I do promise to update The Ink Donor more frequently (it’s just that I’m still getting the hang of this whole process and making time for myself to type out my long, verbose rants instead of just thinking them), and I do intend to get out that pronoun article I promised a while back sometime this week, but I have to delay that today to talk about an issue that’s been a pressing matter on my mind for a long time now, and something that disturbs me immensely: violence culture. “Rape culture” is a popular theme in feminist criticism, and indeed, it was an article on rape culture that inspired today’s entry, but I’d personally like to see that as a particularly abhorrent subset of what I term “violence culture.” By “violence culture” I mean the pervasiveness of violent acts in both real life and popular entertainment, and what that says about American culture as a whole. This has been a rather problematic issue for me to write about since I loathe censorship and don’t want to come off sounding like a Tipper Gore, bubble-child advocate type, but the overall desensitization to violence in the public mind is one of psychological importance to me personally, and doubtlessly to many others, and I believe it is creating a crueler, more constricted and more reactionary world among us.
I can’t be desensitized anymore. I used to, throughout high school, as a reaction to the cruel betrayal I’d had at the end of middle school from those whom I had thought to be my friends. Following that weakest and most abject moment of my life, I thought it would benefit me to become cold and unfeeling as a means of self-protection—I remember in my world history class as a high school freshman we were watching the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan and I prided myself on not flinching a bit at the gore. (Ditto The Patriot two years later, although we watched the whole thing and it was a horrible movie.) But this led to severe self-denial and repression of emotions on my part, and as soon as the combination of going away to college and entering into a close romantic relationship hit me and filled me with unfamiliar and often scary emotions, my shell shattered. Suddenly, occurrences of violence in the world set off horrible thought processes for me; during the worst of my OCD-related anxiety attacks I was paralyzed with the fear that the fact that my mind was flooding me with appallingly nightmarish images of suddenly assaulting my loved ones meant that I was turning into a soulless psychopath, and it was only a matter of time before an infamous mugshot of me, staring blankly with no trace of regret, would show up on TV and in the newspapers. Since it’s been over a year since such attacks occurred to me, I’ve been able to manage these kinds of thoughts much more effectively and interpret them as irrational and nothing more, but that doesn’t mean I’m no longer susceptible to bursts of panic brought on by flashbacks and triggers. In particular, a local story about a Cornell grad student who killed his wife has proven particularly chilling to me, not only because of it occurring at my university, but also because many of the defendant’s delusions are not entirely dissimilar to mine (and the murder was committed with a knife, by far my most triggering object) and sometimes such stories make me sink back into spirals of “No Caitie, this isn’t you, you’re not psychotic…” as a means of reassurance. Similar stories gave me pause throughout last year when I was back in Springfield on my leave, particularly the Annie Le murder (am I safe even in the Ivy League?), the Binghamton, NY immigrant center shootings (am I safe even an hour away from where this occurred?) and the Fort Hood shootings (can I even trust my therapist?!)
There are times that such news stories cause me so much torment that at times it seems tempting to try to build myself another shell of desensitization, even though I know full well that I’ve lost the naïveté that permitted me to do that in the past. And what does desensitization get you, anyway? Violence is so pervasive in our culture that it’s impossible not to be influenced by it. Innumerable crime and gangster movies, especially those of the past two decades, toss corpses around like so much garbage and glamorize killing as just another way of life. Music videos, even those of artists I like, often explore similar territory. (While the feminist blogosphere’s general reaction to the “Telephone” video of criticizing its initial transmisogynistic angle was definitely valid and valuable, it disappointed me that nobody seemed distressed by the bloodbath later in the video, or the similar casual violence in the “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance” videos; thus proving that even the most enlightened among us aren’t immune to desensitization.) And to me, a poor urban boy caught in the violent rituals of a street gang and an affluent suburban boy playing a video game that seemingly idealizes such a life are two sides of the same coin, only the latter gets to go on with the rest of his comfortable life with nary a thought as to the ramifications of his vicarious actions, while the former is virtually destined for an early death.
