By Robert Hanna
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Videre aude! The Weapons Effect and The Banksy Effect
By thought-shapers, I mean any or all of the following kinds of essentially non-conceptual, non-discursive, non-propositional mental representations: allegories, analogies, blueprints, catechisms, diagrams, displays, icons, images, lay-outs, metaphors, mnemonics, models, outlines, parables, pictures, scenarios, schemata, sketches, spreadsheets, stereotypes, symbols, tableaux, and templates. The Theory of Thought-Shapers, aka TTS, says that all human thinking is really possible only insofar as it’s partially but not completely, yet still significantly, and mostly pre-reflectively, causally determined, formed, and irreducibly normatively guided by either (i) mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers in a bad, false, and wrong way, or (ii) organic, generative thought-shapers in a good, true, and right way (Hanna and Paans, 2021). This is the strong version of the thought-shaper thesis.
But for the specific purposes of this essay, what’s of direct and principal relevance is the truth or falsity of a weak version of the thought-shaper thesis, which says that at least some human thinking in contemporary formal or natural sciences, applied sciences, applied or fine arts, humanities, social sciences, morality, sociopolitics, or philosophy, is actually partially but not completely, yet still significantly, and mostly pre-reflectively, causally determined, formed, and irreducibly normatively guided by at least some mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers or organic, generative thought-shapers, for worse or for better. In turn, the real-world importance of the weak version of the thought-shaper thesis is twofold: (i) that it’s empirically testable by means of scientific psychological studies, and (ii) that at least in principle, it could be implemented in contemporary human moral life, philosophy, science, art/aesthetics, society, and politics in such a way as to bring about some genuine improvement and progress in human thinking, that could be applied to contemporary philosophical, scientific, or artistic/aesthetic problems, or to contemporary moral or sociopolitical problems, by helping or priming people to substitute organic, generative thought-shapers for mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers in their own actual thinking processes.
Now, since thought-shapers are all — broadly speaking — imagistic, and since, all images, as essentially non-conceptual contents, are all — again, broadly speaking — seen in a pre-reflective way, independently of and prior to their being added to concepts and thoughts, then TTS yields a new, intuitionistic version of moral and sociopolitical radical enlightenment, as captured by the new imperative slogan, Videre aude!, dare to see for yourself!, that both inherently precedes and supplements classical rationalistic moral and political radical enlightenment, as captured by the classical imperative slogan, Sapere aude!, dare to think for yourself! (Kant, 1784/1996). The Videre aude! imperative applies to every actual or possible topic that can be characterized by concepts and thoughts. In this essay, however, I’m specifically urging people to dare to see for themselves (i) what guns really are, namely, coercive weapons that not only express aggression but also cause aggression insofar as they’re merely presented or represented to us, and (ii) what we can actually do about the moral and sociopolitical catastrophe, scandal, and tragedy of gun violence, namely, abolish guns by systematically providing organic substitutes for them that actually sustain human and non-human life on Earth, not destroy it.
Like at least some others of my generation, I was organically and generatively thought-shaped to see people’s owning, carrying, or using guns as the moral and sociopolitical catastrophe, scandal, and tragedy that it really is, by the horrors of the television and other media coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations in April and June of 1968. Indeed, although I’ve been thinking about this ever since the 1960s, since 2015 I’ve also been writing philosophically about guns and gun violence from a specifically moral and sociopolitical point of view, including an essay called “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism,” and also working collaboratively on gun abolitionist thought-shapers (Hanna, 2015, 2023a; Hanna and Heftler, 2022; Hanna and Paans, 2023). And of course, there’s the daily roll of mass shootings to remind anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear just how crazy and deadly the “gun crazy” phenomenon really is (GVA, 2023). But millions of other people see guns and gun violence in a radically different light. Indeed, 32% of the population in the USA own 393 million guns — i.e., 120 guns for every 100 Americans — and 44% of the population live in gun-possessing households. What is going on here?
In fact, since the late 1960s there’s been a series of fascinating, but also very scary-&-troubling, studies in social psychology about what’s called the weapons effect, whereby merely presenting or representing guns — even toy guns, or visual images of guns, including hard-copy based or internet-based images, cartoons, drawings, photographs, TV, movies, videos, video-games, and so-on — to people, causes the arousal of aggressive cognition in those people, and pre-reflectively primes them for gun violence. Here’s an informative synopsis extracted from a 2021 article by the social psychologists Brad Bushman and Daniel Romer:
Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.
