When Culture Fails Us, and We Fail Culture

Since the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, I’ve been thinking a lot about a seeming contradiction at the heart of what I write about. I don’t believe that video games and violent movies somehow program people to go out to commit terrible crimes, but I do think that mass culture contributes to our sense of what is normal, whether it’s something as depictions of hecklers almost every time we see a stand-up comedy set in movies or television or as significant as routinized uses of force by the police without moral condemnation and the setting of absurd standards for average bodies for both men and women.

One of the things that’s fascinating about the setting of those norms is that they can be accidental. My friends who are video game designers have discussed about the challenges of building characters who have bigger bodies without making them bigger in every way, such that they’d have to be abnormally tall in order to look heavier. Hero Complex talked to video game designer Chris Hecker about violence in video games, which he suggested is more a function of what designers feel confident doing than an inherent demand for violent gaming:

For me, the thing that’s different about games right now is that we tend to rely on violence as the main part of the meal, rather than as spice. This is mostly a historical artifact of our current point in time, because as game designers we know how to do interactive violence, but we don’t yet know how to do interactive versions of all the other emotions in the palette that the other more mature forms have available to them. I think this will change over time, as game designers learn how to use interactivity more effectively.

And then there’s a long meditation by Owen Gleibman in Entertainment Weekly about killers who are overly-identified with pop culture artifacts, and the way culture gets out of its creators hands as soon as fans start interpreting it:

What these commenters graphically illustrated, in their hyperbolic hate spew, is that it is now possible to “love” movies like the Dark Knight trilogy far too much, to love them in a way that is disconnected from the very humanity that the movies are making a plea for. Fanboy culture now risks turning into a kind of fundamentalism for fantasy geeks, with movies turned into an absolute: a reason for living that replaces living. That’s why it’s so threatening if even one critic doesn’t like the movie that you’ve been pining for, ruining its chances for a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100% fresh, the magical evaluation that would mean that everyone likes it, and that you could therefore join that club safe in the knowledge that you, too, will be liked by everyone.

People who are looking for frameworks to justify their dark visions will manufacture them out of whatever material is available to them, just as Jared Lee Loughner spun fantasies about the value of American currency from fragments of information. I tend to think we can more productively call artistic creators to account more for the things their work helps normalize, the quiet damage it contributes to, than the dramatic things people people claim were inspired by art that is very far distant from them.