Gun Violence in the U.S. On Screen and Off: Pursuing Peace Beyond Gun Control and Mental Health

“‘This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,’ said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. ‘It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.’”

So said The Onion, proving itself one again to indeed be America’s finest news source, getting to the heart of the matter with prophetic jestery.

One thing that was as predictable as last week’s murder of six people in Santa Barbara was the rush to publish commentary alongside the reports of the psychological wellbeing and “manifesto” of the person who perpetrated the killings. The same arguments—about gun control and mental health—have been well-rehearsed, but what wasn’t so predictable (and was certainly more welcome) was the #YesAllWomen hashtag which encouraged serious discussion about the misogynistic culture that appears to have contributed to the crime. Some writers have taken the step of not naming the person who shot six people dead, nor linking to his online statements, recognizing that if one part of the motivation for the killings is the aspiration to post-homicide fame, then perhaps refusing to participate in the system that produces that kind of celebrity would be a small step for a blogger and a giant leap for blogger-kind.

I won’t name or link to him either, but not only because I don’t want to feed the distorted self-image that tempts people to destructive action in the search for notoriety. I won’t name or link to him because I think that would be missing the point. The hashtag is #YesAllWomen, not #YesButOnlyPeopleDirectlyAffectedByTheSantaBarbaraShootings.

I believe that our culture is struggling to liberate itself from the deeply embedded myth of redemptive violence, the term the great theologian and activist Walter Wink coined to describe the idea that order can be brought out of chaos through violence (and some of the implications of the myth for a specific gender are certainly evoked in #YesAllWomen). Individual acts of atrocity like the shootings in Santa Barbara are among the most extreme manifestations of this myth; and so is terrorism (by which I mean any unlawful act part of whose purpose or consequence is to create terror for ideological or political reasons); and so is war (despite how the exercise of laws may restrain some kinds and frequency of violence in war, killing to bring peace is the core methodology of the myth). Perhaps all of us have been impacted by the myth; perhaps most of us have somehow been complicit in it.

Michael Moore echoed this notion, in repeating his well-known views after the Santa Barbara shootings:

“We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) ‘interests.’ The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol…Yet we don’t seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: ‘Why us? What is it about US?’…We won’t pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won’t consider why this happens here all the time.”

Walter Wink would surely have agreed with the assertion that the gun is the true national symbol; foreshadowing it in his 1992 magnum opus Engaging the Powers:

“Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace… It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America.”

The violence that exploded in Santa Barbara is a symptom of a misunderstood culture war – not between left and right, but between the myth of redemptive violence as a way of seeing the world and the way of peace. If how we see the world determines how we live, then there are huge implications for the way we tell stories, particularly in the most powerful, visual forms that we discuss here.

Later this year some fellow travelers will be launching a new movement of storytellers (film and TV creatives, journalists, fiction writers, musicians, critics, spoken word artists and others) who want to reduce violence through their work. Here are some of the questions we’re asking:

1) Why do we enjoy violence on screen and in stories?

2) Is the violence depicted in visual media increasing?

3) Is the experience of watching fictionalized violence cathartic for the viewer? That is, can watching horrific violence depicted on screen actually reduce the likelihood of more violence in the viewer?

4) Is there a difference between the violence in, say, Se7en (in which the horror of violence is faced head on, but it still seems to enjoy telling this to the audience), X-Men: Days of Future Past (in which magic powers are involved, but the protagonists spend most of their time trying to avoid a war), The Godfather (in which a family is portrayed as very cool and sleek and attractive, but whose power—lest we forget—depends on taking the lives of others), Django Unchained (which shocks, rightly, the system’s apathy to slavery, but makes a virtue out of mass murder, as long as the victims are seen to be “bad”), Home Alone (in which a kid uses Road Runner/Bugs Bunny techniques to beat two burglars half to death), or the current TV version of Fargo (which appears to want to elicit empathy for the victims but also sly laughter at the perpetrators)?

5) Is the myth of redemptive violence the appropriate framework for understanding violence in the world?

6) Along with absurdly high rates of gun ownership, what are the other social factors that contribute to the disproportionate rates of gun violence in the US? (Social inequality and lack of community bonds appear to be just two.

7) Does it make a difference if you watch at home or in a cinema?

8) What really is the relationship between the stories we tell and real-world violence? (It appears that the short-term impact of on-screen violence may be to reduce its real-world incidence, but that research doesn’t take into account the total permeation of our culture in a myth so powerful that its followers aren’t even aware we believe in it.)

These questions will take humility and time, at the very least. A potentially humble exercise of my own would be to acknowledge that even to call this a culture war may be part of the problem; because the myth of redemptive violence depends on it being fought against in order for it to thrive.

To rage violently against violence is no more effective than throwing gasoline on a fire. So I prefer to move beyond the language of war, instead suggesting that the myth of redemptive violence will not be overthrown in a coup or eradicated through lethal force, but simply, and powerfully, and eventually be replaced by stories that nurture a new way of seeing the world.