When bad things happen, it’s natural to look for a reason. The idea that mass murder – or any sort of sensational murder – could just happen randomly, out of the blue with no level of cause and effect, is just too terrifying an idea to deal with, and so we look around for reasons. And there always are reasons, of course – but the genuine reasons why someone ‘suddenly’ cracks and goes on a shooting spree, or commits some seemingly random crime, or joins a genocidal religious (or political) cult tend to be long and complex and difficult to deal with. It involves a growing alienation, a sense of not being heard, perhaps being bullied and tormented and marginalised, or simply a desire for power among the powerless. The one thing that we know connects everyone from school shooters to Islamist fanatics to far right mass killers is that sense of not fitting in – a feeling of being outside of society and unwelcome by the mainstream. Instead, they find a home with the worst people imaginable and amplify their beliefs and their rhetoric to the point where they acts out the very worse of those ideas. Or else they simply develop a brooding resentment of everyone around them – the people who have pushed them out, abused them and put them down, pushing them into a corner until they haver nowhere left to go and so – if they don’t turn their growing bitterness against themselves, as many people do – explode with a fury that is sometimes targeted, sometimes entirely random. Or perhaps they have had such a dysfunctional upbringing that they have never been given the tools with which to deal with the world, and any understanding of what might be morally acceptable, and so act out on the anger that we all feel from time to time, but which most of us can contain and rationalise. Sometimes, perhaps they are just bad seeds.
All these issues are hard to deal with. It involves recognising the problem early on, and perhaps making the sort of hard choices that our current society doesn’t like to take (and if it does, tends to be condemned for) – early intervention is the stop and search of social engineering, and comes with a similar bucket load of assumptions and stereotyping that will probably let a lot of dangerous people though the net because they don’t fit a profile.
We could, of course, try to stop the demonising and alienation of the ‘other’ – the goth kid, the misfit, the outsider – but that’s easier said than done – it involves stopping kids bullying, which is hard, or stopping adults bullying, which seems even harder. We live in a world of social conformity, and the sad truth is that those who won’t conform to either the mainstream or the current social cause de jour will find themselves not only shunned by their peers but mocked and demonised by the media.
Making the changes that will prevent killers being created is very, very difficult. It might be impossible. And it requires everyone to look inwards. Much better to continue to ‘other’ people after they have snapped, and blame everyone else. Trying to understand what makes a murderer is hard and perhaps require a little empathy. it’s much easier to take a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ approach and blame it on movies or games or music.
When Donald Trump recently blamed the latest mass shootings in America on violent video games, he was widely mocked, but the truth is, he was simply following in the footsteps of every other politician who likes to point the finger in one direction to find a reason for unreasonable behaviour. Gamers are an easy target – even though it’s now a multi-billion dollar industry, gaming is still look at with suspicion by a surprisingly large part of conservative society, and Gamergate has ensured that the liberal Left is now as equally suspicious and contemptuous of players who they’ll cheerfully define as shut-in, basement-dwelling Incels. The idea that someone could playing a wildly violent video game for hours at a time without it affecting their world view seems impossible. Surely that nihilistic violence must affect them adversely? Predictably, people will say this about other players – as ever, the idea seems to be that we can play these games without being corrupted, by what about those other people?
If it’s not games, then it’s violent movies or TV shows, or porn (because somehow watching people fuck will make you violent) or heavy metal or goth music, because who put a psychopath in the making would want to listen to such dark, aggressive music when there’s a new Taylor Swift album out? The fact that goth kids are much more likely to be the victims of violence at the hands of those who can’t bear the idea of individuality – a hatred that our media feeds with its portrayals of these kids as weirdos and misfits and devil worshippers – is brushed aside. Similarly, we blame Drill videos for causing gang violence rather than being a symptom of it, like the knife-wielding thugs would be Boy Scouts if only we banned them from rapping. Or it’s just ‘the internet’ in general, with its free flow of information, both vital and nonsensical. These are all things that journalists and politicians and angry, confused parents don’t really like or understand, and so they must be bad. People who have tastes different to ours must be viewed with suspicion.
In the absence of any sort of evidence that these art forms do cause violence (and in each case, a badly researched and easily dismantled piece of ‘evidence’ will conveniently come up from academics and researchers with a bias), the press and the politicians will take the ‘common sense’ approach – “common sense says there MUST be a link, so there is.” Common sense is, of course, quite often a load of bollocks. It’s fear mongering and superstition, as valid as believing that your ailment is caused by witchcraft or that foreigners are inherently criminal.
the other piece of evidence that will invariably be brandished with a triumphant ‘case closed’ attitude is that if we are not affected by what we watch/hear/play/read, then what about advertising? Answer me that, eh? it’s the go-to argument of idiots who genuinely can’t see the difference between a work of fiction that tells a story and often shows the violent characters in a negative light, and a medium designed specifically to tell us that product A is better than Product B, or that we really, really need this particular item. The two things are entirely unrelated and to suggest that they work on the same level is laughable.
It’s hugely tempting to go for these simplistic ideas of cause and effect. Even as someone who has watched moral panic after moral panic whipped up in the UK since the 1980s, usually with heavy-handed legislation to follow, I found myself tutting in disapproval over Drill videos and taking a ‘ban this filth’ attitude before catching myself and realising that I’d been played by a cunning media machine. Our press loves to whip up these panics because not only does it make them feel important, but it also deflects from their much more significant role in shaping ideas. The hatred and lies spewed by the press is much more malicious and dangerous, because it really does do what advertising does – it presents ideas as facts and claims to be telling an unvarnished truth. It would be an over-simplification to say that newspaper headlines cause violence either by encouraging us to see some people as subhuman or by making those people feel as though they are no longer part of society, but there’s probably a more valid argument for claiming that they have some negative effect than there is for any entertainment media. The press is propaganda.
In truth though, we might be all better off if we just accepted that bad things will happen, and there’s little we can do about it. Even if we shut down every negative influence and experience that a person could have, there would still be violent crime. Some people are just wired wrongly. Instead of looking for scapegoats after a crime has happened, we might be better off trying to work out how to prevent people heading down that path to begin with. And that won’t be by looking at who is playing Grand Theft Auto.