“Let Me Write the Ballads….”

April 25, 1999


“Let Me Write the Ballads….”

We have all been stunned by the terrible high school massacre in Colorado, and I am reluctant to add still more words to the flood of media stories, but the same question haunts me that haunts all of us — America’s question for nearly a week: Why? Why still another school shooting, and not just another one but the worst one yet? Two students whose bombs, sawed-off shotgun, assault rifle, and pistol left 15 dead and others critically wounded in a slaughter so monstrous it was hard to believe, even for us who have grown accustomed to gangs and drug wars and the viewing of ever-more-graphic violence in movies and on television.
It was painful enough to see the terror and grief of those Colorado students and their families, but I read something on Thursday that in its own oddly casual way was almost as painful. A 15-year-old girl at North High, talking about how her classmates would react to the massacre, said, “Some will be scared, but this has become so routine. They’ll say it’s sad, and then they’ll start talking about something else. As a topic, school shootings are getting old.” She’s right, of course, and that’s the horror of it: “school shootings are getting old” — so common in the last two or three years that we are beginning to take them in stride. I sat at the breakfast table looking at that brutally honest comment and thought about how we have learned to take gang wars and driveby shootings and carjackings in stride, and how only the sheer numbers involved in this schoolroom attack has kept it in the forefront of media news for nearly a week. As our local teenage girl said, kids killing kids in classrooms has already become routine and predictable. How strange that seems for those of us who never went off to school a single day with a serious thought thought that some other kid might bring a gun to shoot us.
I have not seen figures on the decade now ending, but from the mid ‘80s to the mid-90s the rate of murders committed by teenagers17 and under more than doubled. Something really dreadful is happening in American life. A recent study by a highly-respected researcher [Sissela Bok, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment ] says poverty, family breakdown, easy access to guns, and a massive diet of violence on TV, in movies, and on video games all play a role in aggressive behavior. She is too smart to blame entertainment violence alone, but she obviously thinks it’s a bad thing that the average TV-watching kid has seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence by the time he or she leaves….elementary school! And she has impressive support from experts around the country who have no selfish motive for their conclusions.
In predictably stilted language which I am going to translate into normal rhetoric, the American Psychological Association has announced that when kids watch lots of violence on TV they are more likely to act it out themselves, or to be de-sensitized to it in others.. I could quote psychiatrists and sociologists all day to the same effect, but surely no one needs to convince this audience. That precious commodity called common sense offers all the proof you need. Children are enormously influenced by what they see, a truism summed up in the old proverb: Monkey see, monkey do. Why, otherwise, would you worry about which children your child plays with?
Fortunately, for most kids, other factors are at work that will keep them from acting out the violence they see constantly, but they almost certainly learn after repeated exposure to take brutality more for granted and to become less sensitive to it. “School shootings are getting old,” the Wichita teenager said. “We’re all beginning to take it in stride.” What an appalling indictment of American society!I agree with Sissela Bok, whom I quoted earlier, that it may be next to impossible to identify all the reasons why an occasional teenager decides to kill his classmates. One poison in American life is the unrelenting hate talk of certain radio talk shows. Another is the hatefilled lyrics of certain rap groups and pop entertainers like Marilyn Manson who is said to have been a favorite of the boys who killed in Colorado, and of a group in Wisconsin who plotted to do the same before some student told on them.
It’s sad but true that some of the victims may have contributed to the killings by scoffing at misfits in their school. It has always been morally right for parents to teach theirchildren not to ridicule those who are different, but it’s now becoming a matter of survival: the kid you tease today with mindless cruelty may bring a gun to school tomorrow. Nothing is new, of course, about kids who don’t fit in, who feel alienated, who look for some form of revenge on popular classmates. In my childhood they ran out of an alley to throw rocks, or they waylaid some kid on the way home and gave him a bloody nose, but bombs and assault rifles were unimaginable. We had no daily dose of TV violence to superheat our imaginations, no Internet lessons on how to build bombs, no web sites run by crazies who think Hitler was a blessing…. and by comparison with modern special effects there was nothing very graphic in the movie we got to see on Saturday.
That has all changed. I once saw Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier in a movie called Marathon Man , and was so appalled by its violence that I spoke of it on the following Sunday. I went to see it because I admired the acting skills of the two principals, and because the director had a good reputation, but the movie turned out to be tasteless and offensive, with a confusing plot that obviously did not matter much since the film was mainly a series of violent episodes. Throats cut, blood spurting from carotic arteries so realistically that the theater manager told me some people had to leave the theater each time it was shown. A man is strangled with wire, several men and women jerk and die convulsively when they are shot, a frail old woman is knocked down and run over by a car, two old men burn alive when their cars hit a fuel truck, a man is tortured until his screams deafen the audience….that’s a partial list. I was repelled by it, but here’s the bad part: that was 23 years ago, and it would seem tame compared to how technology has jacked up the impact of gruesome violence in films of the 90’s.
