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.