Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Good News about Bad News

     Marshall McLuhan famously remarked that while we don't know who discovered water, it probably wasn't the fish. I want to say something about the good news that we don't notice in the background of horrible events such as the shooting in Aurora last week, because we are so deeply immersed in the good news that we don't even recognize it as significant.
     The good news is that these shootings are news at all. We are shocked and horrified and saddened by these events, and rightly so, for they are shocking and horrifying and sad, but we are also shocked because they are, for the most part, unusual. True, they happen much more often than we'd like; every few months some pathetic loser thinks he can bring meaning to his life through some spectacular orgy of violence. But that's not really so often, when you think about it on a global scale. It's rare enough that it makes the news if it happens anywhere in the developed world.

     Think what things were like a thousand years ago. Whole villages were massacred in Viking raids, but the news spread slowly, and even if there had been a global satellite network to share information instantly around the world, it wouldn't have been broadcast anyway, because no one cared. It wasn't news, anymore than a fatal car accident in Toronto attracts the attention of strangers in Buenos Aires; they have their own fatal car accidents to be worried about. "A village 20 miles away was slaughtered in a raid? Oh, yeah, that happened to my cousin six years ago." And compared to the level of violence that was commonplace in those days, for 12 people to die in one incident would have been quite unremarkable, except perhaps to those who actually knew any of the victims.

     Even a hundred years ago, violence was far more common than it is today. Less than that, even; I happened to catch a snippet of an old Flintstones episode where Fred was trying to bully Barney into going along with some scheme or other, menacing him with a fist. I was actually a little shocked; our cultural sensitivities towards casual violence have changed so much.
     We no longer accept violence as an appropriate way to resolve our differences. Well, that's not completely true; we still glorify it in TV and movies, and people talk about how they'd love to punch or shoot some person or other, but for the most part, we reject it as a dispute resolution mechanism. If you have a problem with someone today, you are expected to talk it out, resolve it peacefully, and if that fails, sue. In the past, however, violence was viewed as a perfectly natural and even appropriate way of getting what you wanted. Not getting enough from farming, fishing and hunting? Well, raid a neighbouring village or tribe.

     To be sure, there are still lots of people who resort to violence. But the spectacular shootings that make the news every so often have a different kind of motive. These are not people robbing banks or trains, trying to take economic resources by force. These are typically dissatisfied and unfulfilled losers looking for fame and notoriety. They want to be able to think of themselves as important and powerful, and I suppose they want our help and that of the press to reinforce that. But the point here is that shocking acts of violence get them that attention, and why? Because violence is no longer commonplace; it is rare enough today that it actually does shock us.
     That is the good news. This kind of violence happens in part because other kinds of violence don't happen so much anymore. In a way, it's a symptom of success. Human society may always have some level of violence, and if we're getting to the point where some of that violence is due to the very fact that we find violence unusual, I think that in the big picture, that's something to be thankful for.

     But it can be better. I think that if we were to recognize violence not as something evil, scary and mysterious, but perfectly mundane and distasteful, we could remove some of the reason for this kind of shooting. Decent people will handle feces if they must (changing diapers, cleaning up after a pet, maintenance of plumbing, etc.) but there's nothing mysterious or heroic about it, and we all try to avoid it as much as possible. Someone who runs into a movie theatre and flings poo at the audience is not viewed with awe as a supervillain, but with contempt. If we could somehow replace our fear of violence with contempt, then maybe these attention-cravers will find a more constructive way to get their fifteen minutes.

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