Shooting Red Herrings in a Barrel: Why We Blame Real Violence on the Unreal - Oni no Tenshi Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Shooting Red Herrings in a Barrel: Why We Blame Real Violence on the Unreal

It's all fun and games until someone shoots your metaphorical fish argument.

Usually I write something fun and lighthearted about gaming, but I wanted to do something a bit different tonight, so if you're looking for something to make you smile and go on your way, please feel free to pass this one by.  Tonight I want to talk about our society's problematic views on violence in the real world and the fake violence in video games, movies, books, etc.  Even as far back as before movies were made, people have been banning books, comics, even stuff like jazz and classical music because they were considered things that could possibly incite violent behavior.  But I think that a lot of what we look at today and the dialogues we have regarding violence that we experience in our everyday lives has a lot to do with how we shape our opinions on acceptable violence and "unacceptable" violence, and the strawman arguments that get in the way of actually doing something about it.

So, without further ado, let's talk about violence.

I was in 9th grade when news of the Columbine school shootings first reached my ears.  I didn't have the internet, but the schools freaked out about it, the papers had big scary headlines, and it was on every news station 24/7 for months.  Everything from "The Trenchcoat Mafia" (apparently wearing trenchcoats meant you were part of some SUPER SECRET EVIL TEENAGER CONSPIRACY) to "Marilyn Manson MAKES kids do this stuff" (imagine how many other people listened to his music and DID NOT shoot up a school? OH RIGHT, 99% of them) flowed forth from newscasters' mouths and headlines.  There were plenty of stories that were just plain made up (including stories about the victims to make them into positive examples of heroism in the face of certain death), and obviously, there was a lot of fear.  Fear of what, though?  Fear of violence when we least expected it.

I grew up in a relatively safe place in California- good schools, generally middle class areas- I walked to school from the time I was in 3rd grade all the way through the end of high school.  I remember the fear that my mother instilled in me about the possibility of a "bad man" doing "bad things" to me if I talked to strangers while on the way home from school, but still, I didn't ever expect to be attacked in my home or in various places in public.  In fact, to some extent, I was taught that people who DID have bad things happen to them in public places generally "deserved" it.  I mean, not in so many words, but when Polly Klas was abducted and killed when I was in the 4th grade, there was much tongue clucking about windows being left unlocked and gates not being padlocked, you know, because such things could never happen with a window latch and backyard gates protected with a Masterlock.  You hear it a lot as a woman as well.  I can't tell you how many times some well-meaning guy in my life has forwarded me the "Don'tGetRaped" email.  It sounds like a helpful checklist "park in well-lit areas, carry your keys in your fingers so you can poke attackers in the eyes, etc" but the undercurrent is basically "well, if the worst were to happen, you KNEW how to avoid it, so it must be your fault if you find yourself a victim of a heinous crime."

Why am I talking about this?

Mainly because I'm worried about how we talk about violence.  We talk about individual violent events "that guy who got shot" or "those children who were drowned" as though they are things that happen every day to everyone.  We take it personally when we hear about things that happened to people who live so far away from us that we will likely never meet them.  And when we talk about violent events that happen in the real world, even if we were not present at the actual violent act, we are also talking about things that send our caveman brains into RED ALERT mode.  In our modern day and age, most of us have the luxury of not worrying that we're going to be eaten by a saber toothed tiger.  Most of us go to bed without having to stay on HIGH ALERT because it's fairly likely that a predator will be slinking into your bedroom to eat  you.  We wake up, get dressed, eat our breakfast and get to work or school with little fear that we're in imminent danger.

And yet.

And yet, when violent things happen, from school shootings, a stabbing, or an unexpected rioting group breaking storefront glass when a peace march goes awry, we all turn to each other and we say, "I might have been killed.  I might have been injured.  I might have lost my local business to a bunch of looting hooligans."  We see bad things happen, and we personalize them, fear that they will happen to us.  As a species, human beings are communal creatures.  One of the reasons hypothesized for why we yawn when we see others yawning and often feel queasy when others are throwing up is because we have had to adapt over many many hundreds of thousands of years to a communal lifestyle that is benefitted by us empathizing with one another because shared experiences means that we are more likely to survive, to learn from the misfortunes of others.  With every corner of the world and each heinous act perpetrated within the borders of our planet available at a touch of a button, it's no wonder we feel like we live in the most dangerous time ever, even though violent crime in the First World has been dropping exponentially with each decade.

