The fears of fearless white men

From global warming to gun safety, status loss trumps all else in the ‘white male effect’.

The National Rifle Association criticised Vice President Joe Biden, who is tasked with responding to gun violence [AFP]

As US Vice President Joe Biden was casting a wide net, talking to a broad range of stakeholders, and hearing a full spectrum of suggestions about how to respond to America’s epidemic of gun violence, the NRA once again set itself starkly apart by mischaracterising the broad diversity of ideas entertained as antithetical to Sarah Palin’s “real Americans”, whining angrily that “this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners – honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans”.

It’s a narrative strategy the gunowners has long relied on, but it’s deeply deceptive at best, in at least two important ways. First – and most obviously – it’s deceptive because most of what’s being proposed falls into the category of ideas that I discussed previously here, which are supported by a majority of gun-owners – ideas that most gunowners themselves do not see as restricting them in any meaningful sense. They are proud to act responsibly – passing background checks when buying guns, for example – and would like to see everyone else act responsibly as well. But the second deeper deception concerns who the real victims are – not the 20 dead children in Newtown and the brave women who died protecting them, but rather, the “honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans” who the NRA rather dubiously claims as its own – and who implicitly stand diametrically opposed to the 47 percent of “takers” that Mitt Romney so casually wrote off in his failed presidential bid.

This deeper deception is all the more potent because, although literally false, it expresses a symbolic truth – those the NRA speaks for really do feel like victims, and there are even valid reasons why they feel that way (this sense of heroic victimhood was echoed by other extremist voices which I’ll touch on below, such as Matt Drudge comparing Obama to Hitler, Ted Nugent comparing gun-owners to Rosa Parks, and Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day, invoking Martin Luther King as a would-be “gun rights” advocate). But the solutions that the NRA offers them are no solutions at all – which, by the way, may help explain why the NRA’s extremist positions have such limited support among gun-owners generally.

 Gun lobbying group says more guns are the answer

Symbolic truth

What is that symbolic truth? An excellent place to begin understanding it is a guest post by Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan at the highly respected Balkinisation blog in 2005, with the provocative title, “What Fearless White Men Are Afraid Of“. As Kahan explains, white men in general are “less concerned with all manner of risk (global warming, gun accidents, various medical procedures, etc.) than are women and minorities”, a phenomena known as the “white male effect”, which “has long puzzled scholars of risk perception”. 

It’s not that researchers had no idea what was going on. For example, a 1994 paper, “Gender, Race, and Perceptions of Environmental Health Risks”, speculated:

Perhaps white males see less risk in the world because they create, manage, control, and benefit from so much of it. Perhaps women and non-white men see the world as more dangerous because in many ways they are more vulnerable, because they benefit less from many of its technologies and institutions, and because they have less power and control. 

But Kahan did more than speculate. He introduced the perspective of “cultural cognition” which suggests that “the reason white males are less fearful of various risks is that they are more afraid of something else: namely, the loss of status they experience when activities symbolic of their cultural worldviews are stigmatised as socially undesirable.” The perceived stigmatisation of guns as undesirable that the NRA obsesses over fits right into the heart of what Kahan is talking about.

Kahan’s analysis was laid out more fully in a 2007 paper he co-authored, “Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception“. White males are hardly unique, according to the theory of cultural cognition, which Kahan and others have continued to develop and study at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, and which was laid out more fully in a 2008 paper, “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk“, which I discussed in a series of posts at Open Left in 2010 [here, here and here]. Everyone sees the world through the prism of their own social identity and values, Kahan and other researchers agree. But the evidence shows that white males with certain reinforcing values clearly are cultural outliers in significant ways who at least initially give the appearance of being less fearful of risks.

The reinforcing values I just mentioned initially derived from the Cultural Theory of Risk, by anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in their 1982 book, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Douglas even earlier had posited that cultural groups and their outlooks could be mapped along two dimensions – “group” (individualism vs solidarity) and “grid” (hierarchy vs egalitarianism). White males scoring high on individualism and hierarchy are the outliers I spoke of.

Guns and white men

Kahan and his colleagues have done a lot of work over the past few years – far too much to summarise here. Instead, I’ll just link to a relatively recent blog post last October, discussing two recent research papers relating to the white male effect, in which Kahan also offered some fresh analysis of previously collected data. Kahan presented one chart showing “no meaningful gender or race variance in climate change risk perceptions to speak of”, except for hierarchical individualistic white males. A second showed virtually the same thing with regard to “the risk that high tax rates for businesses poses to human health, safety, or prosperity”.

