Nerdfighters

Listen Jena, the awful killings in Aurora shocked and saddened us all, but in our grief, many of us have once again started pointing fingers of blame at violent movies and video games. It’s a rhetorical crutch we’ve leaned on too often in the face of national tragedy. We can’t blame television when the problem is older than electricity.

The Plan

In a 2008 article, critic Jenny McCartney listed every violent incident in The Dark Knight (often in more brutal detail than the film ever revealed) to demonstrate the escalation of violence in films and its effect on children. She concluded with this thought:

Little boys have always played with swords and guns. But they did not always play at beating a prisoner’s genitals with a rope, or stitching a live bomb inside a man’s stomach. For that innovation we must thank Hollywood, the industrious factory of dreams, now frequently devoted to churning out nightmares.

McCartney’s word-choice is strong here (though I hope she meant little boys have always played with fake swords and guns), but when you pull at the rhetoric a little, you see the problems with this parental complaint.

McCartney implies that when little boys kill countless imaginary people with swords and guns, everything is ordinary. Everything is going according to plan. She’s even nostalgic for those old-time war games. Then she gives two examples of violence in recent movies to demonstrate that now things are really horrible.

Funnily enough, the Joker directly addresses this kind of muddled thinking in The Dark Knight. “You know what I noticed?” he asks a burned and restrained Harvey Dent. “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan,’ even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan.”

So what if McCartney’s paragraph had been worded this way:

Little boys have always pretended to shoot, stab, and dismember their enemies with swords and guns. But they did not always play at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or terrorism.

In her word choice, McCartney shows the arbitrary nature of her complaint, choosing certain acts of violence to disdain while others are glorified and normalized.

The Light

“Maybe I’m too sensitive,” blogger the Twin Coach (“friend. mom. mentor.”) wrote just last week, “but I don’t think I need to see more darkness. I want to experience things that inspire me, lift me up, enlighten me and enhance my life. And I want the same for my children.” 

That’s a fair choice to make, as long as it doesn’t lead to ignorance of the world’s real troubles. Still, without darkness in a story, I wonder what there is to enlighten. Poor Harvey Dent didn’t live to see it, but he was right that the night was darkest just before the dawn.

So we’re not talking about violent content so much as we’re discussing feelings. Plenty of people are killed in Avengers, but no death (even the one caused by impaling), feels very frightening or intense. People remember The Dark Knight as shockingly violent (though there’s basically no blood) because those deaths feel horrible. The blows are hard and you find yourself wishing they wouldn’t land.

It’s almost as if people are complaining, not about movie violence, but about movie violence that feels real, that makes us uncomfortable, that reminds us for a moment of the fragility of our security.

The Crutch

Then there’s the problem with the implication that movies have pushed violence into popular storytelling like never before. Parents who are worried about violent content might also want to avoid museums, lest their kids stumble upon 17th century paintings showing scenes from the Bible.

To suggest that without violent movies and games children wouldn’t have nightmares or pretend to kill enemies in their backyard is to insult and belittle the endlessly potent minds of children. If it’s not Freddy Kruger, it’ll be the vacuum cleaner monster or something better. 

Obviously I’m not critiquing parents who monitor what media their children take in. But according to The Twin Coach, Aurora authorities “are just beginning to piece together connections between that horrendous event and the specific movie the victims were seeing (Batman: The Dark Knight Rises).” What connections are supposedly being pieced together? 

My generation grew up with shoot-‘em-up games and mayhem-filled movies, but I don’t struggle with impulses to kill, anymore than men always have when it’s hot outside and traffic is slow. The question is not “how many murders did this kid see on TV,” so much as “can this kid differentiate fiction from reality.”

If he can, then violent movies and games won’t make him a killer. If he can’t, we have more to worry about than what’s on his television.

Blaming violent movies and games is the rhetorical crutch we’ve used again and again when young Americans commit murder on the national stage. We talk about ratings and desensitization as if we can tie direct strings of causality and avoid the deeper problems. We’d like to believe that if we got movies and games cleaned up, these rare, mad young men would stop hurting people. It’s an easy story to tell, and it keeps confusion from mixing in with our grief and our fear.

The Joker mocked this grasping for causality, too. He tells conflicting origin stories for himself, teasing us with hints that there might be a reason for his madness, that there might be something simple and easy separating us from him. We want it so badly, to categorize him far away from us, but we can’t. He doesn’t let us.

In these times of national heartbreak, we prefer pointing fingers at new media, because otherwise we might have to discuss the fact that random violence is older than electricity, first-person shooters, or comic book movies. Rather than talking about movie ratings, the national conversation should focus for a while on gun control, school counseling, security measures, and the possibility that we’re all just one bad day or poor decision away from violence. Fear, violence, selfishness; all these come naturally to us. It’s the resistance of unkind urges that must be learned.

The sad irony here is not so much that those poor people were killed while watching what one blogger wrongly called a “super violent, super gory” movie, but that they were killed while watching a movie in which the hero demands: “No guns. No killing.”

