Columbine and Our Culture of Violence

Published in New York Newsday, April 23, 1999

On Tuesday, at the very same time more than a dozen high school students in Littleton, Colo., were being butchered by two Goth devotees, I was showing my students a film called “The Killing Screens,” which used graphic clips from recent movies and television shows to explore the culture of violence nourished by the media.

Students chuckled — as did I — when Indiana Jones shot and killed a turbaned swordsman who had made a show of threatening him. But then more images came in rapid succession. Several heads being blown off in “The Untouchables,” Jean-Claude Van Damme making a grotesque break in an assailant’s arm; bullets tearing through flesh in slow motion. The montage was stunning and I felt an appalled silence in the room as it faded to black.The film added but a small amount to the formidable stock of violent images my post-adolescent students have already seen: by the age of 12, a typical American child has witnessed upward of 8,000 media murders.

Movies and television shows are stories a culture tells about itself. But who is doing the telling? And what is their point? That violence is glorious, that killing can be downright funny, that the man willing to pull the trigger first makes the rules. We live in a culture that venerates the psychopath. Dirty Harry, who puts menacing words in the mouths of presidents; crazy ol’ Mel Gibson in all those “Lethal Weapon” movies; Hannibal Lecter, the cheerful cannibal, in “Silence of the Lambs.”

Educators and civic leaders have feared the power of the mass media since its inception. Intellectuals were certain that the less enlightened hordes would rush to imitate the base or violent actions they witnessed on silent movie screens. Such assumptions are, of course, simplistic and outdated. The media’s power is not direct and obvious. That does not mean, however, that their power is not enormous.

According to communications scholar George Gerbner, the media create a “cultural environment” that cultivates violence slowly, desensitizing us to its realities, encouraging us to perceive the world as more threatening than it really is, conditioning us to accept real atrocities in the real world as natural and inevitable.

When violence no longer produces a shock, the producers increase the dosage. Gerbner has pointed out that the body count increases exponentially in each new sequel to popular “action” films. Perhaps that is why Littleton will soon fade from memory with a shrug and why no one in Littleton seemed to have much of a problem with a group of kids who, according to their fellow students, wove dark fantasies about murder, worshiped Hitler, made themselves up like demons and spewed racial hatred.

When it comes to taking responsibility for the images and fantasies they sow, media producers have much in common with cigarette manufacturers. The media moguls argue that there is no provable causal link between media violence and real violence. And on the most basic level, of course, they are right. No one watches a Rambo film and then rushes into the street with a gun.

But that hardly means there is no effect. In fact, study after study indicates that children exposed to media violence are more prone to commit or approve of violent acts.

We live in a culture enamored of science, a culture that has been taught by science to distrust its own common sense. What scientists cannot devise a tool to measure, they dismiss as nonexistent. But does any person with common sense really believe the intense white noise of media violence that is all around us all the time does not affect our children, our communities, our own perceptions of our security?

On my way home from class Tuesday, I stopped for a cup of coffee. A television was on. I looked up from grading papers to see images of children running from a school. A bloodied student dangled from a window and was pulled to safety by some police officers.

As I watched the television, I also watched the college students at the next table. There were three of them. The two boys were talking about the kind of firepower it would take to carry out a massacre like the one in Littleton. As one talked, he made his hand into the shape of a gun and pretended to fire, the imaginary recoil knocking his hand back over his head. Then he grinned and aimed an imaginary shotgun. I snapped at him, told him to put his pretend guns away.

When I got home I asked my second-grade daughter how her day had gone. She said that the class moron — who comes to school every day with his Power Ranger lunchbox and World Wide Wrestling Federation action figures, the one who rips up students’ books, swears, talks in class and goes cheerily to detention to no effect — had learned a new trick. She put her little hand in the shape of a gun.

“He points at all the girls like this,” she said. “Then he says, ‘Bang, you’re dead.’ ” She had not yet heard of what happened in Littleton.

I walked my daughter to school Wednesday. I tried to explain to her what had happened at Littleton in case people were talking about it at school. I talked to her teacher. We talked about Littleton and the class moron’s new trick — of which she was unaware. I could see tears start to well up in her eyes, and I could feel them in my own.

“Where do we begin to stop this?” she said.

I had no words. Later, it occurred to me there are ways to start. Recognize that parents who allow their children access to violent media and video games are committing a form of child abuse and potentially posing a threat to the community; they should be held accountable for their children’s behavior. Recognize that we are citizens, a public — not a passive audience — and use our power to speak out against the culture of violence that surrounds us.

And, as of Tuesday, we need to face the fact that when the school oddball starts talking murder, we had better take him seriously.

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