Merit Badge

I heard a story at dinner the other night that caught me up. It sounded reasonable enough on the face of it, but something about it just stuck in my craw. It just felt wrong. It went like this:

A journalist was interviewing a Boy Scout troop leader on the radio. He was explaining the merit badges, and in particular, the one involving lessons in handling and shooting guns. The journalist began pressing the troop leader about the benefit of this. Was teaching young boys to shoot guns a good idea? And then she pressed harder: wasn’t the troop leader training the boys to be serial killers? The troop leader shot back: “Just because you have the equipment doesn’t mean you’ll become a prostitute, does it?”

Suddenly, the radio went dead. The producer evidently felt the conversation had gotten out of hand, and my friend said there was radio silence for 45 seconds. Forty-five seconds in radio time is an eternity.

In relating the story, my friend also said that the journalist “was going after the troop leader.” And my friend and my husband, who was also listening, both seemed to think that the troop leader was vindicated in his remarks to, as my friend characterized her, the outspoken and accusatory journalist. They had that “touché” look about them, and they both expounded on the importance of teaching gun use and safety to deter gun accidents and violence.

I, on the other hand, felt like the radio station – I just went blank. I heard myself say, “I need to think about this.”

It sounds reasonable enough for an interview subject to push back on a journalist who clearly is overstepping the role. After all, a journalist is supposed to be a neutral agent, asking intelligent questions that open up the ability to understand something. A journalist with an opinion isn’t an anomaly, but one that openly shows it betrays the journalist’s role. Using the microphone to berate and pillory an interview subject goes against what we expect of the Fourth Estate. Although, what’s considered berating and what is classed a tough question is certainly “in the ear of the listener.” But this wasn’t what was irking me.

To the point of who was right and who was wrong regarding the gun issue, that’s a matter of serious divide in this country. And when it comes to kids and guns specifically, Columbine brought sharp and heart-rending focus to this subject. (I wondered too, if the journalist meant to say “mass murderer,” which was what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were, as opposed to “serial killers.”) Is gun violence promulgated or diminished by teaching young people about guns? I cannot say that I know any statistics on this, but feel certain there are plenty on both sides. But nor was this, in my mind, the issue giving me pause.

What was tripping me up was making equivalent the insinuation that teaching about guns could mean someone would become a serial killer to the insinuation that having female sex anatomy would mean someone would become a prostitute. There was something about this supposed quid pro quo that disturbed  me. In a social situation, with a couple of glasses of wine in me, I couldn’t piece it together. So, I bumbled about, raising the hackles of my dinner companions until I finally changed the subject.

It wasn’t until the following day, on the drive home in slow-moving traffic, that my clear mind could traverse the tricky terrain. What I felt instinctively problematic about this troop leader’s come back became crystal clear. Comparing a learned behavior (gun shooting) as causal for a primordially wrong behavior (serial killing) to an innate aspect of being (femaleness) as causal for a morally wrong one (prostitution) is deeply inappropriate. In other words, moving the conversation to aspects of a person that are innate – like gender, skin color, age – moves it to a whole different realm. While the journalist’s comment may have been inflammatory, the troop leader’s was sexist. Had the journalist been black, would the troop leader have resorted to a racial slur to
lash out?

In his anger, the troop leader not only exposed his  underlying thinking about women, he also escalated the conversation from one about the issue to one about the person. And this is where he crossed the line. Remember: the radio went blank not when the journalist asked about serial killers, but when the troop leader asked her about being a prostitute.

And now comes the really important part. As a Boy Scout troop leader, that is, as a
person who teaches and models behavior, values, and ethics to impressionable young boys, is this the kind of response, no matter the provocation, that we desire? I come down firmly on the side of no. Young men need models of men who can remain honorable and civil in the face of adversity. They need models for how to talk about the merits of gun knowledge with people who are vehemently, even emotionally, against guns as well as those who are for them, especially in this time of such polarity on the subject. And our young men need examples of how to address a journalist who may be overstepping her role without resorting to gender (or any other kind of) slurs.

In a time when the line between the issue and personal attack is very nearly gone, I applaud the radio station for choosing to end the conversation. But we need to go a step beyond silence. We need to create a merit badge for civility, with emphasis on the ability to express one’s views in the face of adversity without resorting to personal attack. This is really what we need to teach our children, remembering, children learn best from models.

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About Rebecca Reynolds

Leadership Guru; Systems Thinker; Complex Problem Solver; Facilitative Leader...also LOVE life, dog Wiley, good food, Malbec, forests, oceans, yoga stillness, the boxing bag, ballroom dance, and movies.
This entry was posted in conflict, Leadership, Media, Politics, Youth and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Merit Badge

  1. Bill says:

    The scout master’s reply was not a personal attack. It was a true parallel. A gun cannot do anything until the person holding it, i.e. the person responsible for it, chooses to do something. He can gather food with it, use it for recreation, or commit crimes. In parallel, a man or a woman can be responsible or irresponsible with their body. In fact, there are cases of men and women, knowing that they are infected with HIV, purposely infecting others. The accusation that the scout master committed a personal attack is baseless. It has the same basis as implying (as did the reporter’s question regarding serial killers) that any weapon can only be used for criminal activity. I find it curious how your impression of the scout master is, somehow, not a personal attack. Of course, YOU are objective, the scout master is merely sexist? As to Columbine, propane tanks were used by the murderers to create bombs that they placed in several places in the school. Thankfully, the bombs did not detonate. But, based on this fact, should we not outlaw propane tanks, too? Or because the murders were not proficient with these WEAPONS (which could have injured hundreds had they detonated) are propane tanks to remain unregulated and accessible to civilians?

    The interview ended abruptly because the scout master’s response clearly demonstrates that the choice is made by the person with the “equipment”; whether that equipment is a rifle, knife, propane tank, or the person’s own body. The scout master was tired of people blaming the weapon. Many other American’s are too. Look at the individual’s CHOICE, not the “equipment”. Don’t confiscate weapons from law abiding citizens, because criminals won’t surrender theirs. Then, only criminals and the state will be armed; and law abiding citizens will be at the mercy of both. Oh, and stop the personal attacks on people who don’t fear weapons in the hands of law abiding citizens.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bill. I appreciate your sentiments – and understand your position on weapons. This story certainly got me thinking and so have your words. The point for me about this story was not the rightness or wrongness of weapons, though – it was instead my objection to the reference of a woman’s anatomy as “equipment” and parallel to a gun. Although I understand your point about not blaming the tool for how a person uses it, I think the interviewer would have made this point more effectively with a different and less offensive (not just to me but also, evidently, to the radio station) metaphor, for example a hammer. And just because he “was tired of people blaming the weapon” does not remove his responsibility for his choice of metaphors. If he really wants to be persuasive, this is a very important choice. Even more so, in my view, for someone serving as role model for young people.

  2. Pingback: Men Who Snap and Shoot | rebeccaspeak

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