Response to Chad Kautzer on America as a Tactical Gun Culture

In approaching the scholarly literature in my Sociology of Guns seminar, I tell my students that they need to read in two steps: reading WITH the grain of a text and reading AGAINST the grain.

I take these ideas from David Bartholomae and Aaron Petrosky’s Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers.

To read generously, to work inside someone else’s system, to see your world in someone else’s terms — we call this “reading with the grain.”

Bartholomae and Petrosky, Ways of Reading

To read against the grain, by contrast, means:

to read critically, to turn back, for example, against an author’s project, to ask questions they believe might come as a surprise, to look for the limits of their vision, to provide alternate readings of the examples, to find examples that challenge their arguments – to engage the author, in other words, in dialogue.

Bartholomae and Petrosky, Ways of Reading

These two moments in the reading process are characterized by generosity and dialogue. Encouraging this among my students is part of my general approach to the issue of guns in America: light over heat.

As a reader recently, I fell short of my own ideal in engaging an essay by Chad Kautzer published in the Boston Review, “America as a Tactical Gun Culture.” I did not read generously in the first moment and I did not seek to engage in dialogue. Kautzer wrote a quick reply to my original post which gives me a second chance.

Read on for my response to Kautzer’s reply.

When I woke up last Saturday morning and saw a Google alert to an essay by Chad Kautzer under both “gun owners” and “gun culture,” my interest was piqued because I had met him previously at a gun symposium. I skimmed his quite long essay (on my phone while lying in bed), noting the many dots he connected in support of his argument, then saw three other articles that “readers also liked” suggested at the end.

I noted a remarkable consistency in the fundamental arguments being put forward in these four essays. I cut and pasted sections of the essays demonstrating that consistency. Which I think is fair as a description of their major claims, but at the end I also criticized the “dubious assertion that firearms therefore can only be seen as upholding a racially unequal social order.”

And I concluded with a rhetorical flourish:

Seeing firearms as “tools of white male pathogenesis” and “lethal prosthetics of white identity” casts racially diverse gun owners in the role of “Acting White.” Which strikes me as, what’s the word? Paternalistic.

Boston Review’s Magnificently Consistent Takes on Gun Culture

In his reply, Kautzer takes on a number of points, so let me consider them one by one:

[1] As Kautzer notes, he did NOT invoke the work of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in concluding his essay. I have made the correction on my original post.

[2] Kautzer takes my characterization of the four essays in question as showing a “magnificent consistency” to be a bit of a red herring because algorithms suggesting what readers should read next are designed to produce consistency. This is especially true in outlets like the Boston Review which have a very clear ideological position: “animated by hope and committed to equality, we believe in the power of collective reasoning and imagination to create a more just world.”

On the one hand, I think Kautzer’s point is fair enough, but it is also the case that the Boston Review aspires to “reject the easy dispensation of predictable writing to people with whom we already agree. Instead we put a range of voices and views in dialogue.”

To investigate this further, I searched for “guns” on the Boston Review website and did not find what I would consider a “range of voices and view in dialogue.” Of course, just because there is no diversity of ideas doesn’t mean that the singular ideas being offered are untrue. Which takes me to Kautzer’s next points.

[3] Kautzer characterizes my conclusion as making two straw man arguments, one concerning the “dubious assertion that firearms therefore can only be seen as upholding a racially unequal social order” and one asserting that the essays collectively “casts racially diverse gun owners in the role of ‘Acting White.’” He notes that I provide no empirical evidence for either of these claims.

I plead guilty to this charge. As Kautzer notes, putting “only” in my statement does not reflect his claims, and removing the “only” makes the second assertion unsustainable. I have often said in reading reviews of my own work that the comments say more about the author of the review than about the work being reviewed. Upon reflection, I think my conclusions say more about me and my concerns than about what Kautzer argued in his Boston Review essay.

My frustration at what I believe are reductionist views of American gun culture among gun studies scholars got the best of me as I was reading these essays. My insertion of “only” reflects my desire to hear, to quote the late Paul Harvey, “the rest of the story.”

Regardless, I did not follow my own advice to students on how to be a strong reader. I did not fully read with the texts in a spirit of generosity and I did not read against the texts seeking dialogue.

To do so would take more time and energy than I had then, or now, given the holiday season. So I will have to leave a more substantive engagement of the issue of paternalism and Kautzer’s other essay in the Boston Review, “A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense” (2018), for another day.

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