12.17.2012

Are Creatives Part of the Violence Problem?

As our nation deals with its 16th (and worst) mass shooting of the year, we find ourselves embroiled in a lot of discussion about why this happened and how we can prevent it from happening again. The most popular topics of course are tighter gun controls, mental health reform, and bringing up the rear in the pack is the perennial favorite: addressing violence in popular media (movies/video games/TV/books/music). And it's this latter one I'm going to focus on, because it's most relevant to what I do and how I live my life.

Put plainly, I am both a consumer of and creator of violent media. And in light of all the horrible tragedies we've had to face in recent times, I have to ask myself if what I do is part of an overall larger problem of glorifying the "dark side" of human nature.

My answer leans toward "no." I like to think that while there is violence or general unpleasantness in my books, I don't paint it in a particularly positive light. In fact, the violence in my stories usually illustrates that such things have pretty terrible consequences. I don't get any joy out of making people kill other people, but let's face it, at the heart ANY story lies conflict. And at the heart of nearly all conflict lies some sort of violence. Or at least pain. The definition of "conflict" is "struggle." And struggles often involve unpleasantness: killing, natural death, fighting, thievery, shooting, stabbing, suicide, drugs/alcohol, betrayal, name-calling, bullying. The list goes on and on. We cannot scrub our stories clean of these things and still create compelling drama of any kind.

While some do seem to put violent acts on a pedestal, the better stories, generally, will show some kind of growth or arc of a character dealing with these things in some meaningful way. They may or may not be "heroes" in the traditional sense, but we will see consequences or retribution for a character who has committed wrongdoing or had it inflicted on them. In nearly all stories, especially the ones that people connect with/elevate/love, we will see the same story being played out time and again, and that is violence, while sometimes either necessary or inevitable, is bad or is used as a last resort.

Okay, not every story plays out that way. Movies like Skyfall or The Matrix or Equilibrium make wielding a gun look pretty badass, and I think there are some people who are particularly susceptible to a certain level of mimicry. But there is a difference between watching a fictional character perform actions in a fictional story and suiting up in Kevlar and walking into a school or a mall or a movie theater and blowing away innocent people. In almost ANY story you encounter, the person who does something like that is a villain of the worst kind, and those villains are usually taken out in the end. Maybe these killers don't see that far into it. They see things in a plainer way, more black and white. They see their names making the headlines, they see merely the deed. But was it inspired by the game or the movie or the book? Or did those things merely provide an outlet for what was already there, until they gathered up enough "courage" (if you could call it that) to become the villain themselves?

The thing is, creative people of all walks create their wares for people who understand and enjoy escapism, for the same reason rollercoaster designers make rides that give people the thrill of a fight or flight experience without actually trying to kill them. Consumers and creators enter into a silent agreement that the products are only meant to entertain. We don't put death and violence into our work because that's how we want things to be. We do it because sometimes it provides another kind of lens through which to experience the world beyond the ordinary/everyday. If real-life violence spawns in relation to something we've created, then that silent agreement has been broken. If you or someone you know has trouble entering into such agreements, it's probably best to avoid the the media in question and seek help. And hopefully said help will become more readily available in light of these tragedies.

We should not mindlessly do anything, ever. There are ways to screen our content for objectionable material. There are rating systems. We can avert our eyes from the news, we can adjust the inflow of media and data to suit the way we prefer to see the world. Nobody is a forcibly opened vessel through which the world at large pours in violent and unsavory content. I despise cable news, torture porn and gratuitous rape scenes, for instance, so I avoid those things, and as such, I haven't seen them in years, nor do I intend to.

Nothing probably makes a creator of content feel more like shit than to know their book/movie/show/song actually drove someone to commit a violent act, or that it spoke to them in a way that stirred something macabre and harmful inside them. It was not meant for this. Unlike a gun, which was designed with the express intent to injure another being, a movie, a book, a video game is not. Nearly every story, no matter how dark, begins with a positive intention from the creator, to take people on a ride to places they would never otherwise go. And, if done well, it makes us feel a little better or more enlightened about our regular lives or the human condition in general. It should not make us want to take up arms and start blasting. And thankfully--though it may not seem like it now as we muddle through our grief and despair over FAR too many lost lives--people who do these things are still rare.

Entertaining the masses, or at least the segment of masses who like what I write, is all I ever wish to do in this life. Hurting people is absolutely NEVER on my agenda. I will continue writing what I do and enjoying what I watch with that express purpose in mind.