The Common Good
April 2013

Time to Start Talking

by Gareth Higgins | April 2013

There is an overwhelming need for publicly compelling conversation about violence, guns, and the role of entertainment media.

THE CEO OF one of the world's most popular video-game manufacturers recently denied any relationship between his products (some of which have their users re-enact mass slaughter) and real killing. The substance of such denial appeared to some to be no more complex than "because I said so, and some other people agree with me." Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora movie theater shootings last year, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of directors to discuss their imaginary guns. He later acknowledged that "I don't have the answers to these questions. ... They're so complicated; you need people with better facts and intelligence. In this situation I have to be a follower, not a leader." Refreshing humility from someone better known for bluster and self-assurance, now opening a door to a conversation on which lives may depend.

A scene from the video game Call of Duty.

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Film critics, too, have a responsibility to contribute to this conversation, so let me propose some ideas:

1. Portrayal and advocacy are not the same thing. The violence of Reservoir Dogs and Looper may be visceral, but it tells the truth about the suffering that guns and knives can inflict and may help people think twice about enacting real violence. The violence ofHome Alone andTransformers may be cartoonish, but it lies to the audience and may fuel appetites for further destruction.

2. The shape of the narrative arc may be more influential than any particular acts of violence. Our culture seems to be addicted to the idea that order can be brought out of chaos by ultimate force, that violence can literally "cleanse the world." This myth—this religion—shows up everywhere, not just in the movies. Indeed, it is a keystone of our politics. The best thing movies can do about it is to tell a different story.

3. Art is always political. Talking about gun control in the aftermath of a mass shooting is not politicizing a tragedy; attempting to silence those voices is.

4. Using cinematic guns almost always constitutes cheap drama. If we paid greater attention to the imagination (and to spiritual practices), we'd make better movies.

5. Guns may not actually be the problem. Research suggests that the factor that seems to have the closest implied causal relationship with increased gun homicide rates is not increased gun ownership, but rather social inequality and the lack of community bonds. The problem might therefore require a fusion of conservative and liberal solutions: Building up local communities and challenging economic inequality may have far greater impact on reducing gun violence than blaming Hollywood.

There is an overwhelming need for publicly compelling conversation about violence, guns, and the role of entertainment media. That conversation is often ill-informed. So if you have something good to say, please say it.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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