The gun debate is loathsome. First, the debate becomes most heated in the aftermath of senseless gun violence. The same questions are raised on cable news, and the same guests are brought back.
Secondly, the so-called debate is not really a debate but rather a reaffirmation of entrenched points of view on either side. Nowhere is that discussion more evident than on social media.
Finally, politicians on both sides pander to those ingrained views. The effect of which is to discourage them from actually engaging in a meaningful dialogue that could potentially lead to more deliberative public policies.
In sum, the modern-day gun debate has become highly politicized and polarized. A polity that is inherently suspicious of each other’s motives blocks avenues toward a middle ground. Thus, time and time again, the debate is rehashed but never substantively evolves.
The gun debate is a symptom of the decline of social capital. In his book, “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam referred to social capital as “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.” Putnam attributed declining levels of civic engagement to the increasingly insular lives of Americans. Rather than join bowling leagues, Americans were more likely to bowl alone.
Shallow “friendships” on Facebook are poor substitutes for cultivating genuine social relationships, and the lack of engagement with others beyond our families spawns distrust. The irony is that, in a world that is “uber” connected, many in our society feel isolated and insecure.
The decline in social capital creates a society that is less likely to be understanding of opposing points of view. It is much easier to be recalcitrant with someone who you do not know very well. Our computers shield us from the social awkwardness of an uncivil exchange.
Lately, it seems like we have a tendency to emphasize our differences. Building social capital can help us recognize our similarities, and from there we can find ways to work collaboratively rather than combatively.
You can start by introducing yourself to your neighbors. Help to organize a community activity. Go to church. Or heck, join a bowling league.
A shot of social capital is the remedy that our country needs to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
Jonathan C. Rothermel is a professor of political science at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa.