Update 7/28/12: In the week since this has run, some people have read it and understood, and, as the comments show, many have read it and not understood. Earlier this week I posted the caveat below to try to clarify. For some, that didn’t work — so I made this argument in a different way, with more context and specific examples, in Batman Returns: How Culture Shapes Muddle Into Madness. You may want to go there if the post below doesn’t work for you.
Note 7/26:: Since hordes of readers seem to miss that I’m writing about the effect of media on psychotic or psychopathic people, I’ve bolded those passages. And please take note: I’m not saying movies turn average viewers violent, make people crazy or homicidal, or make our country as whole more violent. I’m saying that culture, including movies, can shape the way people express these urges. I’m not making policy recommendations. I’m trying to get people to think a wee bit differently about the relationship — to recognize there is a relationship — between these killings and culture. As noted above, I explore these dynamics more explicitly and fully in Batman Returns: How Culture Shapes Muddle Into Madness.
Let me apologize in advance, seriously and sincerely, to my many friends who love the Batman movies. But I think this needs saying.
This, from the Times today, is frightening in more than one way:
Chief Daniel Oates of the Aurora police praised the arresting officers on the CBS program “Face the Nation” for noticing that Mr. Holmes’ gear was not quite like that of the other S.W.A.T. officers or he might well have escaped, mistaken for one of the responders.
…the shooter went out the exit door and to his car in the parking lot and there surrendered without trouble to police similarly clad and armed. I found it too easy to imagine that he felt a sort of fraternity with his new captors.
And his captors nearly felt a sort of fraternity with him — one that might have let him walk, at least for the time.
So a man bent on mass murder dons SWAT garb that a) makes some in the theater initially think his live-action IRL appearance is part of the extraordinarily hyped special midnight showing they’re sitting down to and b) damn near fools the SWAT team outside into thinking that he was one of them.
I don’t think this is a side-issue. We don’t know what led Holmes to do this, whether he was, to use David Eagleman’s distinction, psychotic or psychopathic or something else altogether. But unlike Anthony Lane and many other commenters, I don’t think we can give the movies a free ride here by saying they had nothing to do with it and just provided a stage. They gave this actor his lines and stage directions.
I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution. And culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction — just as it does other traits. This is why, say, relatively ‘simple’ schizophrenia — not the paranoid sort — takes very different forms in Western and some Eastern cultures. On an even simpler level, this is why competitive athleticism is more likely to express itself as football (the real kind) in Britain but as basketball in the U.S. Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shape those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.
When I expressed this idea (perhaps clumsily) on Twitter two days ago, someone said, “That’s the argument that violent video games cause violence.” As I replied then, It’s NOT the same argument. My older son played lots of shoot-em-up video games when he was a teen, and you’d have to look hard to find a gentler, sweeter, more caring 22-year-old than he is. But it’s silly to think that we can live in and support a culture so saturated in images of violence and in the absurd availability of guns and not have that culture steer certain unhinged or deeply a-moral people toward the sort of violence that has now become so routine that the entire thing seems scripted. This isn’t a plea to ban Batman. It’s a statement of implications. It’s a fantasy to think we can indulge in fantasies like the ones we indulge in at Batman movies and pay no price.
Is this art? I haven’t seen Dark Knight Rising and had not planned to before the opening and do not plan to now, because I saw the prior two movies in the series and found them, like so many superhero movies and movies of dark, supposedly profound violence before them, entertaining but empty; overproduced, overwrought, pretentious. (I’ll admit I did like watching Michael Caine run the empire for a time.) But we’re not watching Chinatown or Bonnie and Clyde here, nor Mystic River or Unforgiven. These superhero movies strike me as the Hill Street Blues of the 21st cinema: They entertain us freshly enough that we mistake their novelty for originality and their polish for art. On later review it’s clear they’re nothing special.
If this is the culture you want, well, fine, I suppose. But you’re fooling yourself if you think it stops at the exit door.
Addenda 7 July 2012: Daniel Lende gets at this and much more far more successfully with his “Inside the Minds of Mass Killers,” which is the single most (truly) provocative, original, and forward-looking thing I’ve read on the killings. Don’t, please, go there to bloviate. Go to read and think. Respond to his “call to expand our moral imaginations.”