When Life Imitates Art

The above the fold story in last night’s local paper was about two people who were shot—one of them critically—when they tried to flee the men robbing their home.


Two days ago, my sister asked for prayers for her close friend, whose brother-in-law, a sheriff’s deputy in L.A., was killed in a drive-by shooting.


Extreme violence, crassness, language and a general disrespect for the human person is a key ingredient in almost all published media these days—at least, of the secular variety. But authors, movie directors, songwriters and other artists are never called to task for this, except by extreme Christians to whom nobody pays any attention. On the rare occasion that someone does address the issue, artists claim that what they do does not influence real-life violence, sexual behavior or language; it merely reflects it.


I beg to differ.


As writers, we want to reflect the real world. But we have a narrow path to navigate. Not everyone throws the f- word around; not everyone has sex at the drop of a hat; yet in the vast majority of our entertainment, these things are taken for granted. And although, in theory, we all know the difference between reality and fiction, we also assume that authors know their business. If the writer says something about real life, we trust that it is true.


The cultural shift is gradual. If I read a story in which someone puts a gun to a person’s head and pulls the trigger, it’s not going to make me run out and do the same thing. But the constant repetition of such scenes makes them less effective in fiction, and less horrifying in reality. Think about that. Did either of my opening incidents spark any kind of emotional reaction in you? Probably not; violence in entertainment desensitizes us to violence in reality. As long as the victim is not me, or someone I know, I’m not likely to get worked up about it. And if you and I, who are probably middle or upper-middle class, well-educated people who live upstanding lives, don’t find this shocking, then what of people who grow up surrounded by crime, abuse, neglect?


Think back to 9/11. That day—that awful, horrible day—there was nothing, and I mean nothing, on TV that we hadn’t seen before. The only difference was that it was real. As violence, promiscuity and disdain for the human person (rapes, child abuse, burial alive, stuffing people into dishwashers) becomes more and more lurid on TV, we writers go looking for even more shocking behavior. Otherwise, we’ll never get published. Writers—how many times have you come up with an idea, then decided it’s not interesting enough? To make it worth reading, we have to make the offenses against men, women, and children more and more horrifying. If our culture is influencing us in that way, how do you think it’s affects those who are already of a criminal bent? We are training our human creativity toward our own destruction. How sick is that?


But it’s not only artists and writers who are culpable. We, the consumers, also bear responsibility. If we crave ever more violent movies, ever more shocking crime dramas, ever more titillating TV series about housewives with too much money and time on their hands (as if anybody, anywhere, is in that situation), of course the producers are going to give them to us. And what we read and watch, we make a part of ourselves. Even if we do understand the line between fiction and reality (which I sometimes doubt, considering what’s called “reality” TV), it influences the way we think. I have taught several home-schooled students over the years, and in those families, where entertainment is strictly monitored, the kids are different. They think differently, act differently, speak differently. It does make a difference.


For those of us who create modern art—visual, music, motion picture, theater, written word—we have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Reflect reality—yes. But not just the ugliness. We have a responsibility to reflect the good around us, too.