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A conversation on violence

by Charles Shaughnessy

Our society, like any civilized, twenty-first century society, is faced with many fundamental dilemmas. They are fundamental because they run through the very fabric of that society and affect us all in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I am talking about things like freedom, security, drugs, economic disparity and violence. These are questions as complex and challenging as any Gordian Knot. Each of these issues is made up of many disparate threads tied into a dizzyingly impossible bundle of conflicting, passionate, complex, contradictory and subjective knots. Perhaps none is more damnable, relevant and tragic than the cost of violence in our society.

For most animals, violence is the default method of resolving conflict. Humans, with their sense of reason and ability to objectify, are supposed to have moved beyond this primal urge. You don’t need me to tell you that our “civilized discourse” is interrupted on a sickeningly regular basis by acts of dreadful violence. At any time this “scourge” is blamed on some related cause: poverty, the media, lack of personal and social discipline, the decline of religion, the break-up of the family unit, and so on. Unlike the Gordian Knot, however, whose unraveling was simply bypassed by Hercules’ sword, our dilemmas are not so simply disposed of.

Let’s take just one of these “problems” and see if we can loosen it by tugging at it just one thread at a time. It is well-documented that the two Columbine shooters, both socially challenged, rebellious and brooding teenagers, were avid “gamers” who shut themselves off for hours at a time indulging in orgies of digitally rendered violence served up in an abundance of first-person shooter games like Halo, Call of Duty and Quake.

Now, was this obsessive gaming simply the natural recreation of a couple of already disaffected and homicidal teenagers, or did the gaming turn naturally disaffected kids into violent, real-life killers? Is violent entertainment the symptom or the cause of a violent society?

Even if we decided that yes, indeed, such violence corrupts a society and drags its members down a road to damnation, it merely begs another question: Should an industry that caters to millions of otherwise peaceful consumers be penalized if one or two individuals allow themselves to be so influenced by what they play that they act out for real? This question was raised and artfully addressed earlier on Hollywood Journal by contributor, Jason Benoit, Esq.

If that’s the case, then should a novelist be held to account if one of his characters becomes a role model for someone’s violent action? After all, John Lennon’s assassin claimed he was greatly influenced by J.D. Salinger’s anti-hero, Holden Caulfield.

Human beings are naturally inquisitive, we have a lot of questions. We also like definitive answers and are frustrated until we get them. The truth that we must live with is that there are really no such things. Everything is a matter of degree, context, perspective and circumstance. We would like to codify what is or isn’t “OK,” but we are constantly thwarted by exceptions to every rule. One can argue that there have been teenage “shooters” before there were such things as TV or video games. But when the shooters seem to actually recreate the dress, style and weaponry they see in games or on TV, can we say that this form of entertainment has become more than a passive pablum and more of an influential catalyst? Or, once again, is this just an irrelevant detail tacked on to an already destined act?

To get under the skin of teenage violence, I suspect we need to tease a number of seemingly disparate threads: parental neglect in an economically challenging and splintered society, inadequate mental health care, the contradictory isolation of individuals in a massively “connected” digital universe, an historical and deeply ingrained social obsession with guns and their lethality, the numbing pervasiveness of violence in all areas of our media, an existential alienation from a society that seems not to care, the corrosive influence of poverty and sense of injustice . . . the list goes on and on.

None of these questions can be answered simply and none will, on its own, solve any of our problems. But I believe that if we are to begin to unravel these knots, we have to get serious about the conversation. As Hollywood has been cast as one of the main culprits/causes/excuses for this curse of violence in our society, I think that this is as good a forum as any to engage in this debate. I propose, therefore, to offer an essay each month as a “jumping off point,” if you will, and encourage anyone to join this timely and crucial discussion.

Next month . . . Guns: the American DNA.

Charles Shaughnessy

About Charles Shaughnessy

British born actor, Charles Shaughnessy, known to millions as Fran Drescher's long-suffering boss, Max Sheffield, on the CBS sitcom, The Nanny, lives with his family in Los Angeles, where, he is delighted to say, he continues to make his living as an actor. Despite the heavy preponderance of estrogen in his household, he is never happier than when he is at home with Susan, Jenny, Madelyn, Maya (the dog), and Lulabelle (the feral cat!). Please follow Charles: @C_Shaughnessy, charlesshaughnessy.com, CharlesShaughnessy Facebook Fan Page.

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