Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Culture of Violence

A little more than five years ago, I stood before my congregation on Shabbat morning, and said the following:
This week, the country and the world found itself once again, shocked, sickened and horrified by the carnage inflicted by a single, disturbed young college student, who single-handedly perpetrated the single worst mass-murder...in American history.
That was five years ago, following the Virginia Tech massacre. Were I still serving in the rabbinate today, I would stand before my congregation this week and read the exact same sermon yet again. Because things only seem to be getting worse.
Frighteningly, no one thinks that there's anything anyone can do about it. A prominent Senator told Chris Wallace on Sunday that he doesn't see any solution that could prevent such occurrences from repeating themselves. While the inevitable gun control debate reemerged in earnest towards the middle of the week, the political pundits doubted whether any politician would risk the wrath of the NRA to suggest greater control on deadly assault weapons, and the politicians wondered whether stronger laws would or could even make a difference.
From a practical, immediate perspective, there really is nothing that can be done to prevent another massacre. Yet, we also fail to question the underlying cultural causes that makes these massacres even possible. And we do so at our peril.
The Aurora slaying is far from an isolated incident even this year. We can add Aurora, Colorado to the name Columbine, which is already etched into our collective memory. And most of us have probably forgotten by now the terrible shootings of ten Amish girls in schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. And what of the four killed at a church event in Brookfield, Wisconsin? Or the six postal employees killed last year in Goleta, California? Or the nine killed by a high-school student in Minnesota? At what point do isolated incidents become a trend, representative of a larger, more deep-seated problem? To any casual observer, we are well past that point.
America is sick. We’ve been racked by senseless mass murders too many times to think that these are isolated incidents. Yet, in the aftermath of the latest incident, the incomprehensible murder of twelve movie-goers at a theater this week, we fail to ask the right question. We want to know whether there are too many guns in America, or perhaps not enough. But we don’t ask the most important question: Why is this happening most to America? One answer must be to acknowledge that we are sick. We have an illness, and an addiction. And until we acknowledge that addiction, the symptoms of that illness will only continue to get worse.We are reaping what we sew – and we wonder why it’s happening when it’s right under our noses.
We – all of us – are addicted to violence.
We love blood. From the movies we view to the television shows that we watch to the books that we read to the sporting events we attend, we want blood.
Pundits rushed to their keyboards to ensure that we don't place the blame on the movie that served as the background for the actual killings. Indiewire self-servingly demanded that we "Don't Blame the Movie", and it did so mere hours after the shootings. A more thoughtful New Yorker piece stated the obvious point that,
Whatever we learn of the Aurora murderer, whatever he may profess, and whatever the weaponry, body armor, and headgear that he may have sported, and however it seems like a creepy match for what is worn, by heroes and villains alike, in the Batman movies—despite all that, he was not driven by those movies to slaughter.
Or, to paraphrase the NRA, "Movies don't kill people. People kill people." (Ironically, the very same people who rushed to exonerate the movie that served as the backdrop for the killing rush to condemn the tools of the killing.) Dana Stevens at Slate at least wonders about the connection between the movie and the killings. Of course movies don't kill people. But culture creates an environment of acceptable attitudes and behaviors. Culture changes our attitudes, slowly but surely, over an extended period of time. Who can argue that Western Culture - the music, television, movies and written word - has fundamentally altered mainstream views on sexuality, marriage, homosexuality, etiquette, dress - you name it - our culture has affected it.Why should violence be any different?
Let's look at the evidence:
  • The highest-grossing movie in America this past weekend was, of course, the Dark Knight Rises, about which Commen Sense Media wrote,
Parents need to know that The Dark Knight Rises is the final installment in director Christopher Nolan's dark, violent Batman trilogy. Like its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises features ultra-violent scenes of torture and death that are too intense for younger kids used to the nearly comic, stylized action violence of other superhero films. A disturbingly high body count is achieved via massive explosions, kidnappings, neck breakings, shootings, and hand-to-hand combat. While there's not a lot of actual blood, there's tons of death and mass destruction. 
