Sunday, January 19, 2014

Heavy in the Hand

'Heavy in the hand: Guns and Youth', for Under The Influence Magazine: The Coming of Age Issue, Issue 12, 2013.

The spectre of the gun haunts us. In the wake of recent mass shootings, debates around the relationship between society and guns have reached a heightened pitch. While the realities of our obsessive firearm culture affect everyone, there is something particularly evocative about the idea of a young person, someone just coming into him/herself, being seduced by all that the gun represents and can enable - both symbolically and physically.

With a host of associations within both marginal and mainstream cultures, the gun can represent a particularly potent mix of signals to those vulnerable to the complexities of growing up. If this young person lives in a conflict-driven community where gang membership and exposure to drugs and illegal activities tend to be more common, the stakes become more serious. But while in some communities a young person is exposed to guns more readily, being open to suggestion and experimentation is an integral part of the universal coming of age. The gun, commonly associated with risk, danger, authority, action, movement and death, holds a heady allure for many young people as they assert difference, seek inclusion and test the new and the 'other'.

The young boys in Misha Taylor's 'Gun Boys' series capture the tensions in this potential relationship. In these images, taken in Durban, South Africa, the boys, with their fake firearms, assume positions which are both familiar and jarring. On the one hand, they strike a classic pose of righteous, almost comical, bravado - conjuring the popular, mainstream iconography of action films, thrillers and westerns (think James Bond girls and Clint Eastwood), the machismo of hip hop artists like Tupac Shakur and his famed aphorism, 'live by the gun, die by the gun', or the glamour of the law enforcement officer on TV as s/he wards off the criminal.

More significantly perhaps, Taylor's series points to a deep disturbance, for we are reminded here of the dangers inherent in the romanticisation of the gun, of killing, and the ease by which an individual can obtain the means to do so nowadays. These images evoke what many (not just left-leaning critics) see as a defining disorder of our time, one where violence and death become extended beyond sites of visible and marked conflict like wars, into the domestic and private spheres.

The guns in these pictures are cheap and plastic, imported in bulk from China. One could argue that playing with them is still innocent. Certainly, it is difficult to assess the links between 'play-play' and real gun use. Activist, Jerry Rubin of the peace organisation, Alliance for Survival, comments in a recent article ('Not Always Fun and Games', New York Times, 8 February, 2013) that, '" no one is saying that if you play with a toy gun you're going to grow up to be a violent killer but the game is still the same: pretend to kill your friends, pretend to kill your classmates."' Parents or societies which permit this role-play by buying or giving its children toy guns introduces a particular kind of performance into the generative space where youngsters recreate and shape their subjective worlds by experimentation.

While ostensibly harmless objects, toys that glorify power, machismo and death change the space of the everyday. Thus, while playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers may not necessarily lead to trigger-happy adults, guns are assimilated as familiar objects within the youth's subjective world and are made part of real and imagined zones of the ordinary. Mainstream media platforms like films, TV, music and video games sustain this pattern within a more general cultural sphere so that even the typically privileged child, whose exposure to guns may be genuinely limited to play, to the screen or to the innocuous cowboy pistol or BB gun, introduces this particular incarnation of violence into his or her evolving understanding of the world.

The issue becomes a lot more complex when you start considering what it means to grow up as a disadvantaged young person in a country like South Africa where the cycle of poverty and violence runs deep. Here, games with guns reflect a more sinister reality where life is often disregarded in the battle for survival and where many do turn to crime in order to stay alive. The cycle of violence is pervasive, passed down from one generation to the next. With powerful weapons like guns in the mix, this pattern takes on a deathly seriousness. Writes Peter Kilfoyl (in Martin Bright's New Statesman article 'Guns, where are they coming from?' 3 September 2007), "'Like the drugs they often accompany, guns create a market of their own and, once a community is gripped, it is near impossible to break free from the addiction."'

In countries such as South Africa and England, unlike the USA, say, legislation around gun ownership is highly regulated, even restrictive. Getting hold of a gun in South Africa, where private sales between individuals are unlawful, would be a lot harder for a youth with little or no money. But gun supply exists very much in the margins too which means that procuring one illegally, or borrowing and even stealing one, is entirely possible. This can take on grave proportions in a vulnerable young person's life. In a session with street children in Cape Town a few years ago, I asked one of a group of 14 year olds how he saw his future. "You're either part of a gang, with a knife or a gun, or you can't live", he told me. After the session, I realised he was not only talking about death, he was invoking something more existential: should he not subscribe to this particular norm, he would, in a sense, cease to exist. For him, his relationship to the gun goes past the material world of the market or of cultural addiction to become a defining existential concept from which a life separate from his immediate world becomes almost impossible to imagine.Even as he may be asserting his own path within the group or milieu, this is therefore a defining condition from which he struggles to separate himself.

While the worlds of disadvantaged and privileged youth may be vastly different, one point of contact between them is the psychological and biological drive for individuation and self-assertion. Coming of age involves a complex interplay of impulses to protect and assert one's right to live, to exist, and to be recognised, paradoxically, as both separate to and part of one's environment. Besides what it can practically offer the youth living on the street, for instance, the gun represents control, something often new and compelling for a teenager. Nowadays, too, the gun is also very much of the world, a world that the adolescent hankers to enter, but usually on his or her own terms.