— Leonard Berkowitz (Berkowitz, 1968: p. 22)
In discussions of gun violence, one factor that is rarely considered is the fact that merely seeing a gun can increase aggression. This effect, called “the weapons effect,” is conspicuously absent from debates about gun violence. Yet, the weapons effect is not a newly discovered phenomenon. It was first reported in a 1967 classic experiment conducted by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage… [Berkowitz and LePage, 1967]. Since 1967, the weapons effect has been replicated many times, including outside the lab. In a recent driving simulation experiment …, for example, participants were seated in a car that had either a handgun or a tennis racket on the passenger seat. As in the Berkowitz and LePage experiment …, participants were told that the object on the seat was part of a different experiment that the other experimenter forgot to clean up, and that they should ignore it. As in the Berkowitz and LePage experiment, they apparently could not ignore it. Participants were significantly more aggressive drivers when there was a gun on the passenger seat than when there was a tennis racket on the passenger seat. For example, they were more likely to speed, tailgate, pass drivers on the shoulder, crossing double yellow lines into oncoming traffic, swear at other drivers or use obscene gestures, or collide into other vehicles. These findings also mirror the results from survey studies. For example, one survey of a nationally representative sample of 2770 American drivers found that those with a gun in their vehicle, compared to those with no gun in their vehicle, were significantly more likely in the past year to make obscene gestures at other drivers (23% vs. 16%), tailgate (14% vs. 8%), or both (6.3% vs. 2.8%), even after controlling for several factors related to aggressive driving…. A 2018 meta-analysis integrated the results from all available weapons effect studies, which included 151 effect-size estimates from 78 independent studies involving 7668 participants…. A meta-analysis is a quantitative literature review that combines the statistical results from all studies conducted on a topic. The studies integrated in this weapons effect meta-analysis used a variety of operational definitions for key variables. This meta-analysis found a significant weapons effect when the results from all studies were integrated. The weapons effect was significant for provoked and unprovoked participants, for males and females, for participants of all ages, for college students and nonstudents, and even for toy weapons. The weapons effect was also positively correlated with the year the study was conducted, indicating that the weapons effect is getting larger over time. In the meta-analysis, all average effect sizes were in the predicted direction, with weapons having a positive impact on aggression-related outcome variables…. As we have seen, people are sensitive to the appearance of weapons, and these experiences can introduce hostile perceptions that would otherwise not exist…. The National Rifle Association notes, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But guns are not just neutral stimuli either. As Professor Len Berkowitz noted, although the finger pulls the trigger of a gun, “the trigger may also be pulling the finger.” Research on the weapons effect shows that the mere sight of a weapon can make people more aggressive. (Bushman and Romer, 2021: pp. 29, 30, 35–36)
So, scientific psychological research on the weapons effect shows that simply seeing a weapon or a representation of a weapon can prime aggressive cognitions — for example, aggressive thoughts and aggressive appraisals — and increase aggressive action. Since the initial studies were conducted in the late 1960s, these experimental results have been replicated many times, both in the laboratory and in the field. Otherwise put, these results show that “the finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger” (Berkowitz, 1968: p. 22). Therefore, in diametric opposition to those who believe or at least claim that guns are required for self-defense, the weapons effect shows that in fact even only carrying a gun, whether concealed or openly, actually significantly increases the risk of gun violence, or even itself precipitates gun violence, thereby endangering the gun-carriers themselves and others significantly more than if they had not been carrying a gun. In other words, it’s significantly safer not to own, carry, or use a gun, than actually to own, carry or use a gun — a bitter irony.
Aside from this already very significant implication of the weapons effect, there are three other equally important things about the weapons effect studies that are worth repeating.
First, the studies have been reconfirmed and replicated many times since 1967, so they’re in very good shape as regards empirical scientific methods and results.
Second, the weapons effect holds up across all kinds of people, not merely young men.
Third, built into the structure of the weapons effect studies themselves, when the gun or gun-representation is freely or spontaneously replaced by a benign or non-violent item or a representation of a benign or non-violent item, especially including animals or plants, then the weapons effect disappears or is in any case suppressed, and all-around better states of mind are produced in people instead (Bartholow et al., 2005). This of course directly entails that the free or spontaneous replacement of guns or representations of guns, by benign or nonviolent organic items or by representations of benign or nonviolent organic items, actually counteracts the weapons effect and produces non-violent and all-around better states of mind in people instead.
This crucial point, in turn, leads me to postulate something I’ll call the Banksy effect, named after the British artist Banksy’s famous flower-thrower image displayed at the top of this essay, in which a depicted violent anarchist’s or terrorist’s bomb or other weapon has been freely or spontaneously replaced by the image of a bouquet of flowers. By visually defeating our cognitive expectation of seeing a bomb or other weapon in the violent anarchist’s or terrorist’s hand, it vividly counteracts any weapons effect that one might have experienced when looking at the original image, and produces non-violent and all-around better states of mind in people instead.