Movie-makers, of course, defend these ever-more graphic films. Oliver Stone, director of a dreadful picture called Natural Born Killers , insists during a Web site debate, that “parents have got to teach their children that movies are not real.” His opponent in that debate, one of America’s most intelligent social critics, argues that not only do small children have trouble making that distinction, but too many unstable adolescents fail to distinguish between reality and the screen world of fantasy. The truth is that anyone who loves art and has been deeply engaged by films and literature knows there is no such thing as “just” a story or “just” an image. St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians in history, writes of a friend so drunk with the fascination of bloodshed in the games of the Roman Colosseum that “his soul was stabbed with a wound more deadly than any which the gladiator….had received in his body.” The great 4th century Christian took more seriously the soul-changing power of the Colosseum entertainment than we take the soul-changing power of media spectacles in our time.
Common sense, which often seems in uncommonly short supply, tells us that people are changed by the ideas and images which fill their heads. It is difficult, in a complex world, to measure exact causality in each case of a human being gone wrong, but some of the most brilliant people who ever lived have spoken of the influence of popular art on human behavior. The brilliant Greek philosopher, Plato, argued 2500 years ago that art requires supervision because it can profoundly affect how people behave. He was willing to much further in exercising control than most of us would, but his basic premise rested on solid truth. He would have approved that old saying, “Let me write the ballads of a country, and I care not who writes the laws” — a saying which means simply that the popular art forms of a nation will ultimately have more influence on behavior than will its legal codes. Now, once again, we are concerned about how long a country can close its eyes to art forms, richly financed and richly profitable, which subvert some of the basic values on which it was founded. I am a little confused about why it’s OK to block the poison of drugs from reaching our kids, but wrong to be concerned about their easy access to the poison of ideas. Even freedom of speech is not an absolute…..but that’s another sermon.
I have by now, of course, made it obvious that for me the gratuitous violence glorified by the entertainment industry has to bear much of the blame for provoking people like the two young men in Colorado. A student at Littleton said, “One of the guys pulled open his trench coat and started shooting. It was a scene right out of the movie Matrix .” The industry’s classic defense is, “We don’t create taste. We only reflect it. If people did not want what we sell, they wouldn’t buy it.” Partly true, partly false. The fact is that taste can be, and is, constantly created. Ask any woman in this room about the power of fashion. Ask any man in this room if he can honestly say that his taste in clothing has never been maniupulated by the fashion industry. And on a different level, let me ask you a question. Do you any of you now use certain words around friends and family which at one time in your life would have embarrassed you? I confess that I do….and I know exactly why: I have heard certain words so constantly on television and in movies that they have lost their power to shock or offend me.
Like everyone in this room, I am not the only creator of myself. We are changed in more ways than our conscious minds realize by all sorts of social influences. We are not the sole arbiters of what we will tolerate. We’ve been taught to tolerate some things we would once have rejected in an instant. Hours of hate talk on popular radio shows, for one thing — so entertainingly packaged that we are barely conscious of the poison. Pervasive and incredibly graphic violence, for another thing, sold by people who know that if they flood the market with a product some people want, they will make a lot of other people think it must OK or it wouldn’t be there. I came across this interesting observation in a book published a hundred years ago: “The law of supply and demand works both ways; it creates the demand, if the supply comes first.” The purveyors of graphic and gratuitous violence never admit this for a moment. “We only supply what you demand.” It’s partly a lie, but it will drive the industry until we find the will to do something about it.
Of all the letters written to the newspaper this week, the one I liked best was written by a good Mennonite minister at Goessel. He speaks of how violence is consistently portrayed as something fun and exciting — “Through TV and movies, through video and computer games, through toy guns and limitless other violent toys, through the ad campaigns of our military, and through games such as laser tag.” But he says, “I do not place the primary blame on those who produce such things. The primary blame is with us as consumers of violence and as parents who allow our children to be consumers of violence. As long as we continue to support these sources of violent ‘fun,’ someone will continue to produce them. And every time we watch violence being portrayed as heroic or exciting, we will be desensitized to it. Every time our games involve ‘killing,’ we will learn a little bit more to associate violence with fun and excitement. Therefore, to some extent, we are all at fault for school shootings.”
It isn’t a pleasant accusation to hear, but I think it’s true.

So that our coming so often to this place may mean something,
remind us, gracious God, of the strength of the gentle life. Amen.