Aphorisms are brief, pithy statements that distill some perceived truth from observation. An example might be James Madison’s “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Aphorisms draw conclusions, or they can be considered starting points. When you hear one, you might ask; “How’s that work?” and the speaker might explain; “A threat from outside can become a pretext for granting powers normally considered dangerous for one group to have” and the discussion goes on from there.
So how is the aphorism; “An armed society is a polite society” supposed to work? I often hear people use it who advocate universal access to firearms as a solution to social problems. What form, exactly, would that politeness take? And what would happen if it were violated? What would the result be in very crowded places? How would it work out for people who cannot conform socially? What about the exchange of ideas considered by some to be inherently rude? How would social innovation ever take place? A bit of imagination is in order and for that we might turn to a very imaginative author.
The saying occurs often in the writings of Robert Heinlein, who is one of my favorite authors. It is well expounded in the 1942 story; “Beyond This Horizon“, about an adventurer living some centuries from now in a technologically advanced society. Cultural evolution has moved to Heinlein’s ideal of all adult males going armed at all times in public, or wearing a special brassard that marks them as unarmed and thus having essentially the social status of children and not to be taken seriously.
In this incident, a young man in a crowded restaurant has behaved rudely toward the protagonist, Hamilton Felix, who by convention must then respond with deadly force.
Beyond This Horizon, by Robert Heinlein
They were exchanging bows and were about to resume their seats, when a shouted remark from the balcony booth directly opposite interrupted them. “Where’s your brassard?”
They both looked toward the source of the disturbance; one of a party of men — armed citizens all apparently, for no brassards were to be seen — was leaning out of the booth and staring with deliberate rudeness. Hamilton spoke to the man at the table below. “My privilege, is it not, sir?”
“Your privilege. I wish you well.” He sat down and turned his attention back to his guests.
“You spoke to me?” asked Hamilton of the man across the ring.
“I did. You were let off lightly. You should eat at home — if you have a home. Not in the presence of gentlefolk.”
Monroe-Alpha touched Hamilton’s arm. “He’s drunk,” he whispered. “Take it easy.”
“I know,” his friend answered in a barely audible aside, “but he gives me no choice.”
“Perhaps his friends will take care of him.”
Indeed his friends were attempting to. One of them placed a restraining hand on his weapon arm, but he shook him off. he was playing to a gallery — the entire restaurant was quiet now, the diners ostentatiously paying no attention, a pose contrary to fact. “Answer me!” he demanded.
“I will,” Hamilton stated quietly. “You have been drinking and are not responsible. Your friends should disarm you and place a brassard on you. Else some short-tempered gentleman may fail to note that your manners were poured from a bottle.”
There was a stir and a whispered consultation in the party behind the other man, as if some agreed with Hamilton’s estimate of the situation. One of them spoke urgently to the belligerent one, but he ignored it.
“What’s that about my manners, you misplanned mistake?”
(“Easy, Felix.” “Too late, Cliff.”)
“Your manners,” Hamilton stated, “are as thick as your tongue. You are a disgrace to the gun you wear.”
The other man drew too fast, but he drew high, apparently with the intention of chopping down.
The terrific explosion of the Colt forty-five brought every armed man in the place to his feet, sidearm clear, eyes wary, ready for action. But the action was all over. A woman laughed, shortly and shrilly. The sound broke the tension for everyone. Men relaxed, weapons went back to belts, seats were resumed with apologetic shrugs. The diners went back to their own affairs with the careful indifference to other people’s business of the urbane sophisticate.
Hamilton’s antagonist was half supported by the arms of his friends. He seemed utterly surprised and completely sobered. There was a hole in his chemise near his right shoulder from which a wet dark stain was spreading. One of the men holding him up waved to Hamilton with his free arm, palm out. Hamilton acknowledged the capitulation with the same gesture. Someone drew the curtains of the booth opposite.
Hamilton sank back into the cushions with a relieved sigh. “We lose more crabs that way,” he observed. “Have some more, Cliff?”
From Beyond This Horizon, © 1942, 1948, by Robert Heinlein pp 15-16.
In this incident, violence ensues when the antagonist looks at the protagonist the wrong way (staring) and speaks rudely (accusing the protagonist of uncouth behavior not fitting in polite society). I leave it to present-day proponents to defend the actual desirability and workability of this social model.
- You can read the whole incident with more context, plus more about Robert Heinlein, in the 2000 Cabell Prize essay, “The Heir of James Branch Cabell” By Bill Patterson, at the Virginia Commonwealth University library. The whole paper is worth reading but for this incident scroll down to the section titled “Gallantry”. The author notes: “It is an axiom of the novel that ‘an armed society is a polite society.’”
- The weapon in question is a Colt .45 – quite an anachronism in the distant future. On page 11 the protagonist introduces it this way: “It’s a terror weapon. You wouldn’t even have to hit with your first shot. Your man would be so startled you’d have time to get him with the second shot. And that isn’t all. Think… the braves around town are used to putting a man to sleep with a bolt that doesn’t even muss his hair. This thing’s bloody. You saw what happened to that piece of vitrolith. Think what a man’s face would look like after it stops one of those slugs. Why a necrocosmetician would have to use a stereosculp to produce a reasonable facsimile for his friends to admire. Who wants to stand up to that kind of fire?”
- I enjoy Heinlein’s stories immensely, though his writings should no more be mistaken for serious political discourse than the antics of a romantic comedy should be mistaken for relationship advice. Practically everyone has read Stranger In A Strange Land but don’t miss out on The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Or just pick up the wonderful collection of short stories, The Past Through Tomorrow.
- See also, NYT blogs, The Freedom Of An Armed Society
- and Dave Hill, An Armed Society Is A Polite Society and Simple Gun Answers Are Generally Simplistic Gun Answers.