Let’s now suppose, for the purposes of argument, that the Banksy effect is just as empirically real as the weapons effect. Correspondingly, if (i) governments or some other well-funded social institutions systematically offered, to those who already own, carry, or use a gun, that these social institutions would buy back those people’s guns and ammunition for much more than they paid for them, and also offered them a free plot of good gardening land, free access to a watering/irrigation source, free plants or seeds, free fertilizer or mulch, and free gardening equipment, in return for the guns-and-ammunition buy-back, together with their freely signing a permanent no-guns pledge that would have binding legal force, to the effect that if they ever owned, carried, or used guns, then they’d have to give back the plot of gardening land and also reimburse the cost of everything else they’d been supplied with, and if (ii) essentially the same gardens-for-guns initiative as described in (i) were also made available to anyone who didn’t already own, carry, or use a gun, provided that they also signed the permanent no-guns pledge, and if (iii) popular culture and media, including both hard-copy based and internet-based images, cartoons, drawings, photographs, TV, movies, videos, video-games, and so-on, were simultaneously flooded with representations of people holding guns that were then freely or spontaneously replaced by representations of the same people holding bouquets of flowers, fruit, vegetables, gardening equipment, etc., and/or actively cultivating gardens, then (iv) implementing all three of the initiatives described in (i) to (iii) simultaneously, would almost certainly produce some fairly widespread all-around non-violent and beneficial effects on many people’s states of mind and lives.
Of course, the weapons effect isn’t the only factor that pre-reflectively shapes people to own, carry, or use guns, and enact gun violence. There’s also a classical liberal or neoliberal Hobbesian/neo-Hobbesian belief that’s almost unshakeably held by many or even most people (in the USA, especially), that human animals are nothing but inherently egoistic and mutually antagonistic decision-theoretic automata. Hence without coercive authoritarian States and other State-like social institutions, the coercive weapons held and deployed by them, constant surveillance, police or military enforcement, and the criminalization of people who refuse to comply with laws and other rules issued by those States or State-like institutions, followed by the incarceration or other coercive punishment of those who don’t comply, then society would inevitably collapse and regress to the “state of nature” and “the war of all against all” (Hanna, 2017, 2020). So, by owning guns, carrying guns, using guns, and enacting gun violence, people thereby become little mirrors of the all-encompassing coercive authoritarian State in which they live, and move, and have their being.
This is true even when, or especially when, as for example in the USA, people purport to justify the owning, carrying, and use of guns by self-deceivingly believing, or at least claiming, that they need guns in order to defend themselves against the coercive authoritarian State, i.e., the very State that fully enables their gun-owning, gun-carrying, gun-using, and gun violence by (so far) permanently legally entrenching and sustaining The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution — another bitter irony. And of course the police and all other government-instituted militias and security forces in the USA also “bear arms” and enact gun violence. No other contemporary nation-State, no matter how badly-governed, neo-fascistic, or otherwise oppressive, foundationally builds the people’s right to own, carry, or use guns into the original constitutional legal-&-political structure of its system of government, on both sides of the so-called “rule of law.” In short, the USA is the world’s one and only gunocracy.
Radically against the grain of all this, here’s a proposal for extending the Banksy effect in order to (begin to) debunk and exorcise that almost unshakeably held classical liberal or neoliberal Hobbesian/neo-Hobbesian belief. In Banksy’s original one-frame image, a bomb-throwing or other weapon-throwing mask-wearing black-&-white etched lone violent anarchist or terrorist has been transformed into a dignitarian anarchist, simply by means of freely or spontaneously substituting a bouquet of bright-colored flowers for the weapon. But in the extended Banksy effect, Banksy’s original one-frame image of a flower-throwing mask-wearing lone non-violent black-&-white etched dignitarian anarchist is now transformed into an image of dignitarian anarcho-socialism, aka dignitarian post-capitalism (Hanna, 2023b), by freely or spontaneously morphing it into a complex, dynamic image — for example, an animated or documentary-style video — of unmasked people of all ages, genders/sexes, ethnic/racial types, language-groups, and socioeconomic classes, all wearing colorful clothing, and peacefully cultivating the flowers together. If, as I’ve assumed, the Banksy effect is just as empirically real as the weapons effect, then the extended Banksy effect should be just as empirically real as the other two effects, and effectively shape people to implement or at least support the three-part proposal I described [three paragraphs above].
The three-part proposal, together with the extended Banksy effect, is fully grounded in and therefore presupposes three nested philosophical theories and one philosophical project, listed from most general to most specific: (i) the essential embodiment theory of the mind-body relation and mental causation (Hanna and Maiese, 2009; Hanna, 2011), (ii) the mind-shaping theory of social institutions (Maiese and Hanna, 2019; Hanna, 2021), (iii) the cognitive-semantic theory of thought-shapers, aka TTS, as I briefly described it at the beginning of this essay(Hanna and Paans, 2021), and (iv) The Shape of Lives To Come project (Hanna, 2023c; Maiese et al., 2023). In a longer version of this essay, I’d most certainly want to present, unpack, and defend those three theories and that project in sufficient detail as well; but for my purposes here, I wanted to formulate something accessible and brief, without my also having to lay out the heavy-duty philosophical background material.
