Adapted from Braving the Wilderness (2017) | 10-minute read
I knew exactly what I wanted for my fourteenth birthday. No more Bobbie Brooks sweaters, pet rocks, Leif Garrett posters, or toe socks. I was ready for some serious teenage gifts. My list included my own set of Clairol hot rollers (the ones with the plastic cover that snapped into a travel handle), Some Girls by the Rolling Stones (I had lent mine to a friend and her older brother sold it for beer), a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, and a pair of Candie’s shoes (those rockin’ slide–on high heels that all the cool girls were wearing).
I got the hot rollers, a pair of Lee jeans, and the replacement Rolling Stones album. My parents suggested that I get a job if I wanted a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt or Jordache jeans, and that I find myself some new parents if I wanted to wear Candie’s before I turned twenty. Before I retreated to my room to blast “Beast of Burden,” my parents surprised me with another gift. I could tell by the box it wasn’t the Candie’s, but my dad’s excitement was contagious so I eagerly ripped into my gift.
Battery-operated socks. Big woolly gray battery-operated socks. I must have looked confused because my dad said, “C’mon, sis! For the deer blind! So your feet don’t get cold anymore.”
I felt bad. I knew instantly that I’d never need those socks, but I didn’t know how to break the news to my dad. I was done hunting. In all of our trips, I had never shot a deer. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I could hold my own in a dove or quail hunt, but I wasn’t ever going to shoot a deer. So, for me, hunting trips were just long days in freezing blinds and cold nights in sleeping bags with all of my cousins.
I never went again and I never used my socks, but today I realize how much hunting was a part of my life growing up. Even after I’d stopped going, I still felt the communal excitement and anticipation in our house when the various seasons would open. Those dates were part of the rhythm of our family, like birthdays or holidays. And there were always family and friends visiting, and feasts of amazing food.
My dad was very serious about all things hunting. You could only shoot what was covered by your hunting license, and you absolutely could not shoot anything you didn’t plan to eat. These were nonnegotiable rules in my house, essentially etched into stone tablets. He had no patience for trophy hunting or the like.
In turn, we were like the Bubba Gumps of venison – venison steak, venison sausage, venison stew, venison jerky, venison burgers. There was nothing better than when the hunters came back from the hunting lease and twenty or thirty people would pack into our house or my aunt’s house to process deer meat, make tamales, tell stories, and laugh. My dad is the youngest of six, and I have twenty-four first cousins. There were a lot of mouths to feed. Hunting and fishing were as practical and necessary as they were fun for most of us.
We all had guns. We got BB guns when we were in second or third grade and hunting rifles by middle school, when most of us started hunting. Gun safety was no joke. In fact, we weren’t allowed to shoot a gun that we couldn’t take apart, clean, and put back together.
When you grow up hunting you have a very different understanding about the reality of guns. It’s not a video game—you know, and have felt, exactly what they are capable of doing. For my dad and the people we hunted with, the sentiment around automatic weapons and the big guns that people treat like toys today was simple: “You want to shoot those kinds of guns? Great! Enlist and serve.”
Now that I’m a parent, I can look back and see that what was equally powerful was the combination of our family rules concerning hunting and guns, and that we weren’t allowed to watch any violence on TV. I couldn’t see a PG movie until I was fifteen years old. The idea of romanticizing violence was out of the question. We didn’t have violent video games back then, but I can only imagine how my dad would have felt about them.
I loved and was proud of this part of my family story. And, like most kids, I assumed that everyone who was raised in a hunting and gun culture was raised with the same rules. But as I got a little older, I realized that wasn’t true. As laws governing gun ownership became more and more political and polarized, I became more skeptical of the gun lobby. I watched the NRA go from being an organization that I associated with safety programs, merit badges, and charity skeet tournaments to something I didn’t recognize. Why were they positioning themselves as the people who represented families like ours while not putting any limits or parameters around responsible gun ownership?
Despite my beliefs, most of my family members started supporting the gun lobby while many of my friends and colleagues began vilifying all gun ownership. I quickly realized that I’d have no ideological home or community on this issue. I’d exist in that lonely space between all guns and no guns – a space that felt defined by criticism and judgment.
Late last year, I was talking to a group of people at an event and I mentioned that my father and I were looking forward to teaching my son how to shoot skeet. One woman looked horrified and said, “I’m very surprised to hear that you’re a gun lover. You don’t strike me as the NRA type.” If you’re reading her comment as aggressive and pointed, then I’ve communicated it accurately. There was contempt and disgust on her face.
I replied, “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘gun lover’ or ‘the NRA type.’” She sat straight up in her chair. “If you’re teaching your child how to shoot a gun, then I’m assuming that you support gun ownership and the NRA.”
There it was. The false dichotomy.
If I support gun ownership then I support the National Rifle Association. No way. I’m not buying it. This is quintessential bullshit.
The Proliferation of Bullshit
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands.
