The following is an opinion article by Chad Nilep. It does not represent the position of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, its officers, or its members.

Here are the opening paragraphs of a post I started writing on December 24, 2012.

In the wake of the horrifying shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many people are calling for action to reduce mass killings as well as the disturbingly high number of gun deaths in the United States. Within these calls, I have heard and seen many variations on the theme, “The answer is simple.” The simple solutions that follow that clause are not identical (suggesting an element of complexity already), but are generally sensible suggestions for reducing the availability of guns in the US. However, these simple suggestions are not easy, since many Americans are wary of restrictions on gun ownership, and thus will oppose legislation to implement many of the solutions proposed.

Contrary to a few suggestions I have heard over the past several days, I don’t believe that Americans who oppose legislation to restrict gun ownership are deluded or ill-intentioned. Many people I grew up with and have lived around have deep and sincere concerns about what they regard as moves by government to limit individual liberty. And while some opponents of legislation to limit the sale of firearms are, I believe, acting in ultimately short-sighted self interest, many are sincere and unselfish in their convictions.

It’s been more that three years since I wrote those lines, and the shootings continue. According to Gun Violence Archive (perhaps not an unbiased source, but seemingly a careful one) there were more than 600 mass shootings, defined as an incident in which four or more people were shot, and more than 25,000 deaths attributable to guns in 2014 and 2015. This includes not only criminal attacks, but also accidents, suicides, and incidents involving police officers. I couldn’t continue writing three years ago, but I feel like I need to try again.

Who the hell am I to comment on this issue? I’m a university professor living in Japan, a country with very few guns where violence is relatively rare. I do research in two areas of linguistic anthropology, political discourse and ethnography, focused mainly on middle-class suburbanites or socially distanced media reports. And yet I think that people like me can and must make some contribution.

An important concept in the field of anthropology, though one that is sometimes controversial outside the field, is cultural relativity. Cultural relativity suggests that in order to understand a person or a group of people, it is necessary to approach them in their own cultural terms. Rather than assuming that there is a universal system of truth and that the analyst knows what the truth is, anthropologists committed to cultural relativity try to describe their subjects’ actions and statements from the subjects’ point of view. Rather than understanding or valuing actions in comparison to the anthropologist’s own culture, the attempt is to understand them in the social and cultural setting where they occur. The notion arose at a time (roughly the late nineteenth and early twentieth century) when mainly European or white American ethnologists were describing mainly African, Asian, or Native American subjects, and in doing so tending to support the institutions of colonialism and white supremacy. As Franz Boas put it, we need to realize “that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes” (Museums of ethnology and their classification, Science, 1887).

How does this apply to gun violence? There are two discourses on guns in America. Many people view guns mainly through the lens of crime and policing. Many others view guns through the lens of The American Frontier. For the former group, guns are associated with violence and disorder, and reducing their numbers seems like an obvious choice. For the latter group, guns are an icon of liberty and self determination, and attempts to regulate them seem like ideological and personal threats.

In order to deal with gun violence in a meaningful way, each group needs to understand where the other is coming from. That can’t happen as long as individuals, politicians, journalists, and even scholars see one of the positions as simply wrong. What is needed is not necessarily persuasion – neither of these deeply held positions is going away. What is needed are empathy and compassion, to understand where the fears and frustrations are coming from on all sides and then to begin working toward solutions that everyone can live with.