Correspondingly, I’ll conclude the essay in an equally accessible and brief way. The Bible urges us to hammer our swords into plowshares. In the idiom of 1980s rock music, I’m now urging us to imagine turning our guns into roses — or less poetically, and even more concretely, to imagine turning our guns into a trillion new trees (NYT, 2022). Dare to see all this for yourself.
[i] This list isn’t intended to be complete: on the contrary, it’s open-ended. Moreover, allegories, catechisms, and parables differ slightly from the other items on the list (Hanna and Paans, 2021: section 1).
(Bartholow et al., 2005). Bartholow, B., Anderson, C., Carnagey, N., and Benjamin Jr, A. “Interactive Effects of Life Experience and Situational Cues on Aggression: The Weapons Priming Effect in Hunters and Nonhunters.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 41: 48–60.
(Berkowitz, 1968). Berkowitz, L. “Impulse, Aggression, and the Gun.” Psychology Today. 2:19–22.
(Berkowitz and Le Page, 1967). Berkowitz, L. and LePage, A. “Weapons as Aggression-Eliciting Stimuli.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 7:202–207.
(Bushman and Romer, 2021). Bushman, B. and Romer, D. “The Weapons Effect.” In N.A. Dodgson (ed.), Adolescent Gun Violence Prevention: Clinical and Public Health Solutions. Cham: Springer. Pp. 29–38.
(GVA, 2023). Gun Violence Archive. Available online at URL = <http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/>.
(Hanna, 2011). Hanna, R. “Minding the Body.” Philosophical Topics 39: 15–40. Available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/4458670/Minding_the_Body>.
(Hanna, 2015). Hanna, R. “A World With Persons But Without Guns Or The Death Penalty. Oxford University Press Blog. 29 November. Available online at URL = <http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/world-without-guns/>.
(Hanna, 2017). Hanna, R. “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature.” Con-Textos Kantianos 5: 167–189. Available online at URL = <https://www.con-textoskantianos.net/index.php/revista/article/view/228>.
(Hanna, 2020). Hanna, R. “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism For Realists, Or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/43631182/On_Rutger_Bregmans_Humankind_Minor_revisions_22_September_2020_>.
(Hanna, 2021). Hanna, R. “Our Sociable Sociality: A Postscript to The Mind-Body Politic.” Borderless Philosophy 4: 57–96. Available online at URL = <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/bp4-2021-robert-hanna-our-sociable-sociality-a-postscript-to-the-mind-body-politic>.
(Hanna, 2023a). Hanna, R. “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/61516955/Gun_Crazy_A_Moral_Argument_For_Gun_Abolitionism_January_2023_version_>.
(Hanna, 2023b). “Dignitarian Post-Capitalism.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/98587927/Dignitarian_Post_Capitalism_March_2023_version_>.
(Hanna, 2023c). Hanna, R. “Changing The World By Shaping Our Lives.” Unpublished MS. Available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/99091925/Changing_The_World_By_Shaping_Our_Lives_March_2023_version_>.
(Hanna and Heftler, 2022). Hanna, R. and Heftler, S. “A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism in 100 Words and 8 Simple Pictures.” Against Professional Philosophy. 9 October. Available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2022/10/09/a-moral-argument-for-gun-abolitionism-in-100-words-and-8-simple-pictures/> and also HERE.
(Hanna and Maiese, 2009). Hanna, R. and Maiese, M., Embodied Minds in Action. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. Available online in preview HERE.
(Hanna and Paans, 2021). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Thought-Shapers.” Cosmos & History 17, 1: 1–72. Available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/923>.
(Hanna and Paans, 2023). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Guns Я Us: A Thought-Shaper.” Unpublished Poster. Available online HERE.
(Kant, 1784/1996). Kant, I. “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” Trans. M. Gregor. In I. Kant, Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. Pp. 17–22 (Ak 8: 33–42).
(Maiese and Hanna, 2019). Maiese, M. and Hanna, R. The Mind-Body Politic. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Available online in preview HERE.
(Maiese et al., 2023). Maiese, M., Gare, A., Kiverstein, J., Krueger, J. and Hanna, R. “Editorial: The Shape of Lives to Come.” Frontiers in Psychology. 22 March. Available online at URL = <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1154577/full>.
(NYT, 2022). St. George, Z. “Can Planting a Trillion New Trees Save the World?” 13 July. Available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/13/magazine/planting-trees-climate-change.html>.
(PD, 2020). Public Delivery. “Banksy’s Rage, The Flower Thrower — Everything You Need to Know.” 10 January. Available online at URL = <https://publicdelivery.org/banksy-flower-thrower/>.
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