An American Tragedy

16 Apr

After every tragedy like today’s shooting at Virginia Tech. which left 32 (BBC says 33) people dead, calls are made to put curbs on violent media. Almost always the penny-a-dozen talk talk show hosts greatly exaggerate the prevalence and magnitude of these incidents. And then we have politicians in full thrall of panic button policy making. After all full 33 people were killed by a loner psychopath, so it reasons to call for ban on violent media, introduce mandatory psychological testing for foreign students, increase policing and do “whatever is neccessary” to prevent a recurrence of something like this. In effect we now have a policy making model in place where one-time rare events that can’t possibly be avoided are given every whit of attention and spun into events that were long time coming due to the “moral depravity” and associated explanations.

The magnitude of tragedy
Vice Provost of Stanford, Dr. Boardman, sent out a university wide email expressing this thoughts about the “terrible tragedy that occurred on the campus of Virginia Tech yesterday.” Adding, “Such violence is beyond comprehension.” I wonder how much beyond comprehension Iraq, with its 650,000 dead, would be for the meager intellect of Mr. Boardman. It is the insidious hyperbole that creates conditions ripe to sell all and every policy choice. What is indeed the magnitude of this tragedy? Pitifully small, if you ask me. It is small compared to virtually everything a government should possibly deal with and focus its energies on.

‘Werther Effect’ -relation between violent media and crime

Two hundred years after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which triggered the craze for yellow pants, sociologist David Phillips coined the term “the Werther effect” to describe imitative suicidal behavior transmitted via the mass media in his landmark 1974 paper which linked news stories about suicides to adult suicides. (Other causal models have been posited including increase in sadness on seeing a suicide etc. though mimesis remains the psychological causal model of choice) Research since then has provided ample evidence towards the claim that watching violent features, let alone effect of active interaction in video games, has a tangible increased propensity towards violent behavior. Given that today an average adult today watches about thirty hours of television each week, and given that the content is increasingly violent, one would expect the size to be robust in size except the statistics on violent crime when taken in conjunction with survey of perpetrators of violent crimes point the other way.

What do Cheney and Bush Watch

If indeed these violent behavior is explained by the prevalence of violent media, I do want to know what ours slave owning, genocidal ancestors were watching. It is a facetious argument and I realize it as much; it is merely meant to draw attention to the poorly thought out “solutions” that are in vogue.

Spectacle and healing
Every tragedy not only brings its army of cable pundits but also a stylized healing process. This country heals through candle light vigils and spectacle. Tragedy is carefully touched up and modeled to sell. The sham displays of kids paintings covering walls, empty gestures of flowers, and candles abound. This country heals or pretends to heal through spectacle. (Baudrillard – who more pointedly claimed that all reality is understood through spectacle). There are no real tragedies so the healing must also be appropriately fake.

The cherished childhood

It is jarring to see the media frenzy that school shoot outs generate. Children and young white adults have become the cherished innocents of this country and the only ones that can be reliably summoned to generate moral outrage against the “other”. Young children are cherished everywhere for they are the “future” and the workers who will pay for the retirement benefits for the old, but in US it approaches fetishistic proportions. America at once festishizes its young teenagers as virginal innocents and as hypersexual creatures. It is American puritanism that in its quest to dominate that creates such absurdities. And America deals with it by pricing the child beyond measure – someone mentioned “holocaust” on the radio station by the way – and hence all policy making becomes absurdist for it loses the anchoring of pragmatic pricing.

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