The tragedy last week in Connecticut is still horrifying to think about on many different levels -- but the constant search for blame, and using it to support pet political ideas is troubling. This isn't to say that we don't necessarily need to have a "conversation" on various hot potato political issues, but basing it around an event like this isn't likely to be a productive and informed conversation, but one driven purely by emotions. I understand the desire, and the idea that making use of such a tragedy to create political will to do something, is all too tempting. But I fear what happens when we legislate around emotions, rather than reality. And, no I'm not even going to touch the question of gun control or mental health treatment. Both obviously evoke strong opinions from people on all sides of the issue (and, contrary to popular opinion, there are more than two sides to those issues). Instead, let's talk about the rush to blame video games and TV shows, as seems to happen every single time
there's a mass shooting -- and almost always done with no evidence.
We already talked about people rushing to blame a video game
, after the incorrectly named "original" suspect in the shootings had, possibly, at some point "liked" the game on Facebook. But, of course, now the politicians are stepping in, and retiring Senator Joe Lieberman is using the tragedy to push forth one of his pet ideas that he's brought up in the past: violent video games and TV must have something to do with it
. He's trying to set up a commission to "scrutinize" "the role that violent video games and movies might play in shootings" among other things (yes, including gun control and mental health care).
Lieberman, not surprisingly, was not the only one. A large group of politicians and pundits
immediately jumped to the conclusion that video games and movies must have something to do with all of this:
A disturbing number of public figures have lashed out at video games since the atrocity committed at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday. A bipartisan group of legislators embraced this scapegoating on the Sunday news programs; from Democrats like Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gov. John Hickenlooper to Rep. Jason Chaffetz and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
They were joined by members of the media – sadly, too many to count.
On MSNBC on Monday, Chris Jansing asked her guests what connection Adam Lanza’s interest in video games had to his murderous shooting spree. She quoted senior White House advisor David Axelrod who tweeted “shouldn’t we also quit marketing murder as a game?” Liberal contributor Goldie Taylor revealed that she refused to let her child play games until he was 14-years-old.
On Fox & Friends on Monday, legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. delivered an offensively sermonizing renunciation of entertainment producers and videogame makers who are “clinging to guns economically.”
“They are glamorizing guns in this country. They are the scourge in terms of these guns,” Johnson Jr. said of game and filmmakers
Of course, time and time again when these shootings happen, the reports later show... that video games and movies played little to no role. Yes, sometimes the killers played these games, but it's difficult to find teenagers these days who have not
played a violent video game or watched a violent movie. It's like saying that we should explore "the role that breakfast plays" in such shootings. How many of the killers ate breakfast that day? In fact, studies seem to suggest that, if anything, violent movies may actually decrease
incidents of violence.
Bizarrely, the person with the most thoughtful explanation on some of this might be movie critic Roger Ebert, in a review of Gus Van Sant's movie Elephant
from nearly a decade ago. That movie portrayed a similar school shooting, and did so by making it clear that sometimes there are no answers
and there is no "other thing" to blame. Sometimes (perhaps many times) these things don't make sense, no matter how many times we want them to make sense. But Ebert also points to another factor that rarely gets discussed:
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
Meanwhile, Danah Boyd has a related, but somewhat different perspective on the whole thing, noting how the media frenzy around these events also tends to mess with everyone else
who are trying to cope with the situation, and makes sure their lives can never go back to any semblance of normalcy. She talks about running into some kids who had gone to Columbine high school, a few months after those attacks:
What I heard was heartbreaking. They had dropped out of school because the insanity from the press proved to be too much to deal with. They talked about not being able to answer the phone – which would ring all day and night – because the press always wanted to talk. They talked about being hounded by press wherever they went. All they wanted was to be let alone. So they dropped out of school which they said was fine because it was so close to the end of the year and everything was chaos and no one noticed.
As she notes, it's not the press's fault either. They're also giving the public what they want -- and, she agrees, that some of these topics are important and should be discussed. But the focus on the people in Newtown isn't helping.
But please, please, please… can we leave the poor people of Newtown alone? Can we not shove microphones into the faces of distraught children? Can we stop hovering like buzzards waiting for the fresh meat of gossipy details? Can we let the parents of the deceased choose when and where they want to engage with the public to tell their story? Can we let the community have some dignity in their grief rather than turning them and their lives into a spectacle of mourning?
Yes, the media are the ones engaging in these practices. But the reason that they’re doing so is because we – the public – are gawking at the public displays of pain. Our collective fascination with tragedy means that we encourage media practices that rub salt into people’s wounds, all for the most salacious story. And worse, our social media practices mean that the media creators are tracking the kinds of stories that are forwarded. And my hunch is that people are forwarding precisely those salacious stories, even if to critique the practices (such as the interviews of children).
What happened last week was senseless and tragic and painful to think about in all sorts of ways. And, yes, there are reasons to hope that such an event might lead to ideas that would prevent such things in the future, but the way we go about things on such discussions doesn't provide much hope that we're going to do anything valuable or thoughtful in response. Instead, it becomes a rush to do something purely out of an emotional response, and it's unclear how that helps.