The absolute worst part about random violence, especially when it comes to shootings or stabbings, is that you can't predict it.  Most of us like waking up and having a general idea of how the day will go.  The biggest surprise we prefer to have is whether or not to have a second donut or get a cup of coffee or tea.  If something more disastrous, such as a car battery failing or a child falling ill, were to happen, it just throws off your whole day.  If it's worse and involves actual physical injury (such as a car accident), it can be downright chaos.  But even a car crash isn't nearly as primally frightening as a random person shooting into a crowd.  If you're at the grocery store, your brain thinks, "I was just trying to pick up milk- freaking GROCERIES aren't worth dying for!" as shots ring out and you beging to feel your body start up the ol' Fight or Flight response.  Shooters are worse than knife wielding psychos too, because they can just pull a trigger and hurt or kill many many people, especially if the weapon is partially or fully automatic.

And this is where we begin to truly see human psychology come into play.  We HATE the idea of being taken by surprise.  It was a mark of contention by the British when the Revolutionary War was in full swing, and it similarly caused a lot of problems in the confrontations between Native Peoples and the (generally White) Americans who traveled west to new settlements.  When it comes to ourselves and the groups that we subscribe to, we love being the person who has the advantage or the edge- after all, even though it's not fair, that little Darwinian devil on our shoulder says, "but hey, that makes sure we survive and pass on our genes, so it's totes OK!"

But when you're the opposite- when someone shows up who you don't even know, in a place where you feel safe, and where you have absolutely no expectation to be in danger, that's what causes people to psychologically self-destruct.  

If you KNEW that going to Starbucks was going to end up with you staring down the barrel of a rifle, you'd stay the hell away from those green doors.  If you KNEW that the ONE day you were kind of thinking of staying home from school because you were feeling kinda sick but decided against it was the day that some other disturbed student you didn't even know from one of the upper classes was planning to shoot up the school, you'd be kicking yourself for not just staying in bed with the comics section.

Really, what we want to do is KNOW before something like this happens, because there's a part of us that believes that it's partially our fault, because, hey, what were we thinking that we could be safe somewhere in a public place where we've never experienced violence before?

I think that to some extent, this is where our outrage, our desire to blame violent events on EVERYTHING but the fact that "sometimes violent stuff happens and we can't know ahead of time and we can't prevent it 100% of the time and innocent people die and it's not their fault and they could not have prevented it."  It's safer to freak out about violent video games or a book where someone uses a gun to kill someone else.  It feels more CONTROLLABLE to propose legislation "to keep things like this from ever happening again" even though many of the laws already on the books are worded in such a way that even the lawyers get confused and many of the laws are redundant, unhelpful, or just don't stop crime in the first place (if writing something was enough to stop people from breaking the law, we'd have no crime).  It feels more CONSTRUCTIVE to have candlelight vigils, to memorialize people you don't even know, to constantly imagine what you would do if you were faced with the same situation and then try and preemptively protect yourself from that.

But unfortunately, these are all playing into the big lies that we tell ourselves.  The lies that we tell each other about how only people who "deserve" bad things get hurt.  The lies that we tell ourselves to think that we are safe as long as we carry a weapon.  The lies that we tell ourselves about having every single contingency thought out.  Of course, these lies are also being told to us from outside sources.  Every time a woman is told "don't wear a short skirt OR ELSE!" she is being lied to.  Plenty of people wearing floor length burkas have been sexually assaulted.  Plenty of people wearing short skirts have not received any sort of attack.  Every time someone proposes "well, you should just carry a gun around/ban all guns/make the world out of Nerf, then you would NEVER have to worry about being hurt by someone!" they are lying to you.  Plenty of people who conceal carry have been shot or killed, and even after passing many laws that prohibit murdering other people, we still haven't cut down the murder rate to zero.  And if you fall down on Nerf wrong, I'm sure you can still break a bone.  The truth is that there are exceptions to everything.  One guy might die from being randomly stabbed and a million other people will never be in a similar situation.  It's still not his "fault" that he died, and banning a movie where a character has throwing knives, or trying to censor or prohibit the release of a video game that involves sword fighting is not going to have prevented it.

