Saturday, January 30, 2016

I sympathize with Weinberg's classroom gun ban

Americans, especially the conservative ones, are proud about the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the right to keep and bear arms. Many TRF commenters consider this right very important and I won't make them too happy now.

A picture I took in 2005

A new law has stressed the right to carry weapons at university campuses. Locally, institutions could have declared exceptions and ban weapons. But the University of Texas decided not to have such exceptions. And even thought Austin isn't "really" Texas, the laws apply there, too. So something had to happen:
Nobel Laureate Becomes Reluctant Anti-Gun Leader (Texas Tribune)
See also The Star Telegram and Google News. Steven Weinberg (82) who teaches astrophysics in the spring semester has simply declared that he won't allow guns in his classroom.

This is a rather ordinary attitude, I think, and Weinberg didn't want to make much ado about this policy to be written in the syllabus. But because the right to bear guns is a matter of laws, Weinberg has inevitably transformed himself into a local hero of a sort. Support came from expected, ordinary people such as the distinguished university professors but also from some impressive sources, e.g. a waitress.

Do the guns make the people safer? It depends. A gun is a double-edge sword – more precisely a double-position-triggered device. You can use it to do good things as well as bad things. Defense is great except that nothing guarantees that guns are always used by people who are just defending themselves and they are not.

At the end, I am not sure whether the guns are make the nations as wholes safer or less safe. However, I am pretty sure that guns make their holders stronger while they make the other people weaker. Guns make their holders less likely to be killed – and they make everyone else more likely to be killed. A gun in one's pocket gives its holder a certain special advantage – if not the ability to impress, manipulate, intimidate, and terrify others.

The 25 students in Weinberg's astrophysics class should know some calculus. But should they be armed with guns as well? Most of them won't be. Those who would have weapons would automatically become "stronger" in some way or "interesting". It is the right type of being interesting in an astrophysics class?

At the end, these people could use the guns. Are they the right people to use it? I am afraid that the guns would be more likely to be held by the people who are not academic stars. Imagine that a student is armed. Let's call him John Horgan for the sake of clarity. Are we sure that John Horgan will turn out not to be someone who is willing to defend science and scientists with his gun – but instead, a guy who struggles to end the science in the world? Do we want John Horgan to be able to shoot at someone else in the classroom? I don't think so. On the contrary, I want John Horgan's skull to be shot through along two mutually orthogonal trajectories...

OK, let me not go into these technical details :-) because they're not essential for my main point. And the main point is that the guns may be distracting – they are changing the focus and the balance of power in favor of "attractors" and "forces" that shouldn't be fundamental in the academic or scholarly environment.

It seems natural to me for the instructor to ban guns in his classroom although I am not quite sure how this ban may be enforced. Weinberg: You shall not bring the gun to the classroom. Horgan: I will. Weinberg: You won't, or I will eliminate your name from my course paperwork. Horgan: No, you will not, otherwise I will report your illegal behavior to police. Weinberg: I will give you an F. Horgan: Look how horny my revolver is. And so on. The discussions may be heated. (Just to be sure, Weinberg has announced that if he were supposed to face trouble with the ban, he would simply stop teaching instead of fighting, something that many students would count as a loss.)

But aside from the controversial issue involving guns, I feel uncomfortable about a much more general point – namely that the instructors should be unable to decide about the arrangement of these elementary things in the classroom. I do think that it makes sense when the instructor may erase the blackboard more often or less often, according to his habits. He may use the West Coast metric or the East Coast metric. And he may open the window or close the window, according to his temperature and fresh air preferences.

I also feel that he should be able to tolerate or not to tolerate some food or beverages in the classroom. And similar comments apply to more controversial things you may bring to the classroom such as guns. The idea that all such things must be determined by some global one-size-fits-all laws seems atypical for the Western civilization. Much of the Western civilization does depend on the freedom to establish many arrangements regionally, locally, or privately. The Intel labs have to be clean and harass visitors who would like to be less clean. And you may invent dozens of much better examples.

Even though the right to bear arms is a "right-wing cause", I still find the dictate of the rules from above to be undesirable.

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