Richard Fries, a cycling-safety advocate in Boston, uses the phrase we get what we tolerate to describe the dire situation of drivers killing cyclists and pedestrians. Many humans die from these collisions because we tolerate it. An inattentive driver kills a person on a bike; then nothing changes.
The phrase applies well to other dubious policies in the US. Before a gunman slaughtered 60 innocent people with a machine gun in Las Vegas Sunday night, I had planned to use the we get what we tolerate phrase in health care policy.
I was going to argue that US citizens pay too much for medication, navigate a morass of bureaucracy to get to their doctor, and succumb to capricious insurance companies for important medical decisions because we tolerate it. We get an unjust healthcare system because it’s what we tolerate.
Then came another gun massacre.
We also tolerate gun violence. Every damn time a mass slaughter occurs, the “thoughts and prayers” go out, and nothing changes. The comparative graphs of US gun violence to any other country boggle the mind.
During a fishing trip in Alaska this summer, the boat captain told me nearly every Alaskan has a gun. Guns, he said, are necessary if you live in the wilderness. I then asked if they have gun violence in Alaska. “Almost none,” he said.
The thing is: most of the US is not an Alaskan wilderness. Bears do not wander into most of our cities and suburbs. The lack of gun violence in Alaska, therefore, does not argue for arming teachers in suburban schools.
I don’t fancy guns, but I understand some people do. That is fine.
But, similar to the healthcare debate, it seems we could start a civil discourse with new set points. For instance, let’s agree on the notion that citizens need not own assault weapons, which are essentially war machines. Could we at least discuss how to register and regulate gun purchases?
I suspect a majority of citizens–even most gun owners–would favor a ban on assault weapons and some degree of gun registration.
Consider the we get what we tolerate phrase in relation to other public safety issues:
If plane crashes killed a fraction of those killed in gun massacres, there would be an outcry for aviation safety.
When infections threaten the population, people clamor for preventive therapies.
Society gets aviation safety and protection against microbes because we don’t tolerate unsafe planes and the spread of dangerous infections.
When we decide not to tolerate gun violence, dangerous drivers, and an unjust ineffective healthcare system, things might change.