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From the Wire: Batman Begins, Empathy Ends

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire July 30, 2012 at 2:11PM

Pop culture isn't to blame for James Holmes' attack in Colorado. But maybe it's affecting us anyway.
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"The Dark Knight."
"The Dark Knight."

I don't think the sane mind can ever truly understand the madness that drives someone to walk into a movie theater and open fire on the patrons, but I give Owen Gleiberman credit for trying in a lengthy and thoughtful piece for Entertainment Weekly. Connecting violent films, violent video games, and even violent speech on the Internet -- he argues that our culture is slowly turning colder and darker. If it isn't to blame for incidents like the one in Aurora, it isn't helping either.

"Do these games 'cause' murder? No, they do not. But what they do offer, in the violent excitement of their concentrated you are the killer! vantage, is a first rehearsal of the shedding of any vestiges of compassion. A first-person-shooter video game isn’t life, but it can become a kind of enticement to view life as if it were a video game. Looking at a real person and seeing, in essence, the flesh-and-blood version of a digitized 'target' may be one of the key mental/metaphorical leaps of our age. And that’s why I believe that writing off a tragedy like the 'Dark Knight' massacre as an instance of simple 'insanity,' while technically correct, may miss one dimension of what’s really going on. For what has gradually decayed, in our society of screens, isn’t sanity. It’s empathy."

Having played video games my entire life, and having also carefully avoided actual physical violence my entire life, I'm immediately dubious of the connection between violent gaming and violent living. If James Holmes had told authorities he was imitating the images of bloodshed and horror he saw every night on the 10 o'clock news, would we ban journalism? If he claimed that a memory foam pillow urged him to kill, would we recall all non-feather-filled headrests? Of course not. Violent media makes a convenient scapegoat, not just for authorities looking to lay blame in the wake of a tragedy, but also for the perpetrators of those senseless acts, who finger movies or video games as a means of abdicating responsibility for their own despicable actions.

On the other hand, I agree with Gleiberman that empathy seems to be the key value missing from modern discourse, not just about movies, but politics and religion and everything in between. A huge percentage of our entertainment -- from games to Internet comment boards to cable news that panders to one side of the political spectrum or the other -- encourages us to close ourselves off from empathy, to treat disagreements like battles, and people with opposing viewpoints like mortal enemies. Whether that is a cause or merely a symptom of larger problems in society, I don't know. But it's hard to argue it's not there.

Gleiberman loses me, though, when he tries to connect Holmes' rampage with Internet fanboys' rampage against "Dark Knight Rises" critics they disagreed with:

"What they and Holmes have in common is the compulsion to worship pop culture with such fanatical identification that a movie could be transformed from a darkly ingenious, and uniting, piece of popular art into a weapon that can be used against anyone who isn’t pure enough to love that same movie the way that you do. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that James Holmes, in his grotesque obsessed-fan Joker costume, chose the very first midnight show of 'The Dark Knight Rises' to uncork his arsenal of madness. He opened fire on a roomful of Batman fans, and he wanted to kill every last one of them. Maybe his real fantasy was to be the only fan left."

If Holmes was such a rabid Batman fan, why would he want to kill other Batman fans? Also: if Holmes was such a rabid Batman fan, why didn't he know what color The Joker's hair was? That theater in Aurora was filled with the hardest of the hardcore "Dark Knight" lovers. Killing devout Bat-fans to prove his own devotion makes no sense -- unless Holmes is crazy. And if he's crazy, then you can't very well blame a movie for his actions.

Read more "The Aurora Tragedy Raises the Haunting Question: Why Does Pop Culture Inspire People to Kill?"

This article is related to: From the Wire, The Dark Knight Rises


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