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Tags: aurora, batman, dark, dent, harvey, joker, knight, the, violence

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Comment by Ivy O'Brien on August 6, 2012 at 9:49am

Alright, so here's a thing, and it might seem offensive.  If people are offended by it, let me apologise in advance.  A few years ago I was on a bus holding hands with my (lesbian) partner, and this guy gets on who's IQ is clearly lower than mine (I mean, not by lots, but something's amiss).  He looks at us, and walks up to us.  He's standing at a reasonable distance, but it still feels like he's invading our space.  He says, "Good afternoon, ladies," in this kind of suave voice, and my partner (sweet, naive kitten) says, "Hi!"  Buddy says something like, You're looking good today.  Kitten says, "Thanks!"  (You can see what's happening here, right?  I mean, I'm not dead, I know what reality pornography is.  This guy's living out the lead-in to a porn scene.)  "How long have you been together?" he asks.  Kitten was going to explain everything, I could see, but this was just too invasive, so I said: "A long time!  Goodbye!" and he got off the bus at the next stop.  So, now I'm thinking if all it takes is an IQ deficient enough to be impolite not to be able to tell the difference between real life and hardcore pornography, how much do any of us really understand the difference between narrative and physical reality?  And, even if "Well, you could have been over-reacting", then there's no difference, except to say that I can't tell the difference instead of him.  But considering the sheer quantity of douchecanoes who have since asked me and my love (creepily hopefully) if we're twins, or the bus driver who asked, "Do you two ever share the same boyfriend?", or how many men have demanded we kiss -- and we don't know them -- -- <sarcasm>That's a lot of schizophrenic people</sarcasm>.  And no, demanding that two girls kiss for your own amusement is nowhere near the scale of opening fire on a movie queue; but surely this example shows that the lines between fantasy and reality aren't as cut and dry as people with "just the right amount" of dopamine in their brains think.  We're all responding to narrative in ways that we often can't describe.  And maybe it behoves us, if we're going to make freedom of speech a thing, to recognise this and be more responsible with our narratives, especially if we're going to be the kind of culture in which violence against one another is unacceptable.  (And that's one of the problems of some of your pictures up above.  They come from cultures in which violence was a more acceptable solution to a problem, although, ordinarily more hierarchical.)

Comment by Julia on August 6, 2012 at 4:58am

Hey Brian, thanks for answering.

Well, in a literary sense a hero is just the person on whom the focus of the story lies - the main character, but that's a conveniently squishy term.

A more traditional view of a hero would be a person who is brave and bold and does great deeds. His character though doesn't need to be impeccable. That all of course fits Batman as well - but a true hero succeeds in whatever he is doing. In "The Dark Knight" Batman fails to save his girlfriend and his best friend Harvey. He catches the Joker, but we never see, if he gets arrested. Batman just leaves him there (which is stupid since the Joker has proven to be able to escape tricky situations and there is no satisfaction for the audience to see him behind bars or in an asylum). Gotham is not only still a messed up place, it even lost two of the rare people who fight for justice. So that really is a total fail. (In that sense, he is more of an Antihero; a powerless person who is denied by society - even if it's in Batmans case a society of crime.)

An example for a true (and fictional) hero would be Zorro or Robin Hood.

Comment by Brian Beise (Books Ningmaster) on August 5, 2012 at 9:14pm

Julia,

thanks so much for the comment. I'm curious; what do you believe constitutes heroism, and can you name a few movie characters who fit that mold?

Comment by Brian Beise (Books Ningmaster) on August 5, 2012 at 9:12pm

Great comment, Ivy, thanks. The complication you mention is among the things that make video games so incredible and powerful (and therefore somewhat controversial). Still, the impression is strong that the vast majority of us are not made more violent or less moral by playing video games. Those who are negatively effected by them, those who fail to differentiate that dream-like state from real life have a problem totally independent of video games, and need active help rather than just being deprived of video games, surely. 

Comment by Ivy O'Brien on August 4, 2012 at 8:51pm

I'd like, if I may, to complicate your contention that video game narratives aren't responsible for increased violence.  I don't disagree that the problem is whether or not one can tell the difference between reality and "fiction" (or in the case of video games "interactive mythology"), but I would like to point out that video games, unlike any other medium before them, have given our minds a deep challenge when it comes to that difference.

One of the most important elements of gaming is immersion.  We're already aware that the subconscious doesn't see the difference between physical experience and imagined experience, so it's a good thing we've got the conscious, because it can.  Now, with video game immersion, the conscious line between fantasy and waking reality is deliberately blurred, and often in a first-person sense.  In fact, even in third-person games there's often a (let's call it) blocking-out of the avatar in favour of one's own identity.  We essentially experience a dream-like state while waking.  It's almost psychotic if it's done well enough.

Now, I'm not saying that most of us can't tell the difference: most of us can, and obviously most of us do.  But what I am saying is that video games present the conscious mind with a challenge unlike any other medium: interactive, first-person immersion.

Comment by Julia on August 3, 2012 at 8:49am

I actually haven't seen the current Batman movie yet and don't plan to. "The Dark Knight" was already too violent for my taste. I remember that scenes were no one was murdered or tortured felt excruciating to me. It was very painful to sit through the whole movie - so no sequels for me. In my opinion the Batman movies shifted genre-wise from adventure and action to plain horror. (Does a movie need to contain monsters, ghosts and curses to be a horror movie? Just think about "SAW". Would you list that as an action thriller?)

Is Batman still considered a hero? I'm not familiar with the TV-show or the comic books - but the more I see of Batman the less heroic I find him.

Comment by Brian Beise (Books Ningmaster) on August 3, 2012 at 6:57am

Azule and Jacob - thank you both so much for reading. This is surely as close as my blog will ever get to being political.

Comment by Brian Beise (Books Ningmaster) on August 3, 2012 at 6:56am

Thomas - Thanks for reading, man. Yeah I basically wrote this as an excuse to use that end strip.

Comment by Brian Beise (Books Ningmaster) on August 3, 2012 at 6:55am

Bestella- she's not a bad writer. She's just not always cautious enough in her implications, is she. thanks for reading!

Comment by Best [Forum ಠಿ_ಠ Mod] on August 3, 2012 at 2:29am

I instantly disregard anything that comes out of Jenny McCartney's mouth

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