Speaking to a male friend who grew up in the rural countryside in England in the 1990's, the idea of being accepted came up. "You always get the boys who push boundaries, who are tougher and more extreme, who do their own thing", he told me. "But for most, to fit in, you have to display the right cultural or social markers". When he was younger, these were relatively innocent things like having the right sneakers or spokes on your bicycle. Later on, around 16, the older boys would get motorcycles and a BB gun. My friend left this part of the world before he encountered this kind of pressure, but if he had stayed he would have faced a crucial point in his own rite of passage where maturing would involve being independent and mobile and, theoretically at least, being able to wield a gun and hunt in the woods. Again, relatively innocuous in a country setting, but the fact that having access to a gun is associated with privilege earned with age makes the gun both an idealised and desired object in this case - for the younger boys (and maybe sometimes girls) it is unattainable and for the older ones, it is their reward.

Move these power dynamics back to less idyllic settings, like poor urban areas, and the situation becomes much more serious. Where a youngster's access to a gun might be a privilege in certain contexts (such as my friend's) the gun obviously has different social capital within more troubled neighbourhoods. In El Salvador, a city infamous for its youth gangs, a gun ensures protection and allows the wielder an obvious power. So serious, for example, is youth gang and gun violence in the United States and Latin America that the term 'super predators' is frequently used to describe the current generation of armed young people committing crime. This term, however, is deeply limiting since it stereotypes a whole cohort of young people from certain kinds of backgrounds. It gives us a sense of the depths to which groups of youths are entangled in damaging cycles of delinquency. But it is essential for us to notice how easily too such groups are typecast as dangerous, blamed for their roles in an increasingly violent society of which they have, in fact, long been victims.

This duality is part of the conundrum faced by these kinds of young people: they can be both victim and aggressor and can slip between different affiliations and positions. While the latter dynamic can also be empowering by contributing to the development of resilience, being unfixed is also challenging and can fracture a youth's sense of security.

The paradox of youth in dangerous areas is captured in the extract below, taken from The Corner, David Simon and Ed Burn's brilliant but harrowing investigation into the inner city Baltimore drug circuit. Here they describe a 'shooting hour' on a typical night downtown:

All across the west side, the distinct reports of individual shots now blend in the cacophony. Down Fayette Street toward the harbor, and up Fulton toward the expressway, the bright orange-yellow of muzzle flashes speckles from the front steps, windows, and rooftops. They look like fire-flies amid the crescendo, beautiful in their way. A window is shattered on Monroe Street. Another on Lexington [ ] The hour approaches, and the great, layered dissonance grows even louder, the flashes of light racing up and down the streets are visible proof of this explosive percussion. It is a sound both strange and familiar: the signature sound of our time, the prideful swelling cannonade of this failed century. Shanghai. Warsaw. Beirut. Sarajevo. And now, in this particular moment of celebration, West Baltimore. On Fulton Avenue, two teenaged girls stand in the vestibule of their rowhouse, ready for a run to a girlfriend's apartment on Lexington. They start down the steps, giggling, edging into the maelstrom, but they don't even make it to the curb when the next-door neighbor appears in his doorway, grinning drunkenly, gripping a .38 long barrel with both hands in a crude militaristic stance, aiming up at the ether. Six flashes across the street; the girls dive back to their front stoop. Still laughing, they peek across the marble steps as the reveler returns to his vestibule, reloads, then chimes out six more in perfect sequence [ ] the girls, having timed the process, now risk the run up Fulton. They race up the block, consumed in adolescent laughter, holding their ears against the din.

(Pp. 5-6)

The night emits a strange music. Here is an aggressive and dangerous pantomime (yes, people tend to get shot), but also one filled with excitement. Accordingly, where one might have expected the teenage girls to be frightened, they are, in this account, titillated by this event. This is unexpected, perhaps, but is not hard to imagine or see how the boundaries between fun and danger become blurred in this environment. Afraid, the girls are also excited by the power of the firing bullets. The occasion both binds and frays the community and the girls, almost in response, are caught within this tension so that they too inhabit more than one mode, both hankering after and running away from their neighbours. This is why the gun can be such a problematic token for some youth: it is both a normalised and demonised object, a feature of the miscreant life as well as a generic feature of the everyday for many. This paradox plays itself out in deeply layered ways for youths whose own journeys are often entangled in contradiction.

It is precisely for these reasons that an organisation like Leap in London exists, for example: to try to offer alternative ways in which young people within difficult communities can evolve without harming themselves or others. For Leap's Director of Delivery, Jessie Ben-Ami, the issue of belonging is key. Feeling accepted as part of group is a pivotal aspect in the process of coming of age. Gangs and gangs with weapons offer protection as well as security and status. It is important for trainers at Leap not to deny this dynamic but rather to work with it. Teaching young people how to stay affiliated to their group without committing crime is the challenge. And it boils down to helping them assert and develop a strong sense of self - a key ingredient in coming of age.

As the trainers at Leap and those who work with youth can tell you, the capacity of the young person to resist dysfunctional patterns is enormous. Coming of age also brings about the assertion of individual creativity, passion and ideas, and the development of spontaneity, dreams and goals which can rival the power of the gun or the constraints of a given environment. The potential to revolutionise the old and create new social and cultural pathways is also the very essence of youth. All the more reason to come to grips with a gun culture which really only offers and produces a debilitating narrative about life.

Where does one go from here? The perils and rites of the passage into adulthood will always bring the youth face to face with both the taboo and the socially acceptable. One must always encourage the creation of fantasy and experimentation, especially if with power. Nor can one ban toy guns or the slow creep of globalisation and the flow of real and plastic weapons across countries and between continents. However, what one can do is realise that guns, especially small, readily available ones, represent the most insidious form of human disorder. Allowing them to sit unchecked within our imagined and real communities is part of the sickness of our society. To be young is to be free and freedom does not mean staring down the barrel of a loaded pistol, or pulling the trigger of one either.

For full article, with Misha Taylor's photographic series, buy the magazine at:
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