In his poem “The Hollow Men”, T.S. Eliot warns against “hollow men” whom he describes not as “violent souls” but as those whom with “dried voices, when/ We whisper together/ Are quiet and meaningless.”
The demons of racism and bigotry and the scar of violence and war tarnish our country’s history. Every incremental step along the path has included the hatred – sometimes violent – of a specific group: Native Americans, slaves, immigrants, and freed blacks. There is no way around this harsh truth, and to ignore it is to do ourselves a disservice.
Several recent cases of violence, including shootings in Aurora, CO, a Sikh Temple, the Empire State Building, Perry Hall High School, and the case of Trayvon Martin from last February bring to light the stark reality that we have not completely exorcised our demons. Racism, bigotry, and violence are still part of our nation’s consciousness, even if they are buried in our murky subconscious.
The details of the Trayvon Martin case are still unclear, but the discussion of race that it sparked is vital for both our national identity and social coherence. Often the emphasis on race can distract from the more paramount issue: violence.
The violence of the act has become secondary to the narrative of racial profiling, but it is symptomatic of a greater struggle in our national consciousness. This struggle is apparent by the response of some, like the New Black Panthers, who announced a$10,000 bounty on George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin.
About two weeks before the Trayvon Martin shooting, American soldiers were photographed urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. About two weeks after the shooting incident, an American soldier, also in Afghanistan, suffered a mental breakdown, walking into three homes of Afghan civilians and opening fire. He killed 16 people, including three women – one of them pregnant – and nine children. And in the United States, an estimated 1,246,248 violent crimes were committed in 2010; that amounts to 3,414 per day, 142 per hour, and two per minute.
Over the past month, it has become far too apparent that violence permeates our culture – a psychotic breakdown in a movie theater, a racially motivated shooting at a Sikh Temple, a disgruntled former employee in New York City, and a troubled youth in suburban Maryland.
The problem is twofold. First, the existence of this violent behavior is a problem in and of itself. Second, we as a culture have become numb and apathetic to such violence. You can always count on The Onion to toe the line between acceptable and off-color humor, but it recently reflected a stark truth. On the morning before the Empire State Building shooting, the online newspaper posted an article entitled “Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting” only to update it an hour later with “Never mind.” It was a sharp indictment of both the violence and our culture’s acceptance of it.
American culture has become one which accepts and in some cases celebrates violence. Many citizens no longer comprehend how much even the thought of violence can harm relationships, communities, and society as a whole. As author Deepak Chopra once said, “If you and I are having a single thought of violence or hatred against anyone in the world at this moment, we are contributing to the wounding of the world.”
Violence in movies and video games is a topic that can be debated ad nauseam and includes First Amendment considerations, but for the purpose of this argument, the more important question is how we react to it. The Motion Picture Association of America includes “stylized violence” as one of its movie rating criteria. A culture that has successfully stylized violence might want to reconsider its priorities.
But it’s not just movies and video games, although these receive the brunt of the criticism. Music is violent (think Lil’ Wayne and death metal); sports are violent (ESPN has a segment called “Jack’d Up” which celebrates the most bone-splitting tackles of the previous week); political discourse is violent (using crosshairs to denote target congressional districts). The problem permeates our entire culture.
Racism and bigotry may be the demons of our past that we have not quite exorcised. But based on the current state of affairs, violence is our current and abiding demon, and the apathy with which it is viewed will have devastating repercussions. Violence begets violence; apathy is the inevitable response. Bigotry wounds a group, but as Chopra pointed out, violence wounds the world.
The solutions to these problems are not clear cut or easily accomplished. Many would argue (and have argued) that gun control is the solution, and this point may have merit. But this problem is fundamentally one of culture; as long as we continue to accept violence as an unchangeable reality and become apathetic to its expression, the government is powerless to stem the tide. But government does have a role in fostering an anti-violence culture; from early childhood education to community policing to bullying prevention, government can support an environment where a healthier culture can thrive.
Government can’t do it alone, though. You can point to the breakdown of the family, violence in television and film, or the prevalence of guns as the cause, but the ultimate solution lies in our generation’s reaction. We are culture, and if the cause is cultural, so is the solution. As you go through your daily life, think about the ways that violence has seeped into the culture, and think about the ways that you can change it. Don’t automatically accept violence in movies and television as acceptable entertainment. Don’t gloss over violent imagery in politics or the glorification of violence in sports. And most importantly, realize that violent, meaningless acts occur every day and our culture’s apathy is partially responsible.
Let us not be hollow men, as if filled with straw, but rather men and women who refuse to admit that our culture of violence is entrenched to the point of permanence. It is not. Culture is merely a reflection of the pervasive attitudes of the time, and we have the power to change those attitudes.
-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science
Photo courtesy of Joe Newman