04 March 2013
More on the coarsening of the American mind
The New York Times put together a critics' roundtable last week to address the question of the media's role in making our society and culture seemingly more violent. A stream of readers' comments run alongside the critic articles, providing a wider range of opinion. There may not be a consensus, but there is a widespread concern that violent media progressively coarsens consumers' sensibilities in a way that can be measured by the escalation of violent action and gore from the days of pulp fiction, to choose an arbitrary start point, to the present of Django Unchained and the most splattery video games. That it takes more to shock us than it took to shock our grandparents seems to prove the coarsening effect, which some observers associate with failures of compassion, on the part of both the coarsened population and the media that ought to encourage compassion. Still open to question is whether this downward spiral of media brutalization is influenced by factors outside the world of entertainment, whether violent media itself is more cause or effect. The topic has grown more heated as some people perceive an attempt to shift the blame for violence from guns, or as some anti-violence activists perceive the media as an easier target than the gun lobby. Whatever the biases of critics, it should be obvious that the media can rarely if ever incite violence from nothing; that violent media alone aren't enough to turn an otherwise placid person into a plotter of mass murder. I was struck by one reader's comment about the media's failure to cultivate compassion. Some people might blame that on profit motives -- on the assumption that it's easier to make money with violence, though that assumption itself begs more questions. Is there less compassion shown in our entertainments because we've become a less compassionate culture? Both of the country's major ideological factions might say yes. Some Republicans have been saying something like this for a while, indicting their opponents' failure to recognize an unborn fetus as an unalienable human being and blaming that for a growing disrespect for human life that could culminate in compulsory euthanasia mandated by the death panels of their imagination. On the other side, many Democrats, liberals and progressives find Republicanism itself synonymous with a failure of compassion, equating its "personal responsibility" rhetoric with an indifference to other people's suffering. It would seem that the faction that made "bleeding heart" an insult deserves more blame for any perceived coarsening of society, but we should avoid throwing all the blame on one party or faction, especially given a Democratic foreign policy that belies any partisan boasts of superior compassion or universal equal regard for human life. A reasonably compassionate society truly committed to keeping everyone alive and well might well look quite different from the Obama administration, demanding more from everyone than Obama dares or Republicans dread. Of course, you could dismiss all this speculation and insist stubbornly that everyone remember that they simply must not kill no matter what. But if depending on that doesn't seem to be working, we'll have to find answers outside each person's mind or soul. If that means qualifying the right to self-defense and the right to self-expression, we at least owe it to ourselves and our society to weigh the benefits as well as the costs before jumping to conclusions.