Broken Record

I admit it: I do tend to go on and on and on about my abhorrence of violence. Why? It’s just stories, right? Fiction. Entertainment. First, let me clarify that my aversion is not as much to violence as to killing. A life ended, snuffed out, never to be restored.

It would be easy to call me a hypocrite in this. I’m not a vegetarian. I’ll kill a black widow spider if I can’t safely remove it from the area. I support the careful application of capital punishment in rare cases as the only humane means of removing from society a monster who has been proven conclusively to be a great and unredeemable danger. But in every case, I am sad. Death is final, so in a way it’s odd that I am not particularly afraid of my own mortality. But perhaps that’s the point. My life is my own. It’s the one thing I have that is absolutely mine, and violating that in others is profound. That’s why the idea of death as part of an entertainment is so repugnant to me.

And I will acknowledge another hypocrisy as well: this is a comparatively new development for me. Some of my favorite movies have been Dirty Harry and The Godfather and the James Bond series. All have their share of killing. To be honest, since I reached this point in the past couple of years, I haven’t watched any of those movies, and have some trepidation about how I would respond to them today.

So what changed for me? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the increased prevalence of children being mixed into these lethal entertainments. When children die, or kill, in these violent books and movies, an additional element is added, and taken away. Not only is there loss of life, but of innocence as well. The tragedy is doubled.

I understand the counter-argument. Conflict drives the plot, and the stakes are never higher than when life is on the line. Our emotional response is part of the enjoyment of what we read, or view on a screen as the case may be. It’s part of the essential catharsis. Okay, fair enough. But context is everything. You see, while the defenders of hyper-violent entertainment say that the tragedy of death is part of the overall “message,” they tend to undercut it by how they present it. In most cases, only a handful of deaths are actually tragic. We see this at the ludicrous extreme in movies where the main characters endure horrific catastrophe, where the end of civilization has occurred. But the dog survives! That scene always elicits a rousing cheer. Presumably because the dog also represents innocence. It’s enough of a cliché that writers and filmmakers will take great pride in subverting it, sometimes to drive home the seriousness of the story, sometimes for laughs.

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m guilty of the former case. In my book a beloved dog is killed when trying to protect a main character from the bad guys. I wanted to make it clear the stakes were high, and that the danger was real. Yet, oddly, that scene met with considerable objection from several of my critique partners, who somehow had no problem with all the dead children in The Hunger Games, but insisted that I revise my scene  so that the dog lives, or else readers would hate my story. Because of one dead dog. Twenty-two children hacking each other to death? What a great story! Pass the popcorn.

It ends up being a numbers game. Most deaths in violent stories are largely unremarked upon. Terrible, yes, but of import only in the moment. The story goes on. Sure, that’s realistic, because life goes on. And let’s face it, an action story where every single death was treated as a profound tragedy would not be a pleasant thing to watch.

But maybe that’s the point.

This all came to mind when I encountered a recent quote by Michael Gerson, writing about the way the people of Rwanda have dealt with the horrific genocide of two decades ago. They focus on remembering the victims. By affirming, in Gerson’s words, “that every human story is more important than the diseased narratives of dictators and killers.” And this is where the creators of dark, violent dystopian stories get it wrong.

These authors, and the filmmakers who come after them, think they are sending that message. But they aren’t. Perhaps they can’t. People claim these stories tell us about standing up to violent oppression, that every life matters. And yet, in these stories, the only lives that actually matter are those of the main character and her small circle of characters-with-names. The body counts are almost incomprehensible (brace yourselves, Hunger Games fans who are anxiously awaiting the next movie without having read the book it will be based on, where there’s literally death on every page). Stories like Game of Thrones make the frequency of death a selling point. But mostly it’s something that just happens. As long as the characters you are actually invested in continue to live, it’s all good.

But that disconnect is precisely what makes these stories diseased narratives themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the narrative is about a tyrant or the plucky young girl who stands up to him. Only some deaths matter, and all the rest are just part of the body count. Which brings to mind another quote, one that, nearly a century later, still speaks volumes:

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The words of Josef Stalin. One of the dictators and killers. Who would understand that truth better?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Broken Record

  1. Great post, Bob. We gotta know where to draw the line.

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