December 15th, 2014

Violent Culture

This week, the senate report on “enhanced interrogation” was released. I don’t want to comment on the report or enhanced interrogation techniques. The accusations, denials, finger pointing, and bloviation will have to settle down before I’m ready. For the time being, I prefer to look at the wider context.

Citizens of the United States like violence. Look at the local news. In my neighborhood, there are four main local television stations. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the same stations were broadcasting. Each station had a half hour of local news followed by a half hour of national news in the early evening. Another broadcast at ten or eleven, and an early morning half hour. Altogether, two hours, if that. Today, I would not care to count the number of hours of news the same stations broadcast, but it is much more than hour to two hours of fifty years ago.

And what have they filled it with? Murders, rapes, sexual abuse, beatings, robberies punctuated with an occasional lachrymose piece about recovery from adversity. Careful reporting on difficult to comprehend, and therefore boring, issues like statistical trends, financial reports, policies, planning, and the details of government—the stuff that citizens in a democracy must know—are rare.

Mayhem has become entertainment. Schadenfreude reigns. We love to see our neighbor’s houses fall over cliffs, lives ruined by scammers, families torn apart by abuse and violence, and then solace ourselves by throwing in a few bucks when the hat is passed.

I don’t blame anyone or anything, certainly not the television producers trying to make a living by giving people what they want. I am just sad. It is pointless to try to find who is responsible. It is everyone’s fault. It’s no one’s fault. Choose your favorite scapegoat. Maybe it is the aftermath of the Holocaust, or WWII. Or the pill. Maybe the hippies. Or Dr. Spock. Capital gains taxes. Or structural anthropology. The metric system. Or the new math. Maybe there is something in the water.

The consequence is violence everywhere. Folks want to buy guns so they can get in on the action and shoot each other .We watch violence on the news. We watch it in the movies. For the first time in my life, I felt a passing twinge of sympathy for the government of North Korea when I heard Sony was planning a movie in which the head of their sitting leader explodes.

The great literature of the past was violent. Read the Iliad or the Odyssey, War and Peace, Moby Dick, Bleak House. There is plenty of killing and violence. The past was violent. There is evidence that the murder rate has been decreasing for the last ten centuries. The difference I notice is fascination with the details of violence rather than the consequences of violence. In the Iliad, and Shakespeare, the violence is off stage. The motives, repercussions, ethics, and morality of violence are the subject, not the acts themselves.

There is no lack of principled conduct among the people and institutions I know, but in our cultural life, for every sincere politician, there are three murderers. For every honest and engaged citizen, a dozen grasping and greedy trolls refuse to support the common good and and only want to get rich. Why? I don’t know, but I hope it changes.

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