Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unspeakable Acts

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

Do you remember this skip rope song? As an innocent first grader growing up in the seventies, I didn't know who Lizzie Borden was much less the grisly story that inspired this tiny piece of American folklore. The rhyme was tight, easy to jump to and hinted at something terrifying and gruesome. Kids do indeed love implicit violence as long as they feel safe in everyday life.

Now, as an adult who is aware of the Lizzie Borden story, I marvel at how these brutal murders made it into a little recess ditty. This kind of violence must have been so extraordinary, so utterly unthinkable in Victorian times, that it became permanently etched into our nation's psyche and, subsequently, its folklore.

When I reflect on my own childhood, I remember most scary things operating in the same fashion as the Lizzie song...movies and television certainly evoked a sense of violence but it was rarely shown on screen or explicitly discussed. It was, in fact, unspeakable.

After every barbaric act like the one recently committed in Arizona, some public official decries it as an "unspeakable act" of cowardice and violence. I have to wonder though, is it really unspeakable?

Television series trumpet sensational murders and crimes. Movies depict people feeding body parts through wood chippers. Songs glamorize raping women. Video games encourage players to shoot as many of the "enemy" as possible for points, even those begging for their lives. In all forms of entertainment, people, young and old, male and female, are shown being ripped apart, maimed and killed.

Make no mistake about it. We speak violence everyday, boldly and fluently.

Random, raw violence has become so mundane in our society, so horrifyingly graphic in all media, that I have to question whether we have forever lost the ability to use the term "unspeakable" when referring to it.

We continually steep our brains in savage imagery but then, incomprehensibly, are shocked to find that our particular cultural brew of liberal gun laws, graphic entertainment and hostile speech is bitter to the palate. If the saying, "where the mind goes, the body will follow" points to the secret of our self-healing, it can also be turned upside down to speak of our self-destruction. We are violent in our thoughts, words and deeds because we allow our minds to wallow, numbly, in the morass of our most base instincts.

Of course, upon playing some violent video game or watching a Coen brothers' film, most Americans will not run out and mow down their ideological "enemies" in a barrage of gunfire. But, we must stop fooling ourselves. We do become desensitized to the effects of random meanness on our psyches. We, like our childish brains of the past, enjoy the thrill of danger but don't really understand how the violence, once explicitly manifested, eats away at our souls.

I see little evidence that we are better people for all our mindless entertainment. We have become less empathetic of another person's pain. We casually sweep human bloodshed under the table. Five days later, we forget that a nine-year-old was murdered by a maniac. This is the tragedy, the psychic violence, that no one dares speak of...

I don't know about you, but I don't feel comfortable anymore with movie mayhem or even political vitriol. In this every day life, I am simply terrified of how many whacks it will take for this nation to be shocked into civility.


douglas said...

Although my heart sinks when I think of the pain this INSANE individual has caused, I don't think violence is actually any worse today then it has been. I have no statistical evidence, but do know that many of the horrendous murders, and violent acts (which may never have made it even into the newspaper), are now broadcast within minutes of their happening, making the incidence appear larger than it actually is. An example can be made with cancer...people think we have more cancer occurring but it's actually that more cancers are being caught earlier and people are living longer with treatment...the human condition is filled with violence. Nature is filled with horrible violence. Just go back in history and we find horrible treatment of each other from the Romans to the Pharoahs, from the Feudal lords to the Colonizers of distant lands (this one not excluded). It would be beautiful to think we could all live in harmony and peace...but I don't think being human can excise all the rage, anger, or just insanity present within our very being...we should take solice in being good, setting great examples, and every now and them we get some great ethereal soul like Jesus, or Ghandi, to put things back in perspective. Polititians have been target practice for as long as there have been polititians, but it is a risk even I would take to be part of one of the safest democracies on the planet.

Nancy B said...

Thanks for the comment, Doug. I agree with you that violence has been with us forever and will most probably stay with us until our demise as a species. But, what haunts me most about modern violence is how utterly random and senseless it is....and how easily we accept it as "normal". What you say about politicians is true. Although the attempt on the congresswoman's life makes me sick, it doesn't perplex me. Ideological differences have always spurned violence. But the fact that he killed a nine-year-old girl and a judge, and four retired folks, just to be evil, makes me weep for humanity.

Anonymous said...

While it may never be known what drove this young man to show up and shoot these people I have found it very interesting indeed that virtually everyone, both in my private conversations and in the press, have focused on the way we speak to each other in this day and age. Maybe we don’t specifically speak in violent terms but we are actively dehumanizing our fellow Americans in an attempt to win over the opinion of the masses.
The fact of the matter is that is does matter how you speak, and act. I don’t need a study to confirm this, I was brought up that I was responsible for what I said and did in this world. We know it matters, I can’t walk around calling people incompetent and a moron and not have people affected by it. Besides the fact that the person is trying through another lens to do what I try and do every day which is make this place a good place for my kids to grow up and thrive.
My wife said something I want to share because it hits at the heart of the matter. She said “Compassion isn’t easy. At its roots is understanding, and until we can look without bias at another person’s opinions and try and understand where they are coming from we can’t say we have any real compassion for them. “
If that is the definition, and I certainly can’t argue that it isn’t, then I have to admit it I am guilty of not being compassionate. I have fallen into the media experts trap and succumb to the hate and rhetoric of our modern political diatribe. I really needed this debate to bring this clearly into focus for me. It is time to do the hard work of compassion, to understand how WE as Americans can move forward. No more fear and loathing. I believe this is what the President was referring to last evening when he said,
“it must be possible for Americans to question each other’s ideas without questioning their love of country,"
It is possible. It is time for responsible dialogue.
Thanks for this piece… an excellent commentary.

Clint and Ashleigh said...

Nancy, I have long refused to be entertained by violence. That means I haven't seen rated "R" movies in years, I will stop a book if the violence is gratuitous, and turn off the music if lyrics are dehumanizing. Life is precious and people bear the image of their Creator.

We can't protect everyone from violence, or prevent it fully. I think we must actively restore humanity by demanding justice and we can encourage everyone we meet to treat people like people through our actions and choices.