .22 to a couple of shotguns) and my brother and I were taught to use them–and to respect the rules for their use. The rifles were part of a larger “know how to do things” belief both my parents had–it’s why I know how to lay an oak floor, and how to spackle and prep a sheetrock wall for painting (not well, mind you–I didn’t have that much patience). I can even recognize the allure of shooting some massively powerful gun just… to see what it does. To own that power for a minute. I also understand the attraction of random destruction, dropping a watermelon from a third floor window or blowing up a junker car with a tank shell. I’m as weird as the next guy.

So: an armed society is a civil society. The idea seems to me to break down almost at once: I feel like many of the people who go armed do so as a statement, and the statement that I would take away is “Go ahead, offend me, insult me, cross me. I’ll blow your head off.” Which is not a basis for civil conversation. Then there’s the notion that a person who does not go armed is an inferior: he doesn’t have the balls (or what have you) to risk being shot at.

The nested assumptions in the above attitudes are 1) carrying a gun is going to make other people treat you with respect; 2) when push comes to shove, your aim will be better than the other guy’s; 3) you will have no compunction in killing another person over a a slight; and 4) that it is more cowardly not to shoot than to shoot.

In my personal universe every single one of these assumptions is deeply flawed. 1) Two bozos with an attitude and a gun are unlikely to treat each other with respect, armed or no. 2) Can you be certain, going into a fight with a stranger, that he isn’t an Olympic pistol champion? 3) Faced with another human in your gun sight, do you really want to carry the burden of that human’s eradication for the rest of your life over a slight? And 4) you think it doesn’t take courage not to fight? Giving up the right to swagger with a weapon on your hip when those around you are swaggering and calling you a coward takes some courage.

I was mugged once, and, as it happened, I had a knife on my person, which I decided not to introduce into the tussle as much because I didn’t want to hurt someone as because I didn’t want this stronger person to take the knife away and use it against me.

Your opinion on all this may vary. That’s cool. Let’s just not duel about it; I don’t see the point. And if we must duel, let’s use words, or baguettes, or at the wildest extreme, rapiers. Fighting with a sword gets you tired and makes you consider what you’re doing in a way that pulling a trigger simply doesn’t.

 

* A lot of Heinlein’s work reads as satire, and Horizon can certainly fall into that category. And yet, as with Stranger in a Strange Land or I Will Fear No Evil, there are people out there who consider them a blueprint for living.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

Comments

A Civil Society — 8 Comments

  1. Agreed on all points. Especially the bit about people taking Heinlein much too seriously. Those who truly believe “an armed society is a civil society” never take into consideration the warped personality, the person who believes the universe owes them everything, the bully, or just plain in need of serious anger management counseling. These people never see consequences, only their own self gratification of pulling a trigger, the bigger the weapon the better.

  2. Sigh, still problems with loading the illos over on FB. Apologies! I’ll try to fix it after Howard’s had his lunch.

    • VJ makes Howard’s lunch, but sometimes, most times, I have to coax him to eat it.

  3. A part of our local fandom used to call themselves The Heinleinjugend. They were proud of it, too.

    Old SF is fun. The spaceship nimbly skipping between star systems carries a huge navigation computer and a pile of paper books while its brave captain, invariably male, smokes on board.

  4. Definitely spinach. Though it suddenly makes me want to write a story in which the people wearing “peace brassards” are unarmed persons who go around keeping the peace. Or else to be a person in that society who doesn’t carry a gun but who doesn’t wear the signifying device either, on account of I don’t need no stinkin’ gun.

    Also, swords are much more fun.

    Actually, I’d like to learn to shoot a gun well for the same reason that I’d like to spend some time on archery: I like aiming things at targets. And let me just sound like a broken record here and repeat my ongoing advice to those who think guns are a good self defense choice: Learn how to use one really well — including both how to shoot and how to use it safely and keep it away from kids and drunks and so forth — if you plan to rely on it.

    • Oops, meant that as a comment on the essay, though I’ve no objection to the comment above it!