Of course it’s no surprise that the same pattern shows up with respect to guns, as Kahan explained in the 2007 paper:

In the United States, guns enable largely hierarchical roles such as father, protector, and provider, and symbolise hierarchical virtues such as honour and courage. Within hierarchical ways of life, moreover, these are roles and virtues distinctive of men, not women, who again occupy roles that don’t feature gun use. These roles and virtues are also largely associated with being a white male, in large part because of the historical association of guns with maintenance of racial hierarchy in the South. On this account, then, we should expect white hierarchical males to be much more invested in gun possession, and thus to be impelled much more forcefully by identity-protective cognition to resist the claim that guns are dangerous and that gun ownership should be restricted. And this is again exactly what we did find in our national study.  

When it comes to global warming and tax rates, the empirical evidence is quite clear, and white male risk assessment is clearly mistaken. But things are much more murky when it comes to gun control, as described in a 2004 National Research Council study, and part of the problem is the NRA’s largely successful efforts to stifle gun injury research. Still, some big-picture facts are clear: the US is an international outlier in terms of gun violence among advanced industrial nations (see here, here and here), and the South is a regional outlier within the US. Along these lines, Kahan also recently noted:

The first-rate scholars Nisbett & Cohen wrote a great book, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, that presented empirical evidence that the “no retreat” standard, along with other manifestations of cultural honour norms, were linked to high homicide rates in the South way back in 1996.

Kahan made this observation in the course of questioning a recent working paper claiming to show increased homicides in states that passed so-called “stand your ground” laws. Kahan’s point was that in many such states the statutes did not actually change existing legal doctrines.

 US vice president aims big on gun lobby

Here we encounter a vexing central truth: we have a relative paucity of data about relatively small-scale measures, compared to the massive background impact of culture.  And changing culture is a very heavy lift indeed, because it’s precisely America’s gun culture that is the problem, and that is heavily implicated in hierarchical, individualistic white male identity. They may no longer represent a democratic majority in America today—but that’s all the more reason for them to fight tooth and nail to retain their cultural power.

Appropriating symbols of black struggle

This brings us back to the topic of the other extremist voices along with the NRA that I promised to say more about above. One precipitating factor was Joe Biden’s casual reference to possible executive orders which turned out to be quite limited in scope, as executive orders almost always are. The knee-jerk, over-the-top cartoon response was supplied by the CEO of a firearms and tactical training company who threatened to start shooting people, but the well-rehearsed response came from Matt Drudge comparing Obama to Hitler, and Ted Nugent comparing gun-owners to Rosa Parks. As Alex Seitz-Wald reported for Salon, the Hitler comparisons are quite popular on the gun-toting right, but are utterly unfounded, since “the Weimar Republic, the German government that immediately preceded Hitler’s, actually had tougher gun laws than the Nazi regime”. 

In a similar vein to Nugent, Larry Ward (chairman of Gun Appreciation Day) said on CNN, “I believe that gun appreciation day honours the legacy of Dr King,” adding, “I think Martin Luther King would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.” So many lies packed into such a brief statement, it makes your head spin.

Of course, if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms as Ward suggests, then they wouldn’t have been slaves in the first place, now would they? Indeed, it was precisely the Western powers’ possession of gun technology – from handguns to cannons – which gave the West the decisive edge in gaining world power in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and thus subjugating, expelling and enslaving the people of other races all across the globe. Slavery, of course, is an ancient institution, but the explosion of slavery with the modern African slave trade would simply not have been conceivable without the Western near-monopoly on gun technology. Hence, the actual lesson of history is exactly the opposite of what Ward claims: guns were an instrument of enslavement, not liberty.

As for dragging Martin Luther King into the discussion, King not only was America’s most famous, influential and successful non-violent activist, he famously directly rebuked the sort of thinking that Ward was pushing, when he said, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or nonexistence.” And, finally, the reason King is not alive today to laugh Ward off the stage and into oblivion is that he was assassinated with a gun.

Seriously, if Ward and Nugent and the rest of the NRA crowd want to try appropriating symbols of black struggle, they should stick to gun-toters like H Rap Brown and the Black Panther Party – who were, incidentally, the primary target of the landmark gun-control law, signed by conservative icon then-California governor Ronald Reagan.

Of course, citing the Panthers and H Rap Brown is the last thing the gun crowd is about to do. What they’re up to by trying to claim Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King on their side is exactly the same thing as they’ve already done by rewriting history to mis-represent the Second Amendment as being about individual gun ownership – thereby enlisting the Founding Fathers on their side, something that conservative former Chief Justice Warren Burger called “one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word ‘fraud’ – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime”.

What’s going on here is quite simple: As genuine white male power declines, the hierarchical individualist male response is to seek to hold onto it – using “any means necessary”, as Malcolm X would say… including refashioning its historical political enemies into imaginary playful puppet friends. 

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001 he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA.  He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.