Friday, 5 April 2013

Newtown, Gun Control, and the Importance of Kairos

On the 28th of March, President Obama assembled parents of the Newtown victims, along with ministers and policemen, to the East Room of the White House and made a passionate plea to the American people, trying to evoke the emotions the nation felt back in December after the Newtown shootings. Among other things, he said, "The notion that two months or three months after something as horrific as what happened in Newtown happens, and we've moved on to other things -- that's not who we are. Less than 100 days ago that happened, and the entire country pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different. Shame on us if we've forgotten."

"Don't get squishy because time has passed," he said.

But something has changed. Support for stricter gun control laws has dropped from 57% right after the shooting to 47% nationwide and from 78% to 66% among Democrats. The reply from many gun control advocates to the President's speech was, "Too little, too late."
Why does timing make a difference? Irrespective of which side you are on in the debate, this is a situation which shows the importance of a rhetorical principle called kairos.

The ancient Greeks had two main concepts of time: Kronos and Kairos. Kronos is the flow of time from one point to another, as you may recognize in words like "chronology." Kairos, on the other hand is "a concept based on the significance of the moment, the 'opportune moment' or proper time to act" (Hatch 39). It recognizes that in the midst of the flow of time there are decisive moments which have the potential to change the course of history, on a local or global level, such as your wedding day or the battle of Waterloo. "In archery, it (kairos) refers to an opening, or 'opportunity.' . . . Successful passage of a kairos requires . . . that the archer's arrow be fired not only accurately but with enough power for it to penetrate" (Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel 6).

Of course, this is not an unfamiliar concept. We often talk about it as being able to "strike while the iron is hot" or "seize the moment." Children often know intuitively that the right time to ask their parents for something is when they are in a particularly good mood. What we often don't recognize however, is that there is a life-cycle for every rhetorical situation, and there is a little opening of time and place where a little rhetorical action can make all the difference. Professor Hatch writes, "To argue effectively, you need to know how to craft a suitable response to the right people under the right circumstances. Knowing how to do this requires that you know something about how rhetorical situations change over time. Such situations are not static; they evolve" (46). A rhetorical situation goes through the stages of origin, maturity, deterioration, and disintegration.

At the point of origin, most people don't know about the issue, or have not made up their minds about it yet. During this stage people look for information to understand the issue. This builds up until the point of maturity. This is where most of the decision makers are engaged, they know what is going on and what is in the balance, they are getting ready to make a decision. This is usually kairos, the opportune moment to strike, the opening the archer has been waiting for, a crack in the armor. A little action, a well-crafted argument at this point can make all the difference. After this, the rhetorical situation enters the stage of deterioration, although the decision may not have been made yet, opinions have congealed, the battle-lines have been drawn, and it is very hard to make the decision makers change their minds. As far as they are concerned, they are now adequately informed to make their decision. The final stage is disintegration. At this point, the process of change has become practically irreversible. Decisions have been made and put into action, and most people have moved on to other issues.

Newtown was such a rhetorical moment with the opportunity for change, or at least it was made to be such a moment by the coverage it received, the way it was presented, and the many public statements which were made in connection to it calling for greater restriction of access to firearms. Although gun control has been a hot topic for decades, the shootings at Newtown shook the nation and made many people reconsider their opinions on gun control. It presented the origin of a new situation, and nobody knew quite how it would be resolved. Searches on terms relevant to the debate skyrocketed, old studies and arguments were brought out from the archives, people were hungry for information, they were open to be persuaded. All news channels ran stories on gun control, gun sales, and all shootings after Newtown received more media attention than they would have received before.

It is hard to say when this situation came to maturity, but my estimate would be sometime in late January or early February. New York and Connecticut were able to pass tough gun control legislations during this time, and won praise for it from the media and most of the public in those states. However, President Obama chose to send Joe Biden off to conduct a study, which had obvious outcomes and served only to delay time and give Biden time to make a few more awkward remarks. As Dana Millibank writes in The Washington Post, "White House press secretary Jay Carney said there was no hurry. He predicted that 'in a few weeks or a few months,' the pain from Newtown will 'still be incredibly intense.' Not intense enough, apparently."

For better or for worse I, and most other analysts, believe the moment has gone. The rhetorical situation is already in the process of deterioration. Harry Reid has already cancelled a vote on a renewed "Assault Weapons Ban" by Senator Feinstein, and does not have the votes or push from public opinion now to pass any significant changes except perhaps the expanded background checks. Public opinion in general has reverted back to the old battle-lines on the issue and the old arguments, with the conservative ones summed up in this 7 minute "State of the Union" address by "Virtual President" Bill Whittle.

One of the arguments he makes is that every person killed because they did not have guns to defend themselves is "just as precious, just as important, and just as irreplaceable as those little children killed at Newtown." On April 1st Gene Healy of the Cato Institute gave his rebuttal to the president in his article "Shame On Us If Newtown Panic Leads to Unwise Gun Laws" where he writes, "Fear and loathing were appropriate reactions to the Newtown atrocity, but they make for a spectacularly lousy mindset for evaluating legislation. Given some of the destructive proposals Congress has entertained post-Newtown, it's good that we've got a little distance on the horror and can bring sober judgment to bear."

Fair enough, but these arguments could not have been made effectively right after Newtown. The lives of those 20 children in the moment felt more precious to us, more vulnerable, and more innocent than the many thousands of children that die each year in the US or the millions of children that die each year around the world. Whether or not that is fair or makes logical sense, it was true that it set the nation in a different state of mind. Now, it has become a small part of a much larger statistic of violent deaths at a young age. By this summer, the rhetorical situation will probably be in disintegration, and new crises and partisan battles will dominate the news coverage and attention. It may be that Obama and his allies can mount an effective push to bring the issue back to a state of maturity, but I doubt if anything but a new Newtown could do that. It's kind of like driving past a car wreck: you slow down for a while, realize that could have been you, drive a bit more defensively for a while, perhaps even below the speed limit. Then, 10 miles later, you are back to normal speed and level of attention. The moment has passed into memory.

And perhaps that's good. If every crash had a life-changing effect on us, we probably wouldn't dare to leave the house after a while. The point is that there are moments of kairos in each of our lives, and in the lives of each family community, and nation, and "those who understand the power of language to shape and respond to significant moments in time (kairos) can gain some power over their circumstances and expand their individual freedom and influence. They become agents--those who can act--rather than those who are acted upon" (Hatch 50-51).