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Hero worship and the celebration of violence

The dangers of simplifying complex moral issues.


We’re all aware of the terrible shooting that took place in Ottawa a few weeks ago. I’m not going to offer much of a comment on the crime itself — if you want to read about it, you have plenty of other options. Instead, I’d like to take some time to reflect on the way that we react to such tragedies. Watching social media these past few weeks is yet another reminder of our tendency to reduce complicated issues to simplistic tales of triumphant heroes and “positive” violence.

It’s not that we’re incapable of more nuanced approaches — sometimes our pop-culture fantasies give us more realistic picture of the complexity of violent situations than our news reports do. In Ender’s Game (SPOILERS AHEAD, maybe) after the protagonist’s story reaches a climax, he is mentally traumatized by his understanding of his actions. It turns out that murdering living beings causes mental stress.

We can recognize that violence might traumatize a sci-fi commander fighting giant space bugs. Why is it then that when Sergeant So-and-so takes down an armed criminal, we forget this truth and trip over ourselves rushing to applaud them—to flood them with thanks and admiration and retell their story ad nauseam?

Yes, such individuals save us from potential personal trauma. Anyone related to anyone in the armed criminal’s untaken path certainly has reason for relief. But do we believe that all of these saviours appreciate the endless praise for what they know were simply convergences of training and timing with awful situations that required lethal force?

This is the kind of mixed signal that causes cognitive dissonance (pardon my buzzword). They have to live with knowing they took an human being’s life. It may have helped some of us — may have helped everyone, in fact – but that doesn’t mean that they want to hear incessant reminders of how thankful we all are that they just took a life. Hopefully you can see how that could confuse a person’s morals.

A lot of the blame for our reaction comes from the simplistic narratives that the media feeds us. The first definition Google offers when you search the word terrorist is “a person who uses terror in the pursuit of political aims.” By these criteria, a number of media “talking heads” are terrorists. We’ve all seen the famous American talk show/news hosts who say the most outlandish things they can legally get away with. These are the same people that screamed about seeing Obama’s birth certificate. We’ve accepted that our moral opinions are guided by the world around us – that ship has long since sailed – but we don’t have to believe everything we hear. It’s the job of these hosts to get attention, not be right, and they’re making a killing from our fears.

If you follow the narrative perpetuated by such programs and websites, terrorists can’t possibly be normal human beings; they’re fanatical, one-dimensional monsters who thrive on murder. Pay no regard to the fact that the Ottawa shooter was psychologically unwell — that’s just a liberal distraction designed to promote partisanship and diminish our brave heroes!

When we rely entirely on the media to inform our ethics, we compromise our capacity for nuanced understanding of conflicts. While relatively few respectable news agencies intentionally perpetuate such simplifications, we now live in an era when clickbait titles and 140-character news updates have become the accepted source of information for a large portion of the population. People have never been so unwilling to consider complicated ideas, and it has never been easier to spread simplistic fear mongering at the click of a ‘like’ button.

The more we welcome fatal retribution — the more we consume stories of heroic violence and fetishize them en masse over social media — the closer we come to dystopian futures envisioned in fiction like The Running Man, in which criminals are viciously held up as examples and perverse entertainment for the masses. There’s a growing cultural momentum behind the framework of institutionalized violence, and we see that in the trend of increased hysteria, news coverage, and militarization we’ve been facing for longer than a decade. Western millennials have grown up hearing about the Patriot Act, the Unabomber, Al Qaeda, and spooky hackers on digital steroids. This kind of media has been priming us to distrust outsiders, fostering an in/ out-group ideal that is entirely against all logical forms of peace.

It doesn’t help you, me, or the guy down the road to obsess over the idea that the shooting was caused by extremism halfway across the world. You’re not doing a public service by sharing a hundred articles supporting such speculation before the facts are known, or liking a link to a ‘news’ video that re-enacts and glamourises the killing of the suspect in excruciating detail. All such behaviour does is deceptively simplify an issue that far too many know far too little about already, fanning the flames of hate and fear in a disgusting manner that helps nobody.


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