Thursday, April 26, 2007

Culture Shock 04.26.07: Virginia Tech tragedy is latest excuse to attack popular culture

After any tragedy like the one last week at Virginia Tech, you can be sure two things will happen.

People who don't like guns in private hands will agitate for tougher gun-control laws. And people who think popular culture is a cesspool of decadence and violence will attempt an end run around the First Amendment.

I don't have much to add to the gun debate, but I have something to say about the idea that books, TV, movies and music breed mass murderers.

They don't.

Within days of Cho Seung-Hui's April 16 rampage on the Virginia Tech campus, during which he killed 33 people including himself, reporters and armchair psychologists were searching for telltale clues in Cho's class schedule and written assignments, as well as in the rambling, videotaped manifesto he sent to NBC News.

Cho took pictures of himself posing threateningly with a hammer. News reports and Web sites like the Drudge Report quickly drew comparisons to the award-winning South Korean film "Oldboy," in which a man who has been held prisoner for 15 years seeks revenge on his tormentors. One of the film's best-known scenes features the hero wielding a hammer against an army of attackers.

Soon after, reports surfaced that Cho had taken a class called "Contemporary Horror." He presumably read Joyce Carol Oates' "The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense"; "Men, Women, and Chainsaws," a study of gender issues in horror films; and "The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre." He then sold those and other books on an eBay-affiliated Web site.

Without a doubt, Cho was interested in horror and the macabre, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the class. But a lot of people are interested in dark fiction, and few of them ever kill anyone. Like Cho, I read "The Best of H.P. Lovecraft" for a college class, which also included a book by Stephen King. To the best of my knowledge, I've never killed anyone, and King's books have topped bestseller lists for decades without triggering an apocalypse.

Then there are Cho's own stories, which his professors describe as "disturbing." They may be, but based on what I've read of them online, the best words to describe them are juvenile and amateurish.

Cho was a failure before he became a killer, and that is a more likely explanation for his actions than his reading and viewing habits are. There are few things more dangerous than a person whose mental calculus tells him he has nothing to lose.

Popular culture took a similar beating after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Families of some of the victims sued several computer and video game companies, claiming that violent video games had led to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's rampage. That lawsuit, like many before it, was thrown out of court.

Some studies claim there is a link between media violence and real-world violence.

One such study by University of Michigan psychologist L. Rowell Huesmann claims there is a connection between violent acts and violent TV viewