Any discussion of gun violence seems to inevitably include the quote “An armed society is a polite society.” Those using the quote cite it under the idea that having more weapons in society is a means of bringing about some kind of magical peace through threat—as if a mini-version of MAD that suggests “If you dare insult me, I’ll kill you” is actually a good thing. And those who provide the quote generally list it as coming from author Robert Heinlein.
Those deploying this quote are wrong on almost every point about its origin and intent. And they’re wrong in a way that makes the application of this quote both staggeringly inappropriate … and somehow nauseatingly correct.
To begin with, the quote isn’t a Heinlein quote any more than “I seen that black n****** yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!” is a Harper Lee quote. The “polite society” line comes from a Robert Heinlein character in the novel Beyond This Horizon. That character is a privileged product of generations of eugenics. He lives in a society where genetic manipulation has extended lifespans and overpopulation is a prime concern. In that world, dueling has been re-introduced not because it makes people “polite” but because it kills people. And the character likes it because he believes it specifically kills those lesser people, those genetically inferior people, who need to be weeded out to make room for the übermensch to thrive.
Here’s that infamous quote as part of a larger speech:
“Well, in the first place an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization. That’s a personal evaluation only. But gunfighting has a strong biological use. We do not have enough things to kill off the weak and the stupid these days. But to stay alive as an armed citizen a man has to be either quick with his wits or with his hands, preferably both. It’s a good thing.”
Get that? The intention of “an armed society” isn’t to reduce gun violence. The whole purpose is to increase gun violence, to generate an excuse for murder that helps “cull” the weaker members of society. That’s what people are promoting when they use this quote.
The novel Beyond This Horizon also centers on how this genetic manipulation can produce telepathy and superhuman powers. Also reincarnation. The whole point of the book is that the main character’s daughter turns out to be the reincarnation of a former leader who managed to arrange her own death just in time to be reborn in the body of a child whose genetic profile she helped to manage … though oddly enough “The Great Egg must love human beings” hasn’t become nearly as popular a quote.
The entire novel in which the “polite society” quote is set represents a nightmare distortion of Darwinian selection, one in which being murdered is proof that someone didn’t deserve to live, and being a killer is exalted. And the word “polite” simply means “terrified.”
This is a society in which any slight is seen as an excuse to produce a gun and kill someone, backed up by themes of eugenics, personal vendettas, and murder for sport. A world where the citizens held in the highest regard are those who are most willing to commit murder. Especially those willing to murder people seen as “beneath them.”
And honestly, that makes it the perfect quote for those who use it. Because that position seems to almost perfectly match the idea they are actually promoting.