Is It the Guns, or Is It the Culture?

If you’re a regular consumer of foreign media, you already know that American entertainment is infinitely more violent than the movies, music, books, and video games produced in many other cultures. Thankfully, however, most Americans don’t act that violence out in real life.

But what about the ones who do act it out? Is their violent behavior a direct consequence of America’s uniquely violent media, or is it an expression of a ubiquitous psychological phenomenon that exists independent of that media?

In other words, does American media really make Americans violent, or is it something else?

Each of us has a dark side, a sinister alter ego hidden away in the deepest recesses of our subconscious minds that feeds on taboo thoughts and violent fantasies. But most of us also have functional moral compasses, as well as an innate capacity to distinguish the harmless consequences of fictional violence from the harmful consequences of real-world violence. We understand that there’s nothing inherently wrong with indulging one’s dark side so long as that indulgence is restricted to the abstract world of the human imagination. Once that indulgence spills over into the real world, however, you’ve crossed a line. And again, most Americans understand that.

But is it really just a coincidence that our culture seems to specialize in producing both an overabundance of violent media and an overabundance of mass shooters?

Bill Maher doesn’t seem to think it is — and I sort of agree with him.

“Now that we live in an age of uber-corporate responsibility where every large company in America bends over backwards to get on the politically correct side of every issue, Hollywood has to tell us, why that doesn’t include gun violence?” Maher said on the June 10 episode of Real Time on HBO.

“It’s funny, Hollywood is the wokest place on Earth in every other area of social responsibility,” he continued. “They have intimacy coordinators on set to chaperone sex scenes. They hire sensitivity readers to go through and edit scripts. Disney stood up to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Another studio spent $10 million to digitally remove Kevin Spacey from a movie. But when it comes to the unbridled romanticization of gun violence — crickets. Weird. The only thing we don’t call a trigger is the one that actually has a trigger.”

Maher’s point isn’t lost on me. American culture is obsessed with violence, and our media reflects that fact. In that respect, I do think there probably is a connection between the violence we witness on the silver screen and the violence we witness in our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

I also believe, however, that that connection is extremely tenuous. American media isn’t just consumed in America, after all. British people listen to American music. French people read American literature. Chinese people watch American films. Japanese people play American video games. Yet these societies don’t experience mass shootings like we do. They’re not as violent as we are.

Perhaps that’s because their cultures are less violent than our culture. Or perhaps it is because they’ve instituted more sensible and effective gun control laws than what we have in the United States.

The most obvious explanation, I believe, is that it’s a little bit of both.

But even if Maher is right — even if violent media is one of the drivers of extreme violence in the United States — the fact remains that it’s a heck of a lot harder to change a nation’s culture than it is to change a nation’s laws. And that’s the principal reason why proponents of gun control are so reluctant to treat gun violence as a cultural problem.

Cultures evolve organically and on their own terms. They also tend to take a very long time to change. So even if there is a straight-line connection between American media and real-world violence, we simply can’t afford to wait for that connection to dissolve itself naturally. There are too many lives at stake. That’s why we need more control laws and need them now. The longer we wait, the more people will die. Of that, we can be absolutely certain.

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D.A. Kirk

D.A. Kirk

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.