Thoughts on Violence

We are a violent species. What heights could humanity reach if only we could find a way to eradicate violence, our greatest flaw? Imagine a world with no murders, no war, no physical brutality of any kind. When I was younger, I called myself a pacifist, and I really thought such a society was eventually possible, but as seemingly endless global conflict, acts of terrorism, and mass shootings continue to show, we have a long way to go. As humans continue to kill humans, the debate rages on about what can be done to turn the tide. As both sides of the political spectrum argue over the possible causes and the elusive solutions, I am encouraged that people are at least talking seriously about the issue. While some people might see hypocrisy or self-serving grandstanding when folks such as producer Harvey Weinstein call for a Hollywood summit on media violence, I see hope.

I strongly oppose censorship, especially kneejerk reactions after incidents like the Aurora massacre. People have a right to communicate anything they wish and we would fall down a dangerous pit if we denied anyone the right to speak his or her mind simply because we disagreed with what was being said. Yet, freedom of expression also implies that we engage in a free marketplace of ideas, where everyone can have access to a soapbox to share their thoughts, whatever they may be, but we also have a moral obligation to speak out against hate speech, for example. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

It might seem ridiculous that a man like Harvey Weinstein who has made some of his fortune from movies such as Kill Bill would now call for filmmakers to be self-reflective and examine how their depictions of violence might impact society, but I give him credit. The Scream franchise might seem like another horror series with glorified serial killings, but it explored the cliches of the genre. The Quentin Tarantino movies might appear to be blood-thirsty exploitation films, but they often contain a message beneath their mayhem -- in Pulp Fiction's nonlinear story, for instance, all the violence that came before makes the final scene with Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield all the more powerful and meaningful.

While I consider it outlandish when watchdog groups want to ban cartoon anvils from falling on animated coyotes, I also find the over-the-top violence in some of today's videogames disturbing. That doesn't mean I'm condoning censorship of those games, it just means that we as a society should not shy away from having an adult conversation about the message of those graphic displays and any impact they might have. It's not necessarily a bad thing if we ask writers to contemplate what they're trying to say when they show a violent act in their storyline, instead of just using blood, gore, and destruction as an easy, handy stereotype to outshock the previous shock.

We read books, watch movies, play games for escapism as well as for enlightenment.  There doesn't always have to be deep meaning or symbolism in what we create. People should be able to enjoy a good action movie and see a wronged character seek revenge even if we understand that an "eye for an eye" mentality is an antiquated and often dangerous practice in the real world. At the same time, an artist has every right to reject my point of view and tell a story that shows the alleged weakness of my passive resistance ideals. Depictions of violence can be a powerful and useful tool in making a point, or it might just be a harmless way to release some steam, like watching grown men tackle each other while playing American football.

It would be wrong to banish depictions of cities being destroyed, no matter how much it pains me to see it over and over again, because even though most of the time it's just lazy writing and gratuitous destruction, in the right hands it can be a metaphor for the atomic age (Godzilla) or a fantasy about the heroes we wish we could all be (Marvel's The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-man, The Dark Knight Rises.)

I wish violence would just go away, but there is no magic wand to make that happen. Until then, we have to discuss it and try to understand it, and maybe, bit by bit, we can find a way to minimize it, which would be a step in the right direction.

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