Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Persistence of Violence

Excuse me while I jump on the bandwagon here.

The situation in Tuscon is a tragedy, and now we have to wait to figure out what exactly went on and why this person chose to harm a Congressperson. What I won't be a part of, in the angst, is an overly simplified partisan attack on speech.

On one hand, I absolutely understand the concern being hoisted on the Sarah Palin target ad, the call to violent revolution by the Tea Partiers, the Nevada politician's call for a "second amendment solution," the Glenn Beck wild conspiracy, the rage-filled response to the health care bill last year, the insinuation that Obama is a Muslim/not a citizen/Hitler. Currently, it seems that the Far Right is focused on a self-righteous crusade using violent and angry rhetoric. All of those things have consequences, and that consequence may be that it pushes already imbalanced people over the edge. It doesn't make the Conservatives responsible directly, but it does give them secondary responsibility for their words and actions.


On the other hand, there's no way that I (as a more liberal leaning person) can allow the pundits on my side of the aisle to wash their hands of the whole thing. Keith Olbermann (who annoys the holy bejeezus out of me) calls people "The Worst Person in the World" on every show. Bill Maher antagonizes the Right with spiteful words and a condescending air. I hear liberal friends and pundits too readily dismiss Conservatives and Christians as mouth-breathing hate mongers. None of these, in my opinion, rise to the level of hate I see and hear from the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaugh's of the world, but they certainly aren't blameless or innocent. Just as above, these comments don't mean liberals have direct responsibility for the actions of people like yesterday's shooter...but, again, it does give them some secondary responsibility.

Rumors surrounding yesterday's assassin have him reading the left-wing The Communist Manifesto as well as the right-wing Mein Kampf. Clearly this guy isn't the simple "mouth-breathing" conservative that some have insinuated he is. Regardless, that doesn't mean the current political rhetoric of violence and hate haven't impacted his already screwed up mind. Because what really matters here is that we've created a partisan divide that dehumanizes the opposition, whichever side you're on. Different opinions are too often seen as fundamental flaws, implications of an evil or ill-intentioned heart, as reason to hate. We're all guilty of buying into this, myself included, I admit. A side effect of this is that we also tend to see ceding a point as weakness, because it implies that we might agree with something evil or vile. When we paint the opposition as evil or the enemy, we paint ourselves into a very dangerous, very explosive corner. We eliminate our ability to reason and find consensus and unity...on anything.

And there's more! Beyond the political rhetoric, we live in a culture that values and prizes violence, and to think that has no effect on society is foolish. Our movie rating system is quick to slap an R on a movie with a sex scene or a few too many "f words," but more lenient when it comes to torture, explosions, gunfire, and physical assault. Our network television shows have to limit their vocabulary and sex scenes, but I've seen terrible and deeply offensive acts of violence on nearly every night that I've flipped through. Law enforcement shows, hospital shows, action dramas--all of them are free to show blood, murder, and attacks.  Similarly, our video games are now based on murdering "the bad guys," whoever that might be. Our music often glorifies violent acts, too.

Like the political rhetoric, none of these media portrayals of violence, or their creators and distributors, are directly responsible for the violent acts that occur in our society. But, once more, they bear some indirect responsibility through their glorification of violence and the sheer brutality that an imbalanced person might glom onto.

As a society, we need to stop seeing acts of violence like yesterday's attack as exceptions to the rule. We can no longer afford to write them off as isolated incidents of crazy or unstable persons. We are creating monsters through the violent and demeaning undertones of the discourses we use and surround ourselves with. We are a poisoned culture. We are a particularly violent society. And the sooner we connect the dots between our words/entertainment and the violence that we see on the news, the sooner we can work toward reducing these non-isolated events. We're all guilty.

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