Yesterday I went to see the movie musical version of Les Miserables -- you can read a full review on my movie blog -- and the spectacle left me wondering about what offends and doesn't offend people, not to mention the limits of our vaunted sensitivity. Here, from Victor Hugo via the musical stage, comes a vision in which poor people are incited by alienated students to attempt a revolution in the streets of Paris. The movie never questions the students' revolutionary impulse; if anything it laments the failure of most other Parisians to join them. Finally a moment comes when the student group we've focused on realizes that theirs is the last barricade left in the city. They face a choice between retreating with the hope of fighting another day or continuing the present fight unto certain death. They choose death because they want to strike some blow against authority, want to see the policemen and soldiers take bullets. In the end, as far as the students are concerned, it'll be worth it just to do some damage. The movie can't help portraying it as a tragic decision, but it still plays that decision out to a bitter end, except for one of the ringleaders rescued by the film's hero, Jean Valjean (Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman), the ringleader being the beloved of Valjean's adopted daughter. But isn't the logic of the Paris students also the logic of the amoklaufer, whose only concern at the end is to take people with him, to see them die in order to feel that he has accomplished something or left an impact on the world?
For the purpose of our thought experiment, I should also note that during the final battle, a small boy who serves as a mascot for the insurrectionists is shot dead by the authorities. Violence toward children! Gun violence toward children!! And yet, while the promoters of Quentin Tarantino's slavesploitation quasi-western Django Unchained cancelled the gala festivities for that film's Hollywood premiere out of sensitivity for the victims of the Newtown amoklauf, I know of no attempt to interrupt or mute the rollout for Les Miserables, in which the violence, if much less lurid, is hardly less intense. But is it really impossible to imagine someone being inspired to violence by Les Miserables? It was easier to imagine it in the past. When Hugo's book was new, it was censored in many places and condemned by the Catholic Church, and Hugo himself lived in exile from France for many years, including the time of the novel's publication, because of his opposition to Louis Napoleon's authoritarian regime. Now, no one seems to be afraid of his book. Is that because it was provocative only in its original but now expired context or because, as some idealists might presume, it should never have been considered provocative at all? The idealists are few, of course, while many of us seek evidence of provocation in the media in the wake of mass shootings or political violence. I bring up Les Miz not just as a reductio ad absurdam but to point out that most people look for evidence of provocation where they already expect to see it while remaining blind to potential provocations elsewhere. They already have assumptions about the things that provoke people, but those assumptions are always limited in scope and inevitably miss something. The impulse is to blame something you already deplore, whether you blame guns themselves or violent media, without necessarily noticing every single thing that could be said to glorify violence. Does Les Miz glorify violence less because people sing in it, or because, like Django Unchained, it's set in the 19th century -- or because it's not set in the United States? Yet it ends with a vision of a revolutionary Valhalla in the middle of Paris, with all the dead revolutionaries restored to life and singing a triumphant finale atop a mountainous barricade commanding the public square. Couldn't that be an amoklaufer's vision as well? The point, finally, is not that we should censor Les Miserables, but simply to ask why we want to censor certain things and not others while we cast blame for violence. In our choice of targets we probably reveal more about ourselves as individuals than we do the true ills of culture and society.