“In most societies, the very practices of routinized aggression in games, spectacles, and rituals of sacrifice that allow for expressions of anger and hostility also serve to shield people against full confrontation with the role of violence in their midst.” — Sissela Bok, Mayhem
Waiting through the usual previews, recently, before the Feature Presentation, we were treated to an updated version of Warner Bros. Tweety Bird and Sylvester. All rich colors and CGI enhancements, the characters remain the same, locked in an eternal Manichean struggle as predictable as it is violent. The cat was smashed flat, hurled through windows, rolled by a bus, impressed upon a brick wall, jabbed, flipped, bounced, punched, slammed, and wadded up — all to the warbling whine of the bird-as-victim, Tweety. At the end of this spectacle my wife leaned over and whispered, “Is it any wonder why my parents didn’t let me see this stuff?”
Generations of children through decades of American television cartoons have seen this stuff, however, and new generations continue to thrill to the adventures of cat and bird. Coming on the heels of several stories of Black Friday violence, shoppers running amok, it made me wonder how to put all this into context. The temptation to Make a Pronouncement, Draw an Inference, or otherwise Reason to a Conclusion, reared its head, hoping for a blessing. Reluctantly, I gave in, cautioning myself to keep the salt nearby for a quick intake.
Two recent incidents, similar in the weapon used, bring our casual violence front and center. The first, in which a cop used pepper-spray on a huddled line of students at UC Davis protesting on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, immediately drew the outrage of millions when video of it appeared online. “But they were protesting peacefully,” ran the argument, which suggests that the cops would have been justified in spraying them had they been violent. An unprovoked attack is plainly wrong, especially when the right of peaceful assembly is upheld by Constitution and history. But an unprovoked attack by cops on citizens these days in front of literally hundreds of cameras, any of which can upload almost instantly to the Cyberus in the sky, is folly beyond belief. With the whole world watching, you had to ask yourself, ‘What was that cop thinking?’ It might be that he just snapped, finally having his moment in which all his inchoate rage boiled to the surface.
But let’s say he’s more disciplined than that. Putting oneself in his position, a couple of reactions come to mind. On the one hand, he did it because they deserved it. After all—damn kids—why aren’t they in class? Snotty kids. Someone’s got to teach them to obey! If he took that position maybe he thought he had the Law on his side, along with all the grownups and adults. But on the other hand, maybe he didn’t think anything about it, that is, he didn’t think what he was doing was harmful or unusual. It was a brush-back, a gesture, a push, a show of force, just to establish who’s in charge here. Nothing personal, just business. If it’s the first option, then he obviously missed the lecture on freedom of speech back in high school. But if it’s the second he’s not going to understand what all the fuss is about. We live in a violent society; casual violence in pursuit of good ends is justified. Restoring the peace is justified: what’s the big deal?
The second incident that brings our casual violence into sharp relief is the ‘competitive shopping rage’ of a woman at a Wal-Mart in the San Fernando Valley who was making the most of her Black Friday offensive maneuvers. Minutes after the kickoff at 10 pm she had fought her way up the aisle to the Wii display where she took her stand, defending her booty against all attackers by hosing them down with pepper spray. Bystanders in other aisles caught the toxic cloud and were soon choking and tearing up. Not to be deterred, the woman marched off to another part of the store and did it again. The story I read did not say whether she stopped to pay for the items. Nobody apparently took her down nor were police able to get a make on her, presumably because she couldn’t be clearly seen through a veil of tears.
You have to wonder if she reacted violently because she felt threatened or if she’d planned it all along. The fact that she did it twice might suggest that it wasn’t simply blind rage. I guess we should be glad she didn’t have a gun. How would you like to be the kid who receives these presents on Christmas Day, knowing that his mother literally fought for his right to get what his heart desired?
There’s no direct line from Tweety Bird and Sylvester to a rogue cop and a customer run amok. These are isolated incidents, brought to light by a media that feeds on them and holds them up as the norm, if only through stultifying repetition and commentary. So I’ll come to a modest and tentative conclusion: Perhaps all this is simply entertainment, examples of life imitating art for an audience easily distracted and looking for the next over-the-top moment. Perhaps we are in the position of the child described by David Denby in his thoughtful Great Books, who “knows that everything in the media is transient, disposable,” everything is a role that can be changed or tossed, depending on the ratings and our attention span. But perhaps now is the time to put away childish things.