po·lite

adjective

adjective: polite; comparative adjective: politer; superlative adjective: politest

  1. having or showing behavior that is respectful and considerate of other people.

            “they thought she was wrong but were too polite to say so”

            synonyms: well mannered, civil, courteous, mannerly, respectful, deferential, well behaved, well bred,

            gentlemanly, ladylike, genteel, gracious, urbane, tactful, diplomatic

            “a very polite girl”

  1. relating to people who regard themselves as more cultured and refined than others.

            “the picture outraged polite society”

            synonyms: civilized, refined, cultured, sophisticated, genteel, courtly

            “that sort of behavior is not tolerated in polite society”

A passage in the American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s 1948 novel, Beyond the Horizon, is invoked frequently in gun culture:

“Well, in the first place an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization.”

There is the Polite Society Tactical Conference and the Polite Society Podcast, to name just two examples.

Although I have generally been received graciously by those I am studying, I have also seen a good deal of impoliteness in American gun culture. Which makes me think more about Heinlein’s statement.

As I read him, Heinlein isn’t saying that an armed society makes OTHER people polite. It is not, “You had better be nice or else!” It is supposed to make OURSELVES polite. That is, “I had better be nice or else!” I had better use good manners or else I might have to back up my actions with my life.

However we read the passage, Heinlein’s conclusion is straightforward: “politeness is the sine qua non of civilization.” So, if an armed society is a polite society, then an armed society is an essential condition of civilization.

Given the lack of civility that exists just within gun culture, I am not yet convinced that this is so.

Shortly before I left for Minnesota last month to attend the 10th Annual Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference, I came across a post on a friend’s Facebook wall that included a picture of Rob Pincus standing in front of a target. It was an I.C.E. Training/Combat Focus Shooting branded target. At the top it read: “Balance of speed and precision.” The paper was riddled with bullet holes, many of them outside the target areas. In the foreground Pincus is holding a pistol and pointing down at the slide.

I was surprised by some of the comments on the post, which appeared to me to be personal and hostile. Anything but polite. Like the one that posted a meme of Pincus sitting with the controversial and not always well-respected James Yeager, calling them both douchebags. (Yeager who is not often thought of as civil and obviously embraces the hate: Instagram bio of mfceoyeager = “More people hate me than even know who you are.”)

Or the one that posted a graphic calling Pincus stupid.

A polite society doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees. But we can disagree without being disagreeable. In my university classes, especially when we are discussing controversial issues, I insist to the students that we engage, challenge, and criticize IDEAS but never PERSONS. Obviously this assumes discussion with people of good-will like peers, fellow members of a community, other citizens. It would not apply to bad people promoting bad ideas. But we move too quickly and too often from “I don’t like those ideas” to “I don’t like that person,” or from “bad ideas” to “bad person.”

There is a strong tendency in some quarters of American gun culture not toward the first meaning of polite in the dictionary definition above — civil, courteous, respectful, gracious, tactful, diplomatic — but toward the second:

relating to people who regard themselves as more cultured and refined than others.

This sort of polite society is the one that feels superior, that looks down upon and is dismissive of those who are less “cultured and refined.” It is a way of drawing boundaries between the cultured and refined in-group and the ignorant and unwashed out-group.

To take just one small example, I recently saw a Facebook post and comments in which the self-righteous polite society of gun culture emerged to ridicule and mock someone whose ideas they disagreed with. When I jumped in to express my surprise at the harsh responses, I was accused of being thin-skinned and trying to police what people could say and how. In-group/out-group dynamics at their worst. No doubt those in the in-group felt reaffirmed in their superiority. But to me it reflected gun culture as an impolite society.

I would hope we could become a polite society in the first sense of polite, but given the lack of civility, graciousness, tact, etc. I see not just in gun culture but all around me — from the politicians in the highest levels of our government to the keyboard commandos in the deepest basements of their homes – I am not optimistic.

[Additional Reflections on Pincus and the Impolite Society Coming Tomorrow]

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