I wonder: why do we assume that ulraviolent movies are acceptable for anyone at any age, as opposed to sex or foul language? Reading the review carefully, it's clear that the producers worked hard to achieve the desired PG-13 rating (i.e. it's OK for kids), leaving out any real sexuality or profanity. At the same time, there's no effort to hold back on violence. In fact, the more the better. And somehow, it's still fine for kids - sorry - teenagers, to watch.
  • First-person shooter games are growing category of video games in which players move through different worlds, basically shooting and killing hundreds of times during a single game. The media inundates us with news of murders, killings, bombings and other various forms of actual violence on a daily, if not hourly basis.
  • Hockeyfights.com attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to its website each month. The USA Today quoted the sites creator David Singer as saying, “Fans like that part of the game.” He’s right. We do.
  • From the King of Thrones (that's got both violence and sex - so I hear...) to 24 to the Sopranos to CSI to the various flavors of Law and Order, television networks flood the airwaves with murder – both implied and explicit – and we watch.
Let’s make no mistake about it: America is addicted to violence. But calling for bans and limits and ratings and laws won’t address the problem. Companies sell violent video games because we buy them. Studios produce slasher movies and TV shows because we watch them. Hockey players fight because we pay them to. We love the NFL not despite of, but because it's the most violent sport in America. Boxing now seems tame in comparison to the new fighting sport that America loves called Mixed Martial Arts. (basically, pretty much anything goes.) Newspapers lead with blood because we buy them. Why would we ask the government to limit our access to something that we clearly want?
Why are we addicted to violence? What do we find so appealing about a movie about the wanton murder of teenagers in a forest? What do so many find so compelling about a video game that allows us to assume the role of mass-murderer? Why do we love blood so much?
When we see an act of violence, it gives us a rush – a sense of excitement and danger and exhilaration, almost like a drug. But in order to get that same rush, that same high the next time, you can’t take the same dose. You have to take more. So forty years ago, all we needed was the Three Stooges. An eye-poke here, a bop on the head there, and we felt that rush. Today, the Three Stooges is tame – even lame. The recent tepid response to the movie revival confirmed that fact. Now we can only get our rush from watching fake teenagers blow up drug dealers using information they learned in high school chemistry on the streets of Los Angeles.
But, like all drugs, the rush we get from watching, glorifying and recreating violence has a side effect. It dulls us to real violence. In a 2003 press release, the APA – the American Psychological Association declared: “Childhood Exposure to Media Violence Predicts Young Adult Aggressive Behavior, According to a New 15-Year Study.” “Children who identify with aggressive TV characters and perceive the violence to be realistic are most at risk for later aggression.
Can we change American society? Not today we can’t. But we can change our homes, and we can change our families and our children. Do I think that our children will grow up to follow in the footsteps of James Earl Holmes (ever wonder why they always use the full three names about these people?), God forbid? I don’t think so. But we can at least begin to try and lower the level of stimulation they need to get that rush from the violence that surrounds and envelops them in the media that they - and we - consume.
Do we want our kids to get their emotional rush – their excitement and adrenaline -- from a culture of violence and aggression? Do we really want our kids to grow up addicted to death, killing and murder? Do we really want them to get a rush out of a movie that features a man in a mask using a chain-saw to murder innocent people, or a video game that allows them to kill, maim and murder in all its gory, glorious, graphic detail?
Or do we want them to get that rush from a great hit on the baseball field, or the feeling of accomplishment after they’ve worked hard and aced a test or finished a project, or the rush of energy that they get at youth even, dancing with their friends?
I will end this piece with the very same words that I ended my sermon five years ago.
If all of this is so obvious, how then can we be so surprised – so shocked – when an imbalanced young man, who has watched thousands of murders on television and in the movies, and killed literally thousands and thousands of people on his computer screen – simply loses the ability or the will to distinguish between what’s imaginary and what’s real? Is it really all that surprising?

Until American society is willing and ready to deeply and honestly look at itself, I can say with a strong degree of confidence (and great sadness) I'll be writing this very same post yet again, not too far in the future.