Opinion: A re-examination of Hollywood and violence in the wake of Newtown

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Image Credit: Stephen Dunn-Pool/Getty Images

In the days since President Obama’s speech in Newtown, Conn., following the massacre in which 20 young children were killed, I haven’t been able to let go of one of the simplest things he said: “We bear responsibility for every child…we’re all parents.”

No president in the modern era — possibly no president in history — has spoken from the perspective of fatherhood as often as this one has, nor has any President invoked parenthood so powerfully as a sense of collective responsibility. I don’t have children, but I believe he’s absolutely right: If you are an adult with any investment in the idea of America as a shared enterprise, then a portion of the interest in this country’s children — how they are to grow, to learn, to survive and to thrive — belongs to you. To all of us.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of gun violence in the entertainment we collectively consume. I want to be upfront about my own political perspective, which is that I believe that our lack of serious gun laws is a form of insanity, that the decades-long abrogation of responsibility on the part of the gun lobby is immoral, and that the idea that politicians of both parties have long decided that more than 30,000 American deaths a year is the acceptable cost of conveniently misreading the 2nd Amendment has stained our entire political system with blood. When I hear right-wing talk-radio hosts and ideologues rail against “the culture of violence” as represented in the fictional mayhem of movies, television and videogames while they shrug off actual bloodshed, I wonder if they are human.

But I also know that to counter that hypocrisy by refusing to discuss violence in pop culture at all is an evasion we can no longer afford. If we want things to change — if we really care — then those of us who are on the side of tougher gun laws can’t keep pretending that the way we entertain ourselves belongs in a privileged category that mustn’t ever be examined.

I don’t believe that movies cause massacres, or that a TV show or even the vilest video game makes someone pull a trigger. The world can’t be retooled to make it impossible for the mentally ill to draw inspiration from pop culture any more than laws can guarantee that a psychotic young man will never again be able to get his hands on a weapon. But “you can’t stop evil” has been, for too long, a self-serving excuse not to even bother considering changes in gun laws — and idiotic pieties like that shouldn’t be appropriated to dismiss the issue of violence in entertainment either.

What if, for a year, I didn’t let myself watch any entertainment in which a gun was used with the intention of harming another human being? I’ll start with this year’s Oscar race, in which I would have to go without seeing Argo and Les Miserables and Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained. Turning to TV, it’d be the end of my relationship with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead and Homeland. I’m citing only the good stuff—high-quality entertainment that, for the most part, isn’t mindless—because the purely or mostly bad stuff, the junk food, which is the vast majority of what I’m talking about, would take pages and pages to list, and you know what it is.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting any kind of boycott or moratorium or censorship. And I understand that, since the dawn of movies and television, gunplay has been a form of entertainment. But any regular consumer of pop culture has to admit that the firing of a gun on screen is now something less than entertainment. It has become ordinary, uneventful, average, dull. We turn on the TV at the end of the day and we see someone get gunned down. And most of the time, we feel absolutely nothing, except during those horrible news cycles when we are reminded that actually, when someone is shot, it is a tragedy that shatters the future of everyone who experiences the loss, and that the grief and ache and void that the tragedy creates resounds in the lives of those left behind not just for days or weeks, but for decades. Ten or 12 years from now, those children in Newtown won’t be getting their high school diplomas or meeting their college roommates. Those losses, those lives unlived, will be real forever. But in pop culture, we’re barely roused to notice when someone gets shot. We’re aloof from it. We’re disconnected. If we weren’t, how could we assimilate a daily diet of fatal, bloody violence and then tuck ourselves in for a good night of peaceful dreams?

In the wake of Newtown, Hollywood did a lot out of “sensitivity,” something that has now become its own ritual of transient humility. The premieres not just of Django Unchained but of the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher, based on a series of very violent novels that have gotten me through more flights than I care to admit, were put on ice. Episodes of two Fox cartoons and the SyFy series Haven were pulled because of an awareness that they had processed into entertainment or humor something that did not — but only for the moment — seem entertaining or humorous. Discovery canceled its popular reality series American Guns. ABC pulled the midseason finale of its hit soap Scandal, which featured the slaughter of a family of four, from its website.

I’m not belittling these decisions. Empty or belated gestures are better than none at all. But the rubric of “sensitivity” may just be a polite way of acknowledging hypocrisy, a concession that, yes, we get it, the stuff that we ordinarily supply and that you ordinarily mainline is temporarily not fun because you and we are temporarily aware that the firing of a bullet into a human body is a horrible and deadly thing. You’ll be able to resume this diet shortly, at a moment when the fact that thousands of American lives end in gunfire every month doesn’t feel quite as newsworthy. I guess that counts as sensitivity of a sort, but the thing it seems most sensitive to is the pact we and Hollywood have made with each other to remain as insensitive as possible most of the time.

Gun love is an addiction. Addiction breeds increased tolerance. Increased tolerance causes numbness to the effects of the drug. And numbness leads to a search for higher highs. In the days after the massacre, the New York Times reported that Newtown, Conn. is replete with firing ranges and hunt clubs, and is something of a local mecca for gun enthusiasts who have recently incited the anger of local residents by becoming increasingly active and reckless. Some have been packing their ammunition with Tannerite, an explosive that creates a spectacular flare when guns are fired. They’ve been shooting off round after round from automatic weapons, and aiming at propane tanks because it’s better when whatever you hit bursts into flame. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that these people have, in effect, decided to Hollywoodize their gun experience. Apparently, target practice or hunting is now insufficient for these hobbyists. If the bullet doesn’t look like it does damage, it’s no fun. They learned that at the movies.

I find it obscene when gun enthusiasts rail against pop culture’s evil influence while continuing to pretend that the easy availability of assault weapons and ammunition deserves to be an enshrined right. So let’s not cede custody of the conversation about pop culture to people who evince not a shred of moral seriousness about our national disease. If we are all parents, and Hollywood is so often asked to serve as the babysitter, then we need to begin a conversation among responsible people about the fact that, in an era when an American is killed by a gun every 15 minutes, the nonstop attempt to take the edge off that horror by reprocessing it into something painless and pleasurable, though it is not the problem, certainly takes us no closer to a solution. Even while we fight this out in Congress and in the courts, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to a higher standard? Shouldn’t we do better? For the people who make entertainment, for the people who consume it, and for those of us who write about it, that should haunt our sleep, and trouble our souls.

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