The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus, Yale University
(From his book, On Bullshit)
One of the biggest sources of bullshit today is the proliferation of “If you’re this then you’re automatically that” and “You’re either with us or you’re against us” politics. These are emotional lines that we hear invoked by everyone from elected officials and lobbyists to movie heroes and villains on a regular basis. They’re effective political moves; however, 95 percent of the time it’s an emotional and passionate rendering of bullshit.
Normally, we used forced choice and false dichotomies during times of significant emotional stress. Our intentions may not be to manipulate, but to force the point that we’re in a situation where neutrality is dangerous. I actually agree with this point. One of my live-by quotes is from Elie Wiesel. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
The problem is that these emotional pleas are often not based in facts, and they prey on our fears of not belonging or being seen as wrong or part of the problem. We need to question how the sides are defined. Are these really the only options? Is this the accurate framing for this debate or is this bullshit?
If alternatives exist outside of these forced choices (and they almost always do), then the statements are factually wrong. It’s turning an emotion-driven approach into weaponized belonging. And it always benefits the person throwing down the gauntlet and brandishing those forced, false choices.
The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our ideological bunkers. It feels easier and safer to pick a side. The argument is set up in a way that there’s only one real option. If we stay quiet we’re automatically demonized as “the other.”
The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate. But make no mistake; this is opting for the wilderness. Why? Because the argument is set up to silence dissent and draw lines in the sand that squelch debate, discussion, and questions—the very processes that we know lead to effective problem solving.
Our silence, however, comes at a very high individual and collective cost. Individually, we pay with our integrity. Collectively, we pay with divisiveness, and even worse, we bypass effective problem solving. Answers that have the force of emotion behind them but are not based in fact rarely provide strategic and effective solutions to nuanced problems.
We normally don’t set up false dilemmas because we’re intentionally bullshitting; we often rely on this device when we’re working from a place of fear, acute emotion, and lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, fear, acute emotion, and lack of knowledge also provide the perfect set-up for uncivil behavior. This is why the bullshit/incivility cycle can become endless.
It’s also easier to stay civil when we’re combating lying than it is when we’re speaking truth to bullshit. When we’re bullshitting, we aren’t interested in the truth as a shared starting point. This makes arguing slippery, and it makes us more susceptible to mirroring the BS behavior, which is: The truth doesn’t matter, what I think matters.
It’s helpful to keep in mind Alberto Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle or what’s sometimes known as Brandolini’s law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
So, back to the stranger at the event who has told me that if I’m teaching my son to shoot skeet, I must support the NRA. Truth or bullshit?
Of all of the lobbying organizations I’ve studied over the past twenty years, not one of them has done a better job using fear and false dichotomies than the NRA. Today’s NRA rhetoric employs the ominous they and forces “us versus them” language over and over. Allow anyone to buy any type of gun and ammunition, when and wherever they want, or they will break down your door, take away your guns, crush your freedom, kill everyone you love, and put an end to the American way. They are after us. They are coming. That’s the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve heard since someone told me, “If you own a gun—any gun—you might as well be the one pulling the trigger in all of these terrible mass shootings.” No and no.
I took a deep “don’t lose your shit” breath, smiled, and said, “You’re one for two on your assumptions. I do support responsible gun ownership. I do not in any way support the NRA just because I support responsible gun ownership.”
She looked mad and confused. “But with all the school shootings—I don’t understand why you don’t support gun control.”
“I absolutely do support commonsense gun laws. I believe in rigorous background checks and waiting periods. I don’t believe that it should be legal to sell automatic weapons, large magazines, or armor–piercing bullets. I don’t believe in campus carry. I . . .”
She was so angry at this point. She spit out, “You either support guns or you don’t.”
In that moment I said the thing that I’ve felt my entire life but was either too afraid to say or didn’t have the words. I mustered up the most empathy I could and said, “I know that this is a hard and heartbreaking issue, but I don’t think you’re hearing me. I’m not going to participate in a debate where this issue is reduced to You either support guns or you don’t. It’s too important. If you want to have a longer conversation about it, I’m happy to do that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the same issues piss us off and scare us.”
She excused herself and stormed away. She probably hates me. The small group of people who were standing with us may hate me. You may hate me. Who knows? It’s not always the happy ending from some movie, but I’ll take it if it’s real and promotes a sincere conversation about gun reform.
I know that I’m not alone. I know that there are millions of us who believe in common sense gun laws and have no interest in vilifying respectful, responsible gun owners. I also know that there are millions of us who find the NRA and the politicians who take millions of dollars from them and, in turn, support laws that endanger all of us morally reprehensible.
The only way to successfully bring about gun reform is if a critical mass of us are willing to have honest, tough, civil conversations outside of our ideological bunkers. Gun reform will not happen unless the silent majority of gun owners who passionately disagree with the NRA’s divisive rhetoric and complete lack of respect for responsible gun culture speak out and take political and economic action.
When we engage in the “us versus them” argument, we lose. The only person who wins is the person who owns the framing of the argument.
Own your opinion. Fight for what you believe in.
And don’t let others frame your beliefs.
Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil. Take action.
Resources to take action:
Politicians and the NRA: