Academic Writing

Friday, January 18, 2013

Violence and American Culture

I've been thinking a lot about violence in our movies and popular culture lately.  The tragedy in Newtown, CT is just the latest in a string of violent acts.  Talking heads and politicians are always so quick to place blame - it's because we need tighter gun control or because our movies and TV shows are too violent.  Maybe it's because our video games are too violent.  

Those all might be true.  But I couldn't help but wonder, why is this a problem in the United States and not so much in other countries.  Our movies get shipped overseas and are seen across the entire planet.   I think it’s a deeper issue.  

We are a nation that values violence.  If we go back to our roots, it is how we became who we are today.  American broke free from the British rule through a major war.  Violence got us what we wanted.  Then we had another war on our land where the north and south fought over which way of life was better.  The North won, and history has proven that the victor in that moral dichotomy was in fact the appropriate victor.  When violence was perpetrated against us – both on Pearl Harbor and then again on 9/11 how did we react?  Through violence.  How did that turn out for us?  Well, with WWII we had a clear victory, and while with this current war on terror things aren’t as clear cut but with the elimination of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden I think people are ok with our whole “let’s go get the bad guys” way of reacting.  In the 1960s when the students and hippies were attempting peaceful protests more often than not they were met with violence (Kent State anyone?  How about the 1968 DNC?  Violence, violence, and more violence).  For better or for worse violence is how we as a nation get things done.  We always have.  

Our movies, TV shows and video games just glorify what we already know.  We know we get what we want through imposing violence on others.  And in a ratings rat-race on TV and a money hungry movie industry these standards are always getting upped higher and higher to outdo the last iteration.  It’s happening with sexual depiction as well, but our culture has always been on the prudish side of sexual explicitness so it’s a longer climb (but don’t worry, we’re getting there with a big thanks to premium cable!).  Moreover, when violence in real life occurs we tend to focus on the positive outcomes it had – the military victories for example.  Very little attention is paid to the thousands of dead, injured and maimed soldiers who risked their lives for the greater good.  So the consequences tend to not seem like they outweigh the result.  In media violence doesn’t have a long term consequence either.  In video games you can restart even if your character dies.  The characters you’ve killed come back in the next round.  Movies and TV shows end and death and destruction goes along with them.

This past week I watched the season finale of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.  A show which I like and which I’ve followed since it premiered 3 years ago.  In the finale Richard (Jack Huston) walks into a house that was overrun with the mobsters from his opposing gang and one by one shoots them all with a rifle.  Blood smeared everywhere.  Death and destruction all around him.  What’s his punishment?  Not much other than getting a scolding and a disappointed look from his girlfriend.  Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained unleashed almost nonstop bloodshed from the first scene to the overbearingly gory  final sequence.  But it’s ok because the people who are doing the killing are the good guys and they’re working to stop slavery.  It’s justified slaughter.  It’s ok to kill if you think what you’re doing is ok.  What are the consequences?  Well, either you’ll be a hero or you’ll get in trouble, but either way you’ve done what you think is ok. 

So yes, other nations around the world watch and consume our violent entertainment, but they do so know it’s not their culture.  We create and consume our own media making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Since the Newtown shootings there’s been a lot said about imposing new gun laws.  The NRA is doing all it can to fight it.  President Obama is doing his part in imposing them.  I’m all for imposing stricter gun laws that keep guns controlled and in the hands of people who know how to use them.  We need this legislation and stronger laws to protect us.  Daily, it seems that assault weapons are getting into the wrong hands and imposing devastating and fatal damage to innocent people.  However, what I think is missing from the conversation is an appreciation of why gun culture is the way it is here.  There are other nations who understand violence – take Israel for example.  Whenever I go there and I see 18 year old soldiers walking around carrying m-16 or when a waiter at a restaurant I was at leaned over and the pistol which was holstered to his hip was revealed I don’t feel an ounce of fear.   This a society which deals with violence on a frequent basis and its citizens know the dire consequences of it as they are directly affected by it.  The frivolity in which we as Americans handle bloodshed is embarrassing and quite problematic.  Hopefully by both implementing stronger gun control laws while understanding why we behave the way we do on a cultural and psychological level we as a society won't totally miss the point and just put a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. 

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