Even our attempts at suggesting that all we have to do is "prohibit the mentally ill" from doing things or buying weapons and Bad *** Won't Happen are hamfisted and inconsistant at best, and harmful and discriminatory at worst.  Plenty of mentally ill people don't harm themselves or others, and plenty of mentally ill people with the exact same level or worse level of delusion/psychotic break will never do something violent to real people.  And there are plenty of people who don't score on any charts for mental illness, yet still behave violently and have the potential to do a violent act.

When a person plays a video game where they hack and slash monsters to death, chances are, they aren't doing so because they ACTUALLY WISH they were murdering people.  The wish to engage in or watch fantasy violence for the sake of entertainment and catharsis is closer to real-world sports or martial arts than murder or illegal criminal activity.  We don't watch football because we want to see people die, and we don't PLAY football because we want to actually kill another person on the field, but the violence that is present in nearly every football game is still very important and enjoyable, even though it is not intended to kill or maim anyone.  When we engage in fantasy violent thinking- such as imagining a situation in which we felt powerless and replacing the situation so that it benefits us or makes the other person "pay" through being humiliated, hurt or killed, this is not necessarily going to lead to an actual murder or assault.

There are plenty of examples of people, normal, everyday people, who engage in fantasy violence in gaming, reading, media viewing, etc, who are not murderers and do not desire to commit violent acts.

So the question remains- who are these people?  How can we stop them before they go somewhere and take away our assumptions that we can be safe at the pharmacy, in the workplace, in our schools?

The thing that keeps coming back to me, that has been churning in my brain ever since I first heard about poor murdered Polly Klas, when they told us about the Columbine shootings, when Virginia Tech happened while I was still in college myself, and recently with the poor elementary school children who died in the Sandy Hook massacre, is that we can minimize these sorts of horrible things- mostly by watching and by reporting- not allowing ourselves to be bystanders when we see things that look like warning signs of a violent episode (someone stockpiling weapons/ammo/behaving very violently but not lethally). If we become less accepting of REAL violence where it counts (abuse, assault, bullying, etc), we may be able to stop it from escalating except in very very rare situations.  It may require people getting out of their comfort zone.  It may require a bit of risk to stand up and say that it's wrong to beat your kids, that it's wrong to bully one another, that it's utterly messed up to emotionally or sexually destroy someone else, but it is something that we must do if we want to cut to the heart of the matter.

BUT.

But----as much as it tears my heart out to admit it, I don't think we can truly ever STOP these things from happening.  There have been so many murderers, so many spree kills, so many "guys with a shotgun" or "serial rapists"- these things have always happened, long before we had AK--47's and high speed internet.  There have always been crazy people, murderous people, violent people.  There have always been victims.  And unless we figure out some way to rip whatever thing makes a person do these things out of every human brain, there's going to be someone we won't be able to stop, not with all the laws, all the game ratings, all the Nerf padding in the world.

And I certainly think that what we absolutely must do first is STOP blaming victims- stop saying "well what did ______ expect, getting themselves into that situation"? because no one deserves to have a crime committed against them.  And you won't be 100% free from worrying that it will happen to YOU just because you attempt to do something "preventative." 

Violence is a very real thing that can strike at any time, but I don't think we need to be paranoid about it.  And I don't think that we ought to have some sense of guilt in the back of our heads every time something bad happens to ourselves.

And even though I know that most people have their hearts in the right place when they try and ban various things to "stop violence," the truth of the matter is that we cannot stop grave and complicated matters with simple and skin-deep solutions.  We cannot write a law when the people who want to do a bad thing don't CARE about what the law says, and even if they wanted to, they can't understand all the legal-ease anyway.  We cannot think that banning a video game where you can shoot people in the head is going to keep people from shooting others in the head, nor does it mean that if you do successfully ban it that people will never headshot in the real world again.  It's not like the game invented the practice.  And even books that involve abusive behavior or stories do not actively CAUSE the actual, real abuse that happens to people every day.  To try and argue this would be madness.

What we need is compassion, vigilance and awareness without the guilt, paranoia or ban-happy craziness.

In short, if it were easy to stop these things from happening, they wouldn't occur.

So, instead of being a culture where we point fingers, blame, guilt and shame, perhaps it's time to try another approach.

After all, with our track record as a species, I'd say we don't have much to lose by trying to stop real-life violence when it is small instead of trying to ban and censor things only AFTER a violent act has occurred.

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