Media and Murder: Why “fixing” violence in popular entertainment won’t stop mass shootings, but we may want to do it anyway.

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Politics on February 28, 2018 at 12:39 pm


In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting there has been a new round of discussions about how to prevent such tragedies.  And one of the ideas being pressed by people who really don’t want to talk about things like gun control is the old claim that we need to do something about violent video games and movies.


The available evidence, however suggests two seemingly contradictory ideas: first, violence in video games and movies (or any other media) does not cause people to commit mass murder; second, we should nonetheless work to reduce the amount of graphic violence in entertainment media.


The idea that video games or movies are to blame seems to surface only when the killer is a teenager or very young adult.  The average age of U.S. mass shooters, however, is 35.  And, although the average age of video game users is around 31, the largest number (29%) of users are under 18; but that percentage is not significantly higher than 18-35 (27%) or 50+ (26%).  In addition, only 20% of video games are “shooter” games, and as video game sales have increased significantly, violent crime rates have remained steady or shown decreases.  And even in individual cases, there has never been any clear link between the actions of any mass shooter and his consumption of violent media.  In other words, there is no evidence that suggests the use of violent video games or watching violence in films or on TV has any causative relationship to mass shootings.


Most media studies seem to suggest that entertainment reflects popular attitudes and serves to reinforce them, but does not directly cause them. Think of it this way: if you are going to make a movie or design a game that will appeal to as large a segment of the population as possible, you won’t try to change what they want, you will try to discover what they already want and give them more of it.  In other words, people aren’t expressing themselves violently because popular entertainment is violent; popular entertainment is violent because people are expressing themselves that way.  And there are a great many social and cultural factors involved in that. 


It has long been observed that movies, in particular, reflect the times in which they are made.  During World War II, for example, Hollywood made a lot of movies showing the heroism of our fighting forces, the evils of our enemies, and the courage of Americans on the home front.  Following the Vietnam conflict, an unpopular war, there were a lot of films that showed the horrors of war, the physical and psychological effects of war on both troops and the general populace.  When Ronald Reagan was elected and the country seemed to be shifting back in a more conservative direction, we saw more movies about the cold war and home-town heroes rising up to defend against Soviet invasion, and movies that revised the Vietnam narrative and the idea of the super-soldier.  As things improved and the cold war ended, film began to reflect more positively on human relationships.  But since 9/11 amid renewed fears of terrorism and attack, we have seen a great many more movies about superheroes and the military, with ever increasing amounts of violence.  When people are afraid, Hollywood gives them superheroes of all kinds.


But there is in that realization cause for concern.  If the violence of our entertainments is a reflection of who we are, is this who we want to be?  And what is the danger in that?


One lesson of the women’s movement and its attempts to deal with misogyny in American culture has been that media is extremely important in the reinforcement of cultural norms, and that culture changes much more slowly than social awareness or changes in law or individual behavior.  Much has changed with respect to the role of women in the workplace, but events of the last two years have shown that the culturally normative idea that women exist subservient to the power and fantasies and physical needs of men remains firmly in place.  And just as the cultural norms cling to archaic views of men and women, it also clings to normative fantasies about the military, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and violence as a solution to problems of violence.


American culture continues to tell us two things of relevance here.  First, it tells white, heterosexual, Christian, American males that they have reason to be afraid, primarily of the “other.”  And, second, it continues to try to frame the solutions to that fear in fantasies of superheroes and militaristic violence, weapons of enormous destruction, and personal heroism.  Notice, as something of an aside, that greater awareness of the ubiquity of violence against women has coincided with an increase in the number of movies involving female superheroes, females in the military, and female characters equal to men in their capacity for violence.  Our culture, as reflected in our popular entertainment, values the capacity for violence as a measure of our ability to respond to our fears.


The graphic and excessive violence of popular media shows us, in other words, that we have a much deeper problem of violence embedded in The American culture, and we need to address that.  So, what can we do?  How do we change the culture?


Media in America are profit driven.  They respond to what media consumers tell them they want.  If we tell them, through our purchase of video games, our attendance at movies, our TV habits, that we want more militarism, more police action, more superheroes, more personal heroism, more graphic depictions of more violent responses to conflict, more reinforcement of our fears about those who are different from us; then that is what  we will get, and we can expect that there will be more and more incidents of people trying to solve their problems by taking large, extremely deadly weapons to places where they can kill as many people as possible.  There is no reason, except the public’s appetite for it, that superhero films, or vigilante films, or action video games need to show scenes of extremely graphic, extremely destructive violence.  If the public were to decide, in large enough numbers, that they no longer want to be told that the solution to violence is more and greater violence; if they were to stop paying good money to go to the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster; if they were to not go out to get the latest version of Grand Theft Auto; then the media would stop making those things.


But that’s a hard thing to do.  Most of the people I know really love the latest dark manifestations of Marvel fantasy characters.  They like a good action movie with lots of enormous guns being fired, lots of big explosions going off, and lots of hugely muscled heroes killing lots of ugly, despicable villains.  And real cultural change would require us to give some of that up.  We would have to dial it down.  We would have to start playing games that require more nuanced solutions, we would have to start patronizing films, even superhero and military films, that require less graphic on-screen violence to arrive at a climax.


It is a myth that watching violence purges us of violent feelings.  Do you leave a violent game or a violent movie thinking, “wow, that’s great; now I don’t feel like I need to do that in real life,” or do you leave thinking, “I am so energized, so pumped up, that I think I could (or wish I could) be a hero like that in real life”? 


There is no single solution to the problem of violence and the increase in the kind of mass murder we have witnessed in Parkland, in Las Vegas, and in so many other of our schools, our malls, our concert venues, our churches and our public spaces.  We need a comprehensive approach that combines a variety of strategies.  Most of those strategies are well known, but cannot work in isolation from one another.  Certainly, passing a lot of new laws and regulations about violence in entertainment won’t make a huge difference by itself.  But all of these things can make a difference if we begin to take a hard look at how our culture, through it’s entertainment, its other public media, its politics and its policies, reinforces the idea that our problems can be solved by more and greater violence.


As consumers of public media and popular entertainment we can change the culture if we have the will to do it.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but long term effective solutions rarely are.  What ideas about violence are you helping to reinforce by how you spend your entertainment dollar and your leisure time?








How Could It Happen Here?

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 19, 2018 at 11:40 am

After yet another mass shooting like that in Parkland, Florida, last week, there are always the same responses. But I’m not talking about the calls for banning certain guns or the calls to arm even more people; I’m not talking about the thoughts and prayers; and I’m not talking about those who want more locks and scanners and cameras and armed security guards; though I will show a connection in a bit.
I’m talking about the “how could it happen here” response.
Why are people always so surprised that the same violence that has happened in so many other places is possible where they live?
The reason is simple. We need to believe that all kinds of bad things happen to other people, and (as the President suggested in his first reaction to the shooting) that the victims share some responsibility for what happened. There must be something different, we tell ourselves, about those people or those places where these things occur.
The reality, unfortunately, is that the difference more and more seems to be only that it hasn’t happened here . . . yet.
But the response is an indication of several problems with how we approach serious issues and tragic events.
First, it is an expression of unconscious assumptions of privilege and specialness. It suggests that there are places where we might expect such things to happen, even believe that it is acceptable for them to happen there. People are currently harking back to the Columbine shootings of 1999, but that was not the first time there had been a shooting in an American school. In fact, in January 1989, a lone gunman using an AK-47 killed five children and wounded 29 in Stockton, California. From 1992-1999 there were more than two hundred homicides in school shootings in the U.S.

