Repost: How Gun Talk Is Misperceived

[Originally posted Sep 27, 2011] Firefly is a canceled science fiction television program with the most thoughtful writing and most devoted fan base since Star Trek. Whereas Star Trek articulated the values and aspirations of Kennedy liberalism, Firefly is unusual in articulating a distinctively libertarian vision. Part of how it does this is by modeling its imagined universe on the decades after the American Civil War, but a Civil War in which the Union’s only purpose was to extend and intensify its sway, and the South’s only purpose was to retain its self-government, a postbellum world seen through the eyes of the South. Naturally, slavery does not enter into it. Our hero, Captain Malcolm, finds no place in the new order and becomes a wanderer and a smuggler. He is presented as an honorable man trying to live a self-sufficient existence. Since he has no use for the State that would put him out of business or worse, he must make his own freedom and justice, and thus is always personally armed. Unlike scores of pop culture icons, he is never seen using force to take revenge, but only to protect himself or his crew. Part of his charm is that he is almost never truly angry. These are not unconnected facts if you think about it, and I hope you do.

Because his self-help approach to justice is unfamiliar to those who rely on the authorities for their protection, he can seem dangerous, even villainous, but this is a misunderstanding. At one point he addresses precisely the concern that another character raises about whether anyone is safe around him, by saying “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.”

Notice that he says “if” not “when.” “When” is revenge talk. In fact, if this were one of those scads of ressentiment-filled pop culture confections, this really should read “When I kill you, you’ll never see me coming. You could be enjoying a meal, playing with your children, and before you know what hit you, I will be there, and that moment will be your last.” Now Captain Malcolm is not “deconstructing” this sort of comment, he is simply rejecting it. But this must be explained because we don’t know him. He is explaining that he does not do this, this is not who he is. He does not prey on people and he does not hunt people down. He says “if” and the full meaning of the “if” is “if you force me to kill you by your actions.” What would those be? Endangering him or those under his protection, by their own acts of violence.

The rest of the quote explains something I discussed in my last post. There are two reasons why the opponent will be armed, one of which we just alluded to: the opponent will be armed because he is acting violently in a way that endangers others, but so violently that nothing short of lethal force will be able to protect them. In short, the aggressor will be armed. If he were not, he is either not acting violently, or his violence can be managed with less harsh action, action which, Malcolm implies, can preserve the aggressor’s life. Second, Malcolm is alluding to a norm he follows regarding a fair fight. Even if all justice is on one side and none on the other, an honorable man gives his opponent a fighting chance. An honorable man does not kill the disarmed or insensate. Which, by the way, is why an honorable man cannot accept the State’s most awful activity, the activity of execution.

The reason for such a code of honor is necessity. If there is no institution that will achieve justice between us, then we must internalize standards of justice in our dealings with each other, and when a man is just because this is who he is, independent of what the State would induce him to do and to be, that is what it is to be honorable.

It may come as no surprise to you that these are all ideas which are somewhat foreign to academia. So when an academic who is also a Firefly fan (like myself) posted a picture of Captain Malcolm, uttering the above quote, on his office door on September 12, at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, it should also not surprise us that campus police removed it, saying that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” Perhaps if it were a picture of Gandhi saying “never kill” in so many words, the point would have been more congenial? But here’s the thing: the quote is about not killing, it explains why, on the whole, an honorable man does not kill. And that means that if the hypothetical Gandhi poster were acceptable, but an actual poster that says, in so many words “never kill unless it is necessary to protect someone from violence” is not, then this is what constitutional lawyers call “viewpoint discrimination.” Wisconsin, and her universities, are state institutions, and thanks to the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Wisconsin cannot use force (a police officer) to engage in viewpoint discrimination. It cannot implicitly insist that Nathan Fillion’s sarcastic mug be replaced with Gandhi’s sanctimonious one. Now there are exceptions to the First Amendment, the “clear and present danger” doctrine and the “fighting words” doctrine: if we can assume that violence will immediately ensue because of this act of speech, it is not protected. The conditionality and temporal remoteness involved in the speech (“if I ever kill you, you will be awake”) make this an impossible argument. So the poster is protected. Whoah. Good Constitution.

Naturally, the officer of the State would prefer a world in which individuals are disarmed and do not even suggest that there are alternatives. This is the only explanation for why it is that when the professor in question put in the place of the Captain Malcolm poster a poster that read “Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets” this too was removed. Now reasonable people can differ about what the First Amendment’s outer boundaries are. But few fail to grasp the fact that the First Amendment’s core is the protection of political speech. It is hard to imagine someone so obtuse as to fail to grasp that the second poster’s comment expresses a political opinion, and an opinion which is critical of violence.

To understand this entire episode, one would need to be able to do three things: know something about the libertarian values expressed in the Captain Malcolm quote, understand the constitutional law of one’s own nation, and read language for meaning. And yet all of these things were in short supply precisely at a government-sponsored institution of higher learning. I’m thinkin’ someone weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling.

[hat tip Foundation for Individual Rights in Education]

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