I have not written for 10 months here. This past week I have very much wanted to do so, to be more assertive about writing other than emphatically scribbling on pads of paper while on public transit or in the corner of Flloyd’s Coffee Shop during lunch. On Tuesday, there was a shooting at the Clackamas Town Center mall here in Portland, not even a 15 minute Max ride away for me. As I was at work at Geo S. Bush – more than 6 weeks I’ve been here, but more on that later – a coworker announced the news of the shootings and there were ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and ‘oh no’s’ and the first thing I thought was that it didn’t surprise me. The ‘why?’ is no longer a thought that comes to my mind – killings, shootings, people lashing out in this manner… it is no longer astonishing or surprising. That is not to say that I am not troubled.
And today, another shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary school. And then comes the steady stream of social media commentary. The posting of prayers, calls for stricter gun control, and discussion of the role of mental illness in the issue. But what struck me the most was this statement by forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, calling to cut short the sensationalizing of massacre coverage starting at 1:40 of this video clip :: <<… localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market, because whenever we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or more within a week.>> Is that not what has just happened? Shooting in Oregon… shooting in Connecticut less than a week later, and a stabbing of 22 children and one adult in China as well?
I am not saying that these three events are directly related, that one happened, and it was the singular domino that tapped the next and the next. But, we must see that the US’ addiction to manufacturing emotionally quenching news is doing the human community a disservice by commemorating the actions of assailants. This commemoration and immortalization thereby grants future aggressors the confidence that they, too, will finally be recognized and remembered – even [or especially] alongside the imagery of bloodshed – and that future conductors of massacres have also been granted courage-by-example to go through with the retaliatory plans that might have otherwise remained latent in their minds.
I can not speak to the specificity of tightening gun control laws, or the logistics of testing for mental illness before distributing firearms to an individual – both of which I support – but what I can speak to is the necessity of pulling back from adding to the social hysteria surrounding events like these, on both the personal and national level, in order to be good stewards of the power of communication that we possess. The music, tone, and editing of news stories perpetually overindulges the viewers’ drama threshold, and this is especially highlighted in events such as these, where we are inundated with every detail of an event.
In The Educated Imagination – given to me for my birthday this year – Northrup Frye astonishingly defends the necessity of studying literature outside the context of the classroom. With equal emphasis, I would extend that argument to include the visual arts, performing arts, and music. Although the conduits differ, each is an avenue for an artist to explore, build up, or tear down themes, ideas, manifestos, modes, etc. With this in mind, news broadcasting and mass media are the sophomorically cocky classmates whose only references for speaking about art are depleted clichés and one-dimensional observations, focused more on quelling bystanders’ emotional neediness than being truthful about all aspects of the creation of, in this case, the news story. A good artist knows his communicative power, and withholds it appropriately.
That is not to say that the news can’t stir people to good thoughts and actions. What I mean to emphasize is that the manner in which news is broadcast in this country creates the notion of an ‘expected’ or ‘correct’ reaction to horrific events that errs on the side of generalization, aggrandizement, and, at points, crippling fear. I do not believe this reactionary hysteria is healthy. It is respectful to mourn, with quiet hearts, the lives lost and the hearts wrenched open, and to take action where you see necessary and feel led. I simply wish the communication of news of shootings, and acts of terrorism for that matter, wasn’t so heavy handed on making the viewers feel scared. It feels counterproductive. Yes let’s be aware and take action, but let’s not get crazy about expressing our fear, anger, and frustration so much so that we can’t move forward or stop asking the sentimental rhetorical questions of why why why why why why why