By CHRISTOPHER SHINN | COMMENTARY
The Hartford Courant
6:57 PM EST, February 15, 2013
How can we make sure that violence always feels real — truly real — to us?
This is the question that underlies so many of the questions we are asking about violence today in the aftermath of the horror of Newtown. When we ask, "Are violent video games hurting our kids?" we are really asking, "Do they hurt our kids' ability to understand the reality of violence?"
When we debate the ethics of drones, we are more precisely exploring whether their physical and symbolic remoteness allows us protection from the reality of the violence we commit with them. Even our debates about concussions in football, as much as they are about the science behind head injuries, rest on the extent to which we empathize with the bodies and minds of the players affected.
We've all been horrified by obvious examples of the denial of the reality of violence: violent video game ads in the aftermath of Newtown caused outrage; a fantasy football columnist's reaction to an NFL murder-suicide by focusing on its ramifications for his fantasy league was widely condemned; the documented deaths of innocents in Pakistan from our drones ... no, this in fact has not caused widespread outrage or protest.
It was this that particularly struck me post-Newtown. Our country's arguably most egregious use of repeated violence has seemed almost as invisible to its citizens as the drones themselves. And yet as they were talked about in the presidential debates, obviously people are aware of them — so why no robust cultural debate about them?
What if one answer to the questions we are asking about how to ensure that violence is real to us is this: Our unconscious refuses to recognize certain kinds of violence as real, as existing, at all?
Consider recent debates about two serious American movies in which violence is central, "Django Unchained" and "Zero Dark Thirty." In the former, debates have centered around Quentin Tarantino's unabashed love of film violence and its relationship to the slave-era story he is telling. In the latter, questions have arisen about what director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal intend by scenes that seem to suggest torture played a role in the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden.
Fine questions, but what strikes me most about these two movies is that the primary objects of violence in both movies — slave owners and terrorists — are deserving of the violence that they receive. They are indisputably guilty of gross inhumanity and evil.
In reality, almost all objects of violence are innocent. The children of Newtown — or children killed in the crossfire in Chicago; adolescents struck down by a vicious tackle on a football field; the non-terrorists in the wrong place at the wrong time in Pakistan, Yemen, anywhere our drones stalk the skies and fire "precision weapons"; civilians in war zones the world over.
It's no great achievement to explore violence committed against those who deserve it, no matter how artfully created. The truly difficult achievement is to be able to think of our violence as unjust — as something we do to innocents.
When we see clear-cut examples of violence against innocents, as in Newtown, we are quick to condemn it. But just as our serious movies mostly avoid exploring violence committed against innocents, our leaders avoid discussing the moral complexities of military decisions that kill innocent civilians. It appears we don't want to know. No wonder we busy ourselves with tangential debates about video games and movie violence.
Why is it that we don't want to know?
To answer that, first we'll have to become conscious of our denial and ignorance — something that will take a long time and a lot of work. But if we undertake this work, perhaps we'll discover that these blind spots aren't just due to desensitization or a lack of empathy, but to an unexamined love of power and violence inside of us.
Starting to think about the bloodshed we overlook or minimize, the innocent victims we see as guilty or don't think about at all, is the very first step in beginning to change a culture that may be in love with violence without even knowing it.
Christopher Shinn is a Connecticut native who grew up in Wethersfield. His play "Dying City" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his play "Teddy Ferrara," about bullying and suicide among LGBTQ youths, just opened in Chicago.
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