On Wednesday, August 26, a television reporter and her photographer partner were gunned down while conducting a live interview during a morning telecast in Moneta, Virginia. The woman being interviewed was also shot and had to undergo emergency surgery, but is expected to survive. The gunman, a disgruntled employee of the station, later shot himself and died at the hospital.
Public shock was quickly followed by outrage, anger and despair. People of all walks of life immediately took to social media to condemn the killings, and those in the media struggled to report this latest atrocity and their unified sorrow was especially heartrending. Calls quickly went out to examine America’s lack of gun control laws; I’m sure it will not be long before the NRA and its adherents will be once again defending an individual’s right to bear arms in any and all scenarios.
While I believe a dialog about gun control (from both sides) is valuable and even necessary when coming to grips with violence such as what occurred in Virginia on Wednesday, that’s not what I want to talk about here. To distill what is occurring in our country into merely a guns/no guns issue is blinding us to what I feel is really at the root of the problem, which is, how we glamorize violence in our society.
Simply look around at the messages we embrace:
Here are the movies that are currently getting the most screen time at my local Cineplex (at least three showings in one given day): Hitman – Agent 47; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; Straight Outta Compton; Sinister 2; No Escape; American Ultra; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; The Gift; Ant-Man; Ricki and the Flash; The End of the Tour. Regardless of how “good” they are, how many of them glorify violence? Even if it is dressed up in “the good guys vs the bad guys”, how many of them make violence look cool?
The top grossing movies of 2014: American Sniper, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1; Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The top grossing movies so far of 2015: Jurassic World; The Avengers: Age of Ultron; Furious 7; again, American Sniper.
Here are our top broadcast television shows for 2014/2015 (according to the Hollywood Reporter): The Big Bang Theory; Modern Family; How to Get Away with Murder; Scandal; The Blacklist; Sunday Night Football; Gotham; Grey’s Anatomy; Criminal Minds; Scorpion. How many of them default to casual or dramatic violence? Not all of the, no, but many of them. Think of other “hot” shows: Empire, the NCIS franchise, or the CIS franchise. How about cable? The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, True Detective, American Horror Story, House of Cards, Homeland, Killjoys, 12 Monkeys, Supernatural, Boardwalk Empire, Penny Dreadful… the list goes on and on.
And what about video games? Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Destiny, Mortal Kombat, Battlefield Hardline, Batman: Arkham Knight, The Witcher, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Dragon Age. Even World of Warcraft. Even Lara Croft. Even Knights of the Old Republic.
Are these movies, television shows, video games bad for us? Do they make us more violent as a society? Should they be regulated, removed, restricted?
No. No, no, no, no and no.
That’s not my point, not really. In and of themselves, none of these media offerings are “bad”, nor do they cause social dysfunction.
But when you take them all together, when you add in promotions, trailers, commercials, print advertising, marketing tie ins, brand crossovers, social media manipulation, and in the case of gaming, lots of anonymous interaction, and you have a society being groomed for itchy trigger fingers. It doesn’t matter if you’re killing Nazis, criminals, dragons or orcs, or simply “the other”, it doesn’t matter if you’re bringing fugitives to justice or ridding the streets of crime, it doesn’t matter if you’re taking down Hydra or fighting back an alien invasion or breaking up an insurgency. There are still bullets flying, still blood being drawn, swords flashing, fists crunching, light sabers humming, arrows being shot, axes being swung, punches being thrown, explosions, smack downs, assassinations, vengeance, retaliation, retribution and death, death, death.
But no consequences.
And those are just the things that have been fabricated for our enjoyment, our amusement. There are so many other things that combatively assault our senses now on a daily basis, at least those of us who utilize media. We hear of atrocities on the news, or the news itself is sensationalized, or belabored to the point of obsession, or so opinionated that it ceases to be news and instead becomes the spectacle of the shrillest. On social media we are inundated with barely masked aggression hiding behind supposed wittiness, or overt nationalism, or sentimental gold-digging. We are challenged, constantly, without pause for debate, and this burgeoning “us-verus-them” mentality has ruined lives simply because of ill turned phrases, out of context twisting of words, lack of acknowledgement of a larger picture, snap judgments and a lack of empathy. But the ruination is usually conducted from afar. Character assassination. Anonymous attacks. Overt manipulations and outright lying, stridently trumpeted as truth. Or deflection of responsibility in knowingly passing on erroneous information, or continuing an unkind assessment because something was “too funny” or “too bizarre” or “too outrageous” to pass up.
And we hold our tongues. We allow things we know to be untrue or wrong to go unchallenged. We vent our spleen in our living rooms to television sets and computers that simply don’t care. We shake our heads and tut-tut over yet another shooting or yet another killing or yet another atrocity, and then we change the channel to watch Gordon Ramsay chew out another hapless underling in an obvious manipulation of some supposed competition in order to ratchet up the melodrama because that’s where the ratings are, baby! Or we solemnly change the background color of our profile pic on Facebook in solidarity with a beloved cause and then sleep better at night feeling that we’ve made a positive difference in the world.
