The Common Good

Violent Stories That Change Us for the Worse

A public figure is shot. School children are shot. A building explodes. A package explodes. And immediately we look for someone or something to blame: Republicans? The Tea Party? Democrats? Muslims? The National Rifle Association? White Supremacists? The devil? Mental illness?

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As Congresswoman Giffords fights for survival, perhaps we'll turn our soul-searching into a collective resolve to practice civility in both public and private discourse. But since we seem to be looking at others' souls rather than at our own, radical transformation seems unlikely.

The sad fact is that all of us are awash in violence.

I believe that political ads featuring targets and cross-hairs -- whether produced by Republicans, Democrats, or independents -- are evil. I also believe, however, that they are metaphorical, not prescriptions for action. Alas, most of us voluntarily surround ourselves -- and our children -- with metaphors far more potent and pervasive than anything ever produced by a political committee.

The level of violence in even our PG-13 movies would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago (and back then, the special effects weren't nearly so gory, either). Movie previews -- supposedly screened for general audiences -- feature intrepid heroes and occasionally heroines gunning down the opposition (while driving like maniacs). Video games let adolescents go on imaginary killing rampages. Smaller kids buy action figures. Violent lyrics are common in popular music. TV violence outdoes TV sex. Popular books feature -- and often describe in gruesome detail -- murder, dismemberment, and rape. And, all of these horrors are avenged by -- you guessed it -- violence.

It would be good if we could conduct debate without resorting to vitriolic ads and talk shows, of course. It would be good if automatic and semi-automatic weapons were available only to military and law enforcement personnel. It would be good if all mentally ill people had access to medical treatment (although, according to a report by the World Psychiatric Association, most acts of violence are committed by sane people, and most mentally ill people are non-violent).

But if we really want to stop the violence, we also need to pay close attention to our daily metaphors -- the violent stories that change us for the worse while we think we are merely being entertained.

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

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