|Courtesy of Nils Axen|
Why did ___ do it? It’s a question we always ask after heinous acts of violence. We never reach an all-encompassing answer, or even one that helps us sleep easier at night. But, damn, do we try.
As the talking heads on television push the why behind the Boston Marathon bombings, let us consider the more practical question of how. Capitol Hill blames the scourge of mass violence basically on three things: 1) access to military-grade weapons, 2) mental health and 3) violent entertainment media. None of these factors address why a human being would deliberately and brutally terminate the lives of those he or she has never met, but each contributes to an environment where this violence can occur — including item number three.
Most social liberals would disagree with me on this one, especially those who spend as much or more time talking about movies as I do, but how can violent movies, television and video games not somehow influence the thoughts and expectations of those who engage with them? What effect does “finishing” your opponent in Mortal Kombat or taking a gun-mounted chainsaw to another character’s flesh in Gears of War have on the player, particularly when both actions are dutifully rewarded? How does the remorseless slaughter of hundreds of Latin American soldiers in The Expendables not reflect our desensitization to violence, if not our cultural prejudices? Why are the zombie beheadings in The Walking Dead so … awesome?
We live in a culture saturated with violent images, to the point where on-screen violence has become a prerequisite for entertainment success. Some blockbusters feature less terror and more humor than others — compare Iron Man to The Dark Knight — yet all must include a few show-stopping action scenes, where enemies are dispatched in novel, unserious, CGI-intensive ways. Why do we love action scenes so much? Why do we take the presence of violence, however trivialized, as a given in popular movies? Why do the characters in these movies, TV shows and video games never stop to question these vicious cycles? Why do those who do, like the protagonists in Fargo and Spec Ops: The Line, find themselves in movies and video games considered outside the mainstream?
With the summer movie season upon us, these questions should be asked now more than ever. Almost all of the films to be released over the next few months make no attempts to be anything more than mindless entertainment, reliant on primal sensations and overworked images that assault the eyes and brain in their own violent ways. Surely, most viewers will ignore the thematic similarities between the post-apocalyptic trifecta of Oblivion, After Earth and Elysium and choose a victor dependent on which boasts the slickest action scenes. The video game industry relies on cool, non-stop action, an unfortunate obsession that has effectively kept the medium as a whole from achieving any designation as art. Recently, the independent game scene has been distancing itself from this culture, delivering titles like Journey, where players unravel a story without harming other characters. But the industry remains in Call of Duty mode, selling playable Michael Bay movies for $60 a pop.
Violence sells, of course. Maybe there is an innocuous undercurrent to this obsession, in that most people would never dream of killing another human, and thus see violent media as a form of innocent escapism, as a portal into another life with different desires, stakes and priorities, like that of a superhero. Yet where is the line between healthy catharsis and numbing overexposure? Did The Passion of the Christ really need to show the bladed whip tearing apart Jesus’ skin in order to convey its message? Did The Hangover Part II really need scenes with exploding pig carcasses and severed fingers? Did Modern Warfare 2 really need a mission where the player massacres droves of innocent civilians in an airport? “Mature” rating or not, isn’t that game marketed, with tremendous success, to prepubescent boys?
This column reads more like a list of rhetorical questions than a rigorous argument against this new, violent media landscape. The biggest problems boil down to the simplest questions, questions that most popular movies, television shows and video games have forgotten as of late. We, the ordinary, non-fiction masses, must concern ourselves with the question of how: How did this happen? How can we stop it in the future? We can find answers to these questions.
However, if we want to keep this carnage away from our world landmarks and elementary schools, we must also favor the media that asks the question of why: Why did this bloodshed occur? Why does it continue? We call this type of media “art.” Art may not provide answers to all of our questions, but it gives us moments of pause, reflection and grace, moments where hate and violence go to die.
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.