Article by Owen Monsma
This summer saw a number of shootings, but the most memorable will likely be the Aurora, Colorado shooting at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. What makes that one stand out from the others—the Sikh temple, the Empire State building—is not only its scale (the highest casualty count of any mass shooting in the United States), but its lack of rationale. The Empire State building shooting was a violent disagreement with a coworker; the Sikh temple, likely racially motivated. Yet James Holmes’s motive was not so clear.
And so, as in the past, the violent media (in this case, Batman) was blamed. In a previous public shooting similar in its apparent lack of clear motive, Columbine, the blame fell on video games, specifically Doom. The argument, if it could be called that, basically goes as follows: There is a lot of violence in our media. There is a lot of violence in society. Therefore, the violent media is the reason for our violent culture. Sometimes, taking it a step farther, the conclusion is we should ban violent media to stop violence in our culture. I take issue with this.
First, let’s consider the claim itself. Violent media causes people to act violently in real life. In the case of James Holmes, the movie had not even been released yet. There is no way he could have been influenced by the content of the movie, considering there is no way he saw the movie prior to his shooting at the midnight premiere. But even if the movie did cause him to be violent, let’s look at the numbers. Dark Knight Rises earned $163 million its opening weekend. It was sold out across the country. Only one person out of an audience of millions responded violently. That is not statistically significant. James Holmes was an anomaly. To recommend banning a film over this is, honestly, insane.
I feel comfortable in asserting that for most people, the mere thought of shooting innocent people is sickening, and no movie is going to make them feel otherwise. Clearly the cause is more than just violent media. These are people already predisposed to violence. So, then, what if the movie, game, or whatever other media is simply what triggered the immediate urge to kill in those already predisposed to it? Shouldn’t we censor violence anyway, in the hopes that those who would have been triggered by it won’t be exposed to their trigger?
Still I say no. For these people, anything could be a trigger. Charles Manson partially blamed the Beatles’ White Album for his murders. Should the Beatles be banned? Because the truth is, anything could be what flips the switch. But in those people who want to murder, the switch is going to be flipped at some point. Trying to ban certain media in an attempt to head this off is, ultimately, a futile effort, because no one can predict what is going to be the so-called trigger.
But even if I was willing to admit that censorship of violence in media could prevent future tragedies, there is another, more important reason I would still disagree with said censorship. The first amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech. This includes media such as books, music, movies, and, as the Supreme Court decided last summer in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, video games. To censor violence would be unconstitutional.
Well, so what? Wouldn’t it still be worth it if we could possibly prevent more tragic acts of senseless violence? Nope. I am of the firm belief that any act of censorship is inherently dangerous. Once the government is given the ability to control what the people see, there is no way anyone can reasonably claim the people are going to be fairly informed. All censorship requires people to decide what is fit to see and what isn’t. All people have biases. Even subconsciously, any act of censorship will result in distorted media presented to the people.
Say, after the Batman shootings, we start to require all movies to be viewed and approved by the government before being shown to the public. The government then has the unrestricted ability to control what the people see in movies. Such censorship would require a board to decide what gets through and what doesn’t, and the members of the board will all have their personal biases, as we all do. And there is no way to not let your personal biases affect your decisions regarding what content is “appropriate,” especially considering “appropriate” is an inherently subjective issue. This is why the first amendment is so important. This is why censorship is such a dangerous concept. And this is why, even in the interest of public safety, even with the best of intentions, it is never okay to control the media a person is allowed to see.