It's Time For A Conversation About The First Amendment
Newtown, Connecticut has just experienced the single most horrid tragedy in our nation's history. The massacre at Newtown was carried out by a deeply disturbed young man, whom we are informed was routinely exposed by his (deceased) mother to the worst sorts of violent films, such as "The Terminator" and "The Matrix," and to videogames depicting the most graphic, soulless brutality, including "Call of Duty" and "Mass Effect." Yet we are admonished, once more, that to raise the issue of violent media in the aftermath of such tragedy is untimely or even opportunistic. It is, of course, neither.
It is clear to sensible observers, in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, that Hollywood and Silicon Valley bear almost as much responsibility for the deaths of children as the alleged perpetrator, Adam Lanza. Consider Hollywood: of the top twenty grossing movies of all time, fourteen teach our children that violence is the solution to all problems. Consider:
Avatar, Star Wars, the Phantom Menace, Transformers, and Revenge of the Sith all show that guns are the solution to all social inequity.
The Avengers teaches our children that giant hammers solve all problems.
The Dark Knight and its sequel, Spider Man and its sequel, tell us that society's ills, those that cannot be solved through "Web-slinging" or "Batarangs," are best cured by fists.
The Hunger Games demonstrates, in all its multimillion dollar glory, that arrows are the remedy to mankind's ills.
Pirates of the Caribbean advocates conflict resolution through guns and swords. The Lord of the Rings teaches us that swords and arrows resolve all troubles that cannot be dealt with at the edge of a volcano.
In each of these films, avidly consumed by young people such as Adam Lanza and, had they lived, his victims, violence is portrayed as the best and final means by which to deal with the inconveniences of modern life.
The only film in the top twenty that an objective observer would call remotely pacifist is ET: The Extraterrestrial, which suggests that problems can be solved through love, trust, and intelligence. Yet year after year, Hollywood churns out trash which suggests to troubled youth that all of its dilemmas can be solved by violence. A failing report card? Don a costume and shoot up a theater. An insoluble war in Korea? Kill yourself. Suicide, Hollywood tells our children, is painless.
Claiming that it is somehow inappropriate politicizing to point out how our current legal climate facilitates, or at least contributes to, these horrors is offensive. More to the point, the argument against relying on such events to discuss how our understanding of the right to so-called "free speech" has run amok rests on false premises.
In the aftermath of each of the most significant mass killings – San Diego, Calif. 1984 (21 killed, 19 injured); Killeen, Texas 1991 (23 Killed, 20 wounded); Columbine, Colo. 1999 (13 killed, 21 injured); Blacksburg, Va. 2007 (32 killed, 25 injured); Fort Hood, Texas 2009 (13 killed, 29 wounded); Aurora, Colo. 2012 (12 killed, 58 injured); Newtown, Conn. 2012 (26 killed, 20 age seven or under) – supposed advocates for "free speech" have repeated that the "answer" is more speech, rather than the most moderate form of sensible and reasonable media control. This despite a media culture that glorifies, even extols and exalts in, the deeds of such killers, inevitably encouraging more to follow in their footsteps.
The logic is simple. Any clown with a cheap digital camera and an internet account can create a movie offensive to billions, and we must accept that as fact, no matter how many are killed as a result. Because Youtube, and Xbox Live, are out there, the only way to stop such crime is to ensure the availability of cheap internet video for those who are responsible and who will therefore use them for good. If more so-called "speech" were in the hands of those who would deter such attacks, then there would be a reduced incidence of crime or, at a minimum, a possibility of stopping such massacres in action. So the answer to violent media is more "speech," not less, just as in the context of the Second Amendment, the answer to government tyranny is more guns, not less.
No doubt this argument has a certain internal logic, but it is hardly uncommon for seemingly logical arguments to rest on a false premise. The false premise here is easily identified: the First Amendment "right" to "speech" will, of its own force, allow argument by people who would use their voices to protect our children against such abominations as "The Matrix." And yet, if those who favor media control must take as given the accessibility of cameras, computers, even such quaint devices as typewriters, surely First Amendment enthusiasts must also take as given that for good reason, or just as a matter of personal sensibility, many, or even most, law abiding citizens will continue to opt against exercising this right, or consuming such media.
As a result, it cannot be assumed that more and more "speech" or "press freedom" is somehow the panacea, or even a counterweight, to the onslaught of violence in our society. At a minimum, this reality check serves as a cogent response to arguments against regulating access to the sorts of media that have no legitimate connection to art or ideas, but that led directly in Newtown, Columbine, and Blacksburg to the most horrifically violent massacres, massacres in which "the Press" spread the killers' names, and fame, to the high heavens.
The debate over media control cannot take place in two juxtaposed theoretical worlds: one in which everyone has "free speech" and the other in which no one does. The hard questions arise because we live in the real world. In that world, some choose to exercise their First Amendment right responsibly, and others carelessly. (Carelessness includes failing to curb one's talk when faced with even a remote risk that someone with the worst and most venal motives could access a film studio.) And, of course, some people are simply evil, profoundly mentally disturbed, or both.
We have read, countless times, over the past week that Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison would not have recognized today's America, nor would they have agreed to an amendment guaranteeing the freedoms of slander, lese-majeste, hate speech, and pornographic violence to any yahoo with a camera or an internet connection. We must agree. While a so-called "free press" may have sufficed for its purpose in 1776, it is delusional to think that opposition to legitimate government is either necessary, or desirable, in 2012. It is time to have a serious, and respectful, conversation on the limits of expression where that expression harms society, and kills children.
We can choose to make it more or less difficult for everyone to gain access to words and images that have no justification except in the responsible press or in the hands of highly trained and licensed journalists and professors. Arguing that individuals could protect themselves and others from the threat of tyranny with mere blogs is beside the point if many are not willing to do so based on a well-founded difference of opinion as to risks and benefits of "free speech." Even the most respectable among us can be libeled or humiliated by hate speech in the present "Wild West" internet environment. Certainly we should be able to agree on ending access, once and for all, to the sorts of pornographic images and words capable of inspiring such unimaginable violence as ending the lives of 26 innocents, including teachers and children just 6 and 7 years old.
The Popehat editors.
Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White
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