By Jonathan C. Rothermel
The gun debate is loathsome. First, the debate becomes most heated in the immediate aftermath of senseless gun violence, which lately has come about all too often. The same questions are raised on cable news, and the same guests are brought back to re-tell the all-too-familiar sides of the debate.
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, where any suggestion of the need for changes in our gun laws is likely to be met by an avalanche of posts emphatically defending Second Amendment rights - or vice versa.
Finally, politicians on both sides pander to those ingrained views to strengthen their credentials on this issue. The effect is to discourage them from actually engaging in a meaningful dialogue that could 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 everyone's motives blocks any type of accommodation 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 (2000), 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. In other words, rather than join bowling leagues, Americans were more likely to bowl alone.
There are troubling signs that this trend continues. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 28 percent of American adults did not know their neighbors by name and only 29 percent knew some of their neighbors. Books like The Vanishing Neighbor (2014) and The Village Effect (2014) raise concerns about the unraveling of neighborhoods. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted a 10-year low in the volunteer rate of 25.4 percent in 2013, compared with 29 percent in 2003.
Although social media can be wielded to harness community awareness and facilitate collective action, it is more likely to feature and celebrate the individual user's best qualities. The potential interactive features of social media often succumb to a mere platform for individualized expressions.
The loss of the human empathy that would be gained through interpersonal relationships with one another inhibits our ability to connect more deeply. Shallow "friendships" on Facebook are poor substitutes for 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 you do not know very well. Our computer monitors shield us from the social awkwardness of an uncivil exchange. Furthermore, vulnerable individuals are likely to get lost in the wide cracks of societal apathy.
As a country, we have a lot more in common than we realize, but lately, it seems as if we have a tendency to emphasize our differences. Building social capital can help us recognize those similarities, and from there we can find ways to work collaboratively rather than combatively to make our world a better place.
It will not be easy. But you can start by introducing yourself to your neighbors. Help to organize a community activity. Volunteer for a local outreach organization. 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. email@example.com