This process may not be as clean-cut a cause-and-effect relationship as some politicians and parents support groups would want the public to believe, but there is a definite effect from the inundation of our youth by violence culture. The Richmond rape case I linked to at the beginning of this article is a perfect example of this: as utterly inhuman as such an act is, it is the logical consequence of a patriarchal culture that treats women as objects of conquest with no valuable things to contribute to society of their own, and a lack of positive role models, be they adults or peers, to teach young men how wrong—no, more than wrong, completely fucked up—such a mindset is. And this really is nothing new. This desensitization and dehumanization was also at the root of the phenomena of lynchings being public spectacles in the American South in the first half of the 20th century, and daily outings to insane asylums as a source of amusement and ridicule in Victorian London. Most people would consider themselves more enlightened than those who perpetrated such incidents in the past, but when confronted with the Richmond rape case, they would probably say that it was a case of the onlookers being trapped and too afraid to take action for fear of reprisals, or worse, a case of “boys being boys.” What kind of enlightenment is THAT?!
And what continues to humble me about all this is that I’m still trapped within violence culture. I’m no saint and will never claim to being completely free of any sort of injustice, but this is something that strikes me particularly deeply. In response to a story like the Richmond rape case, my inner vigilante comes out and I start thinking things like, “God, I wish that girl would grab a knife and personally, publicly castrate every single one of her rapists.” But I’m saying this as someone who can’t even begin to fathom what that girl might actually feel like, and so by thinking such things while knowing admittedly very little about the situation, I’m falling victim to violence culture. Such vigilantist desires come out in me and others no doubt because we as a nation have lost faith in the concept of diplomacy as a deterrent to malevolent forces. I very much like the idea of sitting down for international diplomatic talks with Middle Eastern countries notorious for terrorism (but then again, I also like the idea in theory of 1,000-year-belated reparations for the Crusades, since those are what really started that whole mess in the first place) but it’s impossible to know how the leaders will react, and if they cooperate, nothing guarantees the disarmament of renegade terrorist groups. This is logic enough for right-wing hawks to claim to justify continued assaults with bombs, thereby continuing the cycle of violence, but diplomacy has largely become equated with “appeasement” and Neville Chamberlain’s fatal mistake towards dealing with Hitler—it’s a sad catch-22, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. (I realize now that I’ve been switching scales dramatically in these last two paragraphs, but that’s as much a testament to the pervasiveness of violence culture as anything else, its ubiquity in microcosm as well as on a large scale.) Such vigilantist thoughts provoke great shame in me since I utterly abhor violence, yet some cases just seem too tragic and complicated for me to know how to deal with—such as how to deal with psychopathic serial killers. Negotiate with them and try to rehabilitate them? That’s often too risky as psychopaths are pathological liars. Imprison them? Easy enough, but that seems extremely unfair to put a serial killer in the same place as garden-variety robbers and other, more “harmless” criminals. Euthanize them? No, that would lead to witch-hunting and the execution of non-psychopaths who have only committed the “crime” of having an anomalous mental configuration. Or (in my most vigilantist mood) let the families of their victims kill them? No, that would satisfy temporary revenge but would undoubtedly leave even deeper scars than the ones they already have. Vigilantist thoughts are just as irrational to me as my former fears of psychopathy, but I can’t help being angry at stories of horrible crimes…I just wish I knew a way to be angry without spiraling off into immature revenge fantasies.
What’s more, I don’t know what the proper middle ground should be between the current deluge of violence culture and restriction thereof to the point of repressive censorship—that is to say, horrible things that happen in the news should not be withheld from the public so as to make them feel better, particularly when they could make a difference in the resolution of or recovery from such tragic events. But the degree to which tragedies are exploited in this nation is obscene. Even before I started having anxiety attacks, when I was working as an intern in a Senate office in the summer of 2008, right before I went off to Cornell, I was bombarded by information about the Caylee Anthony case on a nearly daily basis, and it just made me want to scream, “LEAVE THIS POOR FAMILY ALONE!!! They’ve gone through enough grief as it is, so don’t add exploitation on top of that!!” This pattern continued when I was at home on leave last year and I was subjected to similarly unnecessarily drawn-out news tragedies as I went to the health club frequently. Does every missing small child or young life tragically cut short have to become a cable news story for weeks, only dragging everyone who knew that person into further despair? (This has been going on for quite a while, actually, as when I was growing up and would constantly see blurry pictures of kids on TV who had been killed in school shootings or died in car crashes I internalized such images, and I still, unfortunately, have no trouble at all envisioning myself dying young.) My Springfield therapist and I have been talking for a while about getting together a survey of the psychological effects of violent and exploitative news stories on the public, but the problem is that I don’t want to sound like I advocate censorship. What I advocate is knowledge—as far as I’m concerned, violence is merely ignorance made manifest (I can’t think of a single act of violence that does not ultimately stem back to ignorance) and violence culture cannot be destroyed until ignorance is.