The Arizona shooting has brought up intense national introspection. As we search the recesses of our culture for deeper understanding, we had better take a sobering look at what entertains us.
Last week, my 17-year-old son and I went to see the movie "True Grit," a Coen brothers' version of the Wild West. We don't go to movies often because of gratuitous violence, but "Grit" was rated PG-13, so how bad could it be?
A triple hanging kicks the thing off with a snap as three corpses jerk violently from the gallows. The necktie party is followed by shootings, stabbings and a smorgasbord of violence delivered in super-realistic Technicolor gore.
Seeing a man shot in the face at close range made me cringe, but that's entertainment in a medium that routinely celebrates violent death in theaters and living rooms. Death in the living room is a strange anomaly, but that's where many American audiences attend ritual bloodbaths. Filmmakers go to extremes to make an audience feel something, anything, even if that feeling is revulsion.
Numbed in the dull aftermath of visceral shock from the film, I remarked to my son that innocent 13-year-olds must shy from such nightmarish imagery. "No, Dad, they see it all the time," shrugged Tait. "They watch it on TV."
Exposure to a constant barrage of shock can only numb a viewer's sensitivities, and if you're not into it, then you're out of sync with the mainstream. If your movie selections don't include shotgun murders, chain-saw vivisections and variations on bestiality, you're puritanically weird and hypersensitive. The entertainment industry has gone to the dark side in a bizarre celebration of necrophilia, so is it any surprise when it becomes real in a Safeway parking lot in Arizona?
I'll be the first to admit that torturous mayhem, gruesome pain and abject suffering fail to brighten my days or soothe my nights. I find no pleasure feasting vampire-like on a diet of slaughter and butchery.
In reflection, "True Grit" revels in the thrill of killing, being killed, or passively watching both with morbid infatuation. "Grit" is rated PG-13, so there are far worse displays of violent ugliness and grotesque perversion. But there is no rating low enough for the deep gloom that invites an insane shooting spree that kills real people.
The media formula is clear: When the populace is numb to all else, stimulate it with the cattle prod of shock using the tried and true fascination with death. The commercial value of violence translates to high ratings and personal fortunes while it undermines the love of life that is the foundation for an appreciation of beauty. This dualism is shredding the social fabric.
Our cultural affliction with violence says a lot about hostility toward political opponents, foreign ethnic groups, and especially against nature. The societal manifestation of violence is war, and we wage it on many fronts with the same reckless fantasy as Hollywood characters on the screen. The fantasy ends with tragedies on foreign soil, in urban parking lots, and in the countless memorials that mourn it all.
So what is the alternative for those who would rather witness beauty, life and love? How do you celebrate the positive side of human nature in a culture mired in what environmental educator David Orr calls "insensate, high-tech barbarism"?
Biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia" to describe an innate human connection to the whole of life. Biophilia can connect us deeply to our humanity and inspire us to be stewards of the creation that is the source of all life. Nature immersion is one avenue to biophilia.
Driven by habitual desire for titillation, however, American culture has become biophobic - afraid of nature and antagonistic to its life force. Biophobia foments eco-vandalism and fuels our domination over the natural world as we wring from it the raw materials of our excess. Urban immersion is one avenue to biophobia.
Our prevailing industrial culture fulfills the rapacious hunger of materialism with possessive violence. The byproduct is a loss of our essential bond with nature and a bond to each other. Commercial entertainment reflects this callused indifference by exploiting the suffering of others. Hearts are hardened, and we are led more easily into war, political strife, and disregard for the living earth.
The murders in Arizona, the mayhem of "True Grit," climate change, species extinctions, war - all of the assaults against the sensibilities of biophilia - stem from biophobia. This dark side of our culture injects our humanity with the poison of acceptable violence, and it spills out into the real world with our own blood.