As Roger Ebert said in a recent NY Times op-ed about the recent Colorado mass murder, “We’ve seen this movie before.”
I’m not exactly sure how much irony Ebert intended with the title of that article (if he wrote the headline at all). The column completely skirts a correlation between violent culture and violent actions, and instead is more about gun control and media hysteria than the movies we choose to attend. Personally I think Ebert was wrong to wave away even the possibility that culture and violence are intertwined.
Violence, especially in young adult literature, has been on my mind for some time, and I asked about it at the recent Comic-Con panel on what’s hot in YA.
It’s not a simple connection by any means, but with violent young adult novels arguably more popular than ever, shouldn’t we be thinking more about what America’s young people are reading and watching?
Shouldn’t we think about what we’re all reading and watching?
A collective shrug
I’m not in favor of censorship. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what people should and shouldn’t read. I don’t believe books and movies create murderers by themselves, and I recognize that there is some evidence to suggest that, among other things, access to violent games reduces violence. I believe in the marketplace of ideas and stories.
But as an author and reader I am disturbed at how little discussion has accompanied the rise of very violent young adult literature in particular. It seems to me that there’s been a collective shrug.
At least the kids are reading books? Or something?
Many of these violent books get a pass because they have a veneer of anti-violence in their story lines. Well, people argue, at least these books (usually) show the consequences of violence. At least they (usually) have anti-war messages.
But this seems to me to be a very flimsy premise when the very violence these books purport to eschew is inherent to the appeal of the books. Teaching nonviolence with a book where the slickly entertaining violence is the main attraction is like using pornography to teach abstinence.
Again, I’m not in favor of pulling books from shelves or controlling what should be published, and I think some of these books are really good. I may even write a violent scene or two myself some day. And whatever is happening in books probably pales in comparison to what kids are seeing on TV and movies every day. I get it.
But still, the collective shrug that accompanied these books disturbs me. I don’t know if anyone even thought to shrug in the first place — that would mean we recognized a potential problem.
In the wake of the Colorado shooting, journalist James Fallows bemoaned the fact that despite yet another mass murder nothing in our political rhetoric or actions or laws or anything was likely to change. We know it’s going to happen again and we do nothing about it.
Why are Americans so uniquely immune to violence, even though, despite declining rates, Americans are twice as likely to die a violent death than any other first world country?
Why do we accept all of this? Why does everyone just shrug?
Justifying what we like
I don’t have the answers, which is why this post is littered with questions. I don’t know that lessening the violence in movies and books would reduce actual violence. I’m sure the kids will be alright. Heck, I don’t even have kids whose media consumption it’s my job to monitor.
But I do know that story lines about teens learning to become violent badasses bother me. Stories that glorify vigilantism bother me. Stories that use our natural, inherent fascination with violence to cheaply entertain us bother me.
I also understand the counterarguments. That we live in a violent world, and at least violent books usually show teens responsibly navigating them. That kids are going to seek them out no matter what we do to try and stop them. That violence in culture can channel and diffuse our naturally violent tendencies. That they’re products of, not contributors to, a violent culture.
All I’m advocating is thought.
Let’s think about why there were so many children in attendance at a midnight showing of a trilogy with a particularly nihilistically violent worldview.
Let’s think about why we barely bat an eye at the level of violence in our culture but get up in arms about gay penguins.
Let’s think about why we’re more concerned about protecting the rights of chickens than we are about restricting the ability of someone to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition perfectly legally over the Internet.
I’m shaped on this issue by a formative experience in my childhood, a murder at my high school where I had known both the victim and the murderers all my life. It wasn’t one of those mass murders you heard about in the news, just one of the 18,200 murders that happened in the US in 1997.
Violence isn’t an abstraction. We storytellers can make it entertaining in fiction, but there’s nothing about real life violence that is entertaining, unless you are a sadist or have managed to dehumanize its victims.
And yet somehow, despite our initial shock, we treat horrific violence as a fact of life instead of doing something tangible about it. And I fear that the constant exposure to entertaining violence in literature and movies, and the justifications that accompany them, teach us to do just that.
I might be wrong. I might be right.
Let’s at least think about it.
Art: “First at Vicksburg” – artist unknown