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Violence Culture

Like much of the connected world, this month became an extended media binge for me. The packaging of violence as entertainment is something, once drawn to my attention years ago, I’ve tried to be more conscious of, especially the last few weeks. Fictional violence is escapist and thrilling, inevitable and commonplace, and something I increasingly have mixed feelings about.

Violence is in our DNA, central to our myth: this country was forged in the crucible of conflict, and the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms in a way that few other nations do. It bathes our history with wars won, numerous and major, just and improper, that place us in world preeminence and shape a sense of destiny, but also smaller wars, individual and domestic, chronicled and private, that fracture cohesion and make us more fragile. We fetishize violence by worshiping its tools and trivializing it in culture, depicting it indiscriminately across our screens for entertainment, where nonsensical body counts minimize death and render it inconsequential and irrelevant, demeaning actual tragedy and suffering. While violence in nature is wielded in primal, small scale struggle for survival, whether hunting for prey, defending the group, or competing for a mate, today’s firearms embrace an unnatural, rapacious capacity for destruction and effortless carnage that the founding fathers could never have foreseen. 

And yet, violence between humans has been decreasing; deaths due to armed conflict have been replaced by deaths in civilian hospital beds, with the military death rate falling tenfold in the last fifty years. We’ve decided we want less of its destabilizing and traumatic effects, and more education, economic growth, and higher living standards instead; the intentional homicide rate in the US almost halved in the last twenty years alone, while around the world, literacy rates quadrupled last century. We might feel differently about our virtual reality, but we desire less violence IRL, not more. Yes, humans are designed to survive in the natural world, and aggression is part of our physical and mental make-up, but putative proxies such as sports do exist in modern times (with even the idea of sportsmanship to accommodate civility in competition). Much has been written about these trends and why we should be optimistic about the future, and it seems safe to say much of the world is on a general trajectory towards greater peace, with a bias to broadening justice by lessening inequity and unnecessary suffering: witness the recognition of gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality over the last century, and the growing awareness of animal rights – the untold collateral suffering that our tidy supermarket packaging obscures – within the rise of the plant-based food movement. We’ll see if this continues, but the direction of recent history is difficult to dispute: less is more when it comes to violence.

America is an international anomaly when it comes to prolific civilian ownership of firearms. One could (somewhat unkindly) say a society that desires its weapons is one that fundamentally mistrusts its institutions, perhaps by necessity, but weak institutions are not the sign of a healthy, functioning, or even resilient democracy, all things we rightly laud America for being. Remember, the Second Amendment was crafted in the aftermath of bloody revolution, by a young nation indebted to and still dependent on citizen militia, whose institutions were still taking form. In the era of modern weaponry, large wars have been replaced by the relative calm of Mutually Assured Destruction, but today’s right to bear arms has transformed guns into objects of domestic ubiquity, MAD played out in miniature across individuals and groups: a country bound by the omnipresent promise of violence – deterrent, retaliatory, or random – and accustomed to the perpetual groundhog day of school lockdowns, memorials, trauma and rhetoric. Yes, an armed citizenry does mean that a malevolent government might be overthrown by a heroic militia, but a democratic government could also be undemocratically unseated by a disgruntled one.

Gun control, like everything else today, is unsurprisingly polarized. For those who would argue and seek to convince that weapons be regulated, largely reserved and relegated to the institutions we build collectively, having a conversation about losing our love of guns must also include coming to terms with and talking about violence – its place in our genesis and our history, and the favored place it occupies in today’s culture and media as we remain complacently in its thrall. We can’t talk about reducing violence and firearms in real life and continue to be entertained by the very same things onscreen; you can’t argue for gun control and tolerate desensitization to virtual violence without acknowledging the cognitive dissonance. Imperfect as it is, it’s not hard to see the comparison to cigarettes that some have made, when you consider the role media and pop culture had in normalizing smoking last century before the FCC Fairness Doctrine was applied; for a clumsy equivalent of that today, consider introducing a similar mandate for quid pro quo attention on the devastating consequences of violence whenever it is egregiously simulated for entertainment. Perhaps these really are two different, disparate conversations. Or perhaps, culture reflects who and what we are, at times tragically so, and as others have argued, no unifying path forward exists without a broader, longer conversation about our culture and its relationship with violence.