Tag Archives: killing

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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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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A Question of Morality

“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I’m not religious, not a “believer.” I have a low opinion of organized religion, and am wary of “faith,” especially the unquestioning kind. That said, I believe there is room in this world for spirituality and I can respect it. There are many religious people who are deeply spiritual, and far more who are not. And there are some very spiritual people who do not ascribe to any belief system. It’s pretty complicated.

I function comfortably in a world of believers, a society where people seek out and embrace supernatural explanations for the complexities of their lives, and govern themselves in accordance with ancient rituals that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the world today. I’m okay with that. I don’t get all frothy when people reject what science has confirmed because it goes against superstitions that have been handed down from thousands of years ago. I’m more troubled when they try to compel others to do the same. Fortunately, I live in a society where that’s pretty hard to do on a large scale, at least overtly.

True, there are small manifestations of religion that fill our culture, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if a well-meaning Christian says, “God bless you,” when I sneeze, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” I ask only they also don’t get upset if I don’t do so. When they take the equally well-meaning “Happy holidays,” as being somehow an attack on their beliefs, then there’s a problem. But, for the most part, things are fine, and I’m happy to live in a pluralistic society that can be so dominated by one particular faith, yet not become totally repressive.

Where I do get unhappy is in a rather odd place, one that comes of the melding of religion and morality. There exist things like the “Christian Yellow Pages,” where people can seek out businesses run by alleged Christians. The assumption is that a Christian will just innately be moral and ethical and trustworthy. Why? Because he believes in Jesus? More to the point, because he professes a belief in Jesus? Like someone wouldn’t lie about that? Come on, a dishonest person won’t hesitate to say whatever you want to hear. And even if he is Christian, that doesn’t make him innately more moral. Actually, the fact that he’s making such a big show out of being Christian is, as I understand it, antithetical to the actual teachings of Christianity.

But the real problem is the presumption of morality. This goes beyond business practices. Many religious people believe that a believer is more moral than a non-believer. They hold this perspective to the point that they think we need to emphasize religious practice, that we need to put religion back into the schools in order to make our children more moral. Underlying this entire premise is a very nasty assumption: not merely does religion instigate morality, but in fact in the absence of religion, people will not be moral. This is frightening.

When someone says that without religion we will not be moral, it tells me a great deal about that person. Whether or not it’s true that people cannot be moral in the absence of religion, it’s indisputable that he himself is only moral because of his religion. In other words, he only does the right thing because he believes in, and fears, some sort of divine retribution. Take away his faith, and he will become a savage.

People who are only moral because they believe some invisible superbeing is watching and keeping track aren’t moral at all. It’s said that the truest test of character is what we do when we think nobody is watching. If a believer behaves well only under threat from an all-seeing God, it’s not morality, it’s imposed behavior.

That’s why I submit that in fact non-believers are actually more moral than believers. A believer acts a certain way because he believes there is an eternal reward coming for doing so, and certain punishment for not. A non-believer, on the other hand, has no such motivation. He rejects the idea of an afterlife or reincarnation or anything else like that. He understands that this life is all we get, there are no second chances, nothing better waiting for us. When this life is over, that’s it. So he makes this life the best it can be.

And he realizes this is also true for everyone else. He, far more than the most crusading fundamentalist, understands how precious life is, in all its myriad forms. He will hesitate to kill because, unlike the believer who thinks it’s all part of God’s plan and the dead are on their way to paradise, the non-believer knows that killing takes away everything, and it can never be returned. This is why the rampant killing in our entertainments sickens me. Even in fiction, I am heartsick at a life snuffed out. Forever.

Yet our books and movies are full of killing, often done by supposedly good characters who then give no further thought to the monstrosity of what they have done. The victims didn’t matter because they weren’t major characters and, thus, their lives were unimportant. But all lives are important to someone, and a moral person never forgets that, even playing a computer game. In my book, there is death, and it’s always profound, and my characters cannot avoid the psychological consequences and moral implications. Alas, that may well make some people avoid my book, because the last thing they want is for morality to intrude on an exciting story. Not surprising, given the role religion plays in most of their lives.

Religion shields people from having to acknowledge the finality of death. It makes it easer to kill. Why else have so many wars and organized atrocities been done in the name of religion? When our conscience is imposed upon us, we are spared the burden of minding it ourselves. Now, I’m not one who says that if there were no religion, the world would be a better place (sorry Mr. Lennon, but it’s just not true). Human beings have an infinite capacity to be horrible to each other, and without religion, we’d find some other justification. But religion is a particularly good one, because rather than making us moral, it obviates our moral responsibility to each other, and thus frees us to justify the most heinous immorality as “God’s will.”

And I say that as a moral person who does not need to believe in God to be that way.

(ps I know this isn’t the follow-up to my last post as promised. But that’s still coming, so stand by.)

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