What changed with Columbine was the erroneous perception that those sorts of things only happened in cities like New York or Chicago, and mainly among groups of non-white, poor populations. Columbine brought it into a middle class community in middle America. The other thing that happened was that the television age caught up with the shootings. Columbine was an instance of children shooting children, there was no obvious cause or reason for it, and the news media, reinforced by the rise of twenty-four hour cable news, ran with the story.
Second, it suggests that there is some way to isolate or protect ourselves from the things that are happening to others. After Columbine, schools started installing metal detectors in schools. Since then, we have seen the imposition a host of security protocols, installation of a variety electronic devices, and the introduction of both armed and unarmed security and police. But the number of incidents, the number of deaths per incident, and the deadliness of the weapons have all increased. What we have not seen is any real attempt to understand why these things happen or to deal with the real problems. We need to understand that turning our schools into prisons and fortresses or arming ourselves to the teeth won’t stop the carnage.
Third, the response suggests that there is some moment in time, some singular incident, that will finally mobilize us to do something, anything, to prevent these things; though there is no consensus as to what that might be. While I commend the actions of Parkland students to organize a national walk-out, to call out the NRA and politicians who offer platitudes instead of solutions, I have difficulty hoping that these actions will prove ultimately effective in making the Parkland students, as expressed by student Emma Gonzalez, remembered as the last students to die in a mass shooting at a school. If Columbine led only to more security and no long-term solutions, if Sandy Hook didn’t lead to lasting change, why should this? As long as people believe that it won’t happen here, and only do what they think will protect themselves, lasting change won’t happen. Until every community, especially those that have not yet suffered such a tragedy, can come out in forced to demand change, it won’t happen. Until people stop waiting for it to happen to them before they demand change, it won’t happen.
It isn’t unreasonable for people to be shocked when events hit close to home. We have been far too accustomed since at least the 1950’s duck-and-cover drills to living in fear. Far too much of our national life is lived in fear, far too many of our national policies are motivated by fear, and far too much of what we are sold by both politicians and corporations is based on fear. Part of the shock of these events is not that we thought we were safe, but that we feared we weren’t; and our fears have been realized. But to find our way to effective solutions to the things that divide us, that make us afraid, that move so many to violence we need to be fearless. We need to dare to stand up and stand out, to take to the streets, to make our voices heard. And we must do this before it affects us directly, before we become directly victims. We need to understand that we are all already victims. Our society is already a victim, our democracy is already a victim, our way of life is already a victim. And we must stand up to the forces that tell us to be quiet.
Instead of asking ourselves, “How could this happen here, to us?”, we should be asking ourselves, “How do we keep it from happening anywhere, to anybody?” But the answer to that question will require a whole lot more than just banning a few weapons or building some new defenses.

A Message for Men Who Feel Compelled to Say Something About Sex Abuse

In Politics on December 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I will begin this with a personal revelation. This is hard. It should be hard. It requires me to take as honest a look as I can at my own past and my relationships with women. I offer this as neither explanation nor excuse, but only as background.
I grew up in the 50s and came of age in the 60s. I could see, even as a young teenager, that my male friends and acquaintances were treating the girls in their lives abominably. I could see the destructiveness of cultural stereotypes and norms that asserted the superiority and dominance of men over women. I have always thought of myself as a feminist.
I was also a young man who was shy and awkward around women, who was trying to grow up in a culture that sent me a lot of harmful messages about what a man was supposed to be and what I should expect of women. Like most other young men I was stupid about such things. My early experiences with the opposite sex involved awkward and embarrassing attempts at physical intimacy, including some groping and what I’m certain now was at the very least unenthusiastic making out. I felt afraid, unattractive, undesirable, powerless and desperate.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was in a marriage that was already on a self-destructive path. In my thirties I became a college professor, and a leading figure in local theater, and I suddenly discovered that there were women who found me attractive and wanted to have sex with me. I had affairs. All the affairs were consensual and initiated by the women, so I was able to dismiss the element of power. I compartmentalized. I allowed myself to think that the attraction was based on my charm, my intellect, on all sorts of personal qualities other than the fact that I held a position of power and status. I never asked the question of whether any of these women would have found me attractive just for myself if circumstances were different.
Throughout this period of my life I was, again without seeing it, a bully and a tyrant, selfish and insulated in my struggle to become something like the man my culture had put in my head. And all the while, because I supported women’s rights and argued for women’s issues and talked about how badly women were treated, I was convinced that I was a feminist and an ally.
So how can I now claim any credible standing to speak about what women need?
As more and more men in positions of public power and influence are being accused of inappropriate behavior towards women, everyone seems to be talking about the problems associated with powerful men and sex.
Can we back up a moment here and acknowledge that when we are discussing relationships between men and women the phrase “powerful men” is redundant? In America (anywhere, really, but let’s stick with our own culture for the moment) there has always been a power imbalance between men and women; and that imbalance has always been to the advantage and benefit of men. This isn’t simply about outing and punishing public figures in the movie industry, or politics, or the news media. That will quickly get tiresome for some, overwhelming for many, and eventually fade into the fog of the 24/7 news cycle that shapes our current experiences.
If you have grown up in America, you have been daily bombarded with messages about men, women, and power. For men, power has always been attractive and expected. For women, power has always been unnatural and dangerous to the social order.
Men have always been told that power over women is essential to being a real man. If a man can’t demonstrate his power over a woman we have a large lexicon of emasculating and feminizing insults with which to attack him. If a woman demonstrates power over a man, that same lexicon has words that de-humanize and de-feminize her, and make her ugly.
If you are an American male who has reached puberty, you have been raised in a culture which has encouraged and rewarded this kind of power-imbalance behavior. Most have never committed rape or the grosser forms of harassment, but all have taken advantage of the privileges associated with being male in our culture, and hurt women in the process.
If you are an American female of any age, you have experienced an often overt, sometimes subtle, but constant stream of messages about yielding power to men, regardless of the consequent injuries to yourself. You have also been taught that sexual power is the only power you naturally have over men, but that using that power is forbidden. If you have sex with a man, regardless of the circumstances, any negative consequences are your own fault. At the same time, if a man doesn’t want to have sex with you it is also your fault, and you need to do more so that some man will want to have sex with you.
This double bind is why women spend billions of dollars every year to conform to a male-normative ideal of attractiveness, to wear carefully crafted make-up, to dress provocatively, to learn how to be what the masculine culture tells them they should be, often through the voices of other women; only to be told that they have only themselves to blame if a man is unable to control himself around them. If you are a woman in America, it is likely that you continue to follow at least some of the cultural rules that give men power over you.
If you are, like me, a progressive American male; if you consider yourself an ally, an advocate, a feminist; if you have been making or are about to make some statement about those powerful men now being brought to accountability for their actions, I suggest you stay quiet for a moment and check in with yourself about two important considerations.
Before I pay much attention to your declarations or praise you for your positions, I want to hear you explain the following:
In what ways have you, as a product of this culture, as a man who has been given the power and privilege of being male, taken advantage of that power and privilege in your life; and how has that hurt any woman or women?
I’m not asking if you have ever raped someone, or abused a partner, or even if you were once a serial groper. If any of those are true you should probably just deal with them and shut up about other people’s bad behavior. I’m asking when was the last time you laughed at something that contributed in some way to the culture’s misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women, like a “dumb blonde” joke. Was there ever a time in your life when you had lots of reasons with which you could defend misogynistic pornography or coercive prostitution that caters to male fantasies about women and sex; such as lofty arguments about how every sexual interaction is an exchange for value of some kind, or how there’s nothing inherently wrong with people choosing to have sex on film for other people to get pleasure from? Have you ever assumed that the fact you had sex with a woman is evidence that she freely consented to that sex, regardless of the circumstances? How carefully and honestly have you looked at your relationships with women – personally, socially, professionally, romantically – and understood the role that cultural norms of maleness and femaleness have played in those relationships?
Why do you feel compelled to make your statement now?
It is, of course almost always a good thing to make a statement in support of an important movement or action. I’m not questioning whether something needs to be said or whether men ought to be saying something. But I think that we need to be clear about our motives. So much of what men have historically said about their support for women, their admiration for them, what’s good for them, and how we want to help them has turned out to be self-serving for men and hurtful for women that I think we at least want to be honest about how we see our purpose in this. There is little reason for women to trust what we say and we need to make an effort to earn that trust. What do you want? If you’re a politician or public figure, for example, are you concerned that your silence implies that you don’t support women in this struggle? What other commitments are you making with this statement to actually work toward change? How does this statement square with other positions you have held in the past and how will it inform your behavior henceforward? If you are not a public figure, but feel the need for a public statement, what role do you see for yourself in the struggle to change the culture and bring women fully into their rightful place as human beings and members of society? Why should your opinion be considered valuable or important?
After you’ve addressed these questions, wait a moment longer. Let women speak. Let them say what they think about your answers, perhaps give them the opportunity to ask for your input or give you permission to speak. Address their concerns, rather than assume you know what they want or need from you. Be careful that you aren’t mansplaining or talking over, or interrupting.
When I was younger I was a feminist because I knew that it was right. Now I’m a feminist because I can begin to see where I was wrong. I’m not a feminist in spite of my past or out of guilt about my past. I’m a feminist because looking at my past has helped me to see that the struggle is not just a women’s struggle, it is also mine. Men cannot fix this for women. We can, however, follow their lead and become part of fixing it for us all.

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