Yet even as we dig ourselves into smaller and deeper ideological holes, we do it from a distance. We surround ourselves with the sights and sounds of violence, we enter into it vicariously, we let it surround us and inundate our lives and our children’s lives, yet we do not let it touch us deeply, so we say it’s okay. And little by little we become numb to the reality of violence. Because we’ve played at violence so successfully, we are more able to shunt real life violence into a more manageable compartment in our psyches. “Such a shame” as we see kids being rushed out of a building where a gunman has gone on a rampage. “How horrible!” we exclaim as lives are lost in a senseless shooting in a movie theater. “Where is the accountability?” we cry when yet another person dies at the hands of those who have sworn to protect them, whether those sworn are police officers, the social services system, or their own parents.
But because we have become desensitized, because we have so successfully allowed ourselves to equate violence with make believe, because we constantly invite the experience of manufactured violence into our lives only to be able to walk away from it whenever the movie ends, or the dungeon is mastered or the quest has been achieved, or when the resolution comes 48 minutes into the show, just in time for the conclusion and the rolling credits with the heroes (more or less) living to fight crime yet another day, then we are able to skirt around the violence that actually ends real flesh and blood lives. We do not need to make a stand because our world goes on.
Let’s face it. We have become a violent society. Not because of the movies, the TV shows, the video games. They exist because we want them. We support them with our wallets. Sure, not everyone who enjoys killing orcs in World of Warcraft or loves the James Bond movies or wouldn’t miss an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles is going to be a serial killer. But the more realistic the violence on our various screens becomes, the easier it is to mitigate the shock when real violence happens. As we embrace more sophisticated and immediate technologies and applications in our entertainment – that which we chose to surround ourselves with – the line between what is real and what is fabricated starts to blur.
Perhaps what shocked the world so much in the murder of Virginia television reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward was that it happened live and was broadcast without warning to those who did not seek it out. Due to the autoplay that defaults on some social media outlets, many people who were simply scrolling through their feeds also saw raw footage of the actual killings play out, either through the images on Adam Ward’s camera, or from the upload to the gunman’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. This “distasteful”, “disturbing” and “horrifying” video was totally unexpected by a public used to being able to keep violence at arm’s length. This shit suddenly became real.
Listen, I’m not advocating for more graphic images in our newsfeeds. That might actually desensitize us even more to the horrible cost of violence. I’m not suggesting that there be censorship of any medium, or more stringent restrictions placed on who can see what/play what. I don’t have a solution to stemming the tide of our escalating violence. I certainly do have strongly held opinions on what I believe the solution should entail, including strong gun control regulations, mandatory liability insurance required for each gun and mandatory training for all licenses which would then need to be renewed periodically, and harsh penalties handed out for crimes committed using a gun, any gun, licensed or not. However, I also acknowledge that my opinions are just that – opinions, of a non-gun owner living in a metropolitan environment, who has never hunted for sport or sustenance and who was raised in an intensely pacifist household. I am more than willing to acknowledge that others may and will have opinions just as valid to them, in opposition to mine.
But what I do believe needs to happen is that we as a country need to stop looking for “a magic bullet” (ha! even my imagery implies violence!) that will end all of our social ills, and stop thinking that if we only tame one beast, that the jungle will now be safe. Yes, gun control will eventually need to be part of the healing of our country, which will mean more than anything a loosening of the iron grip that the NRA holds on Congress (which is an entirely different discussion), but to think that everything will be hunky dory if and when this happens is as much a fantasy as Bilbo Baggins or the existence of a magical school for wizards in the English countryside.
We need to acknowledge that we are a violent society, and then work to find acceptable parameters for that violence. Not just incarceration guidelines and gun control. Not just in laws and regulations. Education must factor in, and transparency. In my mind, ethics in marketing should be part of the equation, and staunch support for those who are victims of violence. Communication, yes. Acceptance of responsibility, hell yes. Even-handed penalties, prosecutions, and reparations, yes, yes and yes.
But we cannot – cannot – simply hope that if we close our eyes it will all go away. That if we don’t see the horrible images, then we can pretend they don’t happen. Because they do happen. To us. To our neighbors. To the guy shot by the fellow across the street because he wouldn’t stop feeding the deer that came to his lakeside home. To the father of the young man who thought he was raising his son right in the eyes of the Lord, but then one day the kid just “snapped” and took a shotgun to his father and his mother both. To the three beautiful, lively young girls strangled by their father in order to get back at his wife because she told him she wanted a divorce. To the young woman who was finally claiming her own sexuality and happened to walk past the wrong group on the street. To any number of women (and men) who have been killed due to suspected infidelity. To the man shot and killed in a movie theater by a retired police captain because he was texting with his daughter during the previews. To the black man in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or New York City, or Cleveland, or Phoenix, or North Charleston, or Beavercreek, Ohio or San Bernardino County, California who died mainly because he was black. To the hundreds and thousands of Americans killed each and every year through violence, both intended and accidental. To the innocent bystanders. To the good Samaritans. To those who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, even to a pretty blonde news reporter and her big hearted photographer, just because. Just freekin’ because.
Accepting that one has a problem is considered the first step towards healing. Let’s take that first step, and acknowledge that our society has a problem with violence. Then let’s look at how we glamorize violence, and how we have become desensitized to violence. Let’s reinvigorate our senses with awareness. And then let’s take the next steps towards healing, rather than simply continue on the same bloodied path we’ve been on for years now. Let’s do it for Alison, and for Adam. Let’s do it for Trayvon, and for Islan. Let’s do it for our children – for all our children. Heck, let’s do it for us all.
~ Sharon Browning