Confronting Our Violent Culture: If Not Now, When?

Confronting Our Violent Culture: If Not Now, When? December 14, 2012

Another gunman, another mass shooting. Almost 30 dead, most children. And already the politicians are deciding now is “not the right time” to talk about gun violence.

When is the right time? How many people – how many children – have to die until it becomes “the right time” to discuss guns and violence in America?

I cannot pretend to understand America’s fascination with guns. I’m grateful to have grown up in a country where, in my lifetime, I can remember the police rarely carried guns. I quite distinctly remember the first time I saw police officers with guns on their belts, and it terrified me. I grew up in a school where the teachers would reprimand you for pretending to shoot at classmates with your fingers. The idea that someone might choose to buy an actual gun and want to walk around with it in public makes me physically sick.

There’s one thing I do understand, though: our culture is sick with violence, glutted with it. Any discussion about the role of guns in American life will have to be about much more than guns themselves. We’ll have to discuss the violence in our films and TV shows and games (I say this as an avid gamer who has, over the past few years, increasingly withdrawn from the gun and violence fetishism they often display), reconsider how we rate cultural products and protect children from examples which might harm them, talk about our shameful response to mental illness, and the social breakdown which allows people to descend into misery and rage unnoticed and uncared for.

To be clear: I’m far from a prude. I have hardly any censorial impulse within me. But we have to recognize that we have generated a culture which revolves significantly around images of people killing other people. This is how many of us get our entertainment: we go to see re-enactments of things and people destroyed, sometimes we sit in front of a TV or computer screen and manipulate digital images of war and murder and violence. And, generally, the more “realistic” the portrayals become, the more we laud them. We use similar games to train actual soldiers to kill real people and, with the increasing use of drones, the conduct of war itself comes to resemble more closely our digital recreations of it.

I don’t know whether this sort of culture contributes to the extraordinary levels of violence in US society. I don’t even know how you would begin to address that hypothesis, in all its knotty complexity. But it seems unlikely that it helps. Any discussion of violence after the recent shootings should confront, honestly and without defensiveness, the obvious fact of our profoundly violent culture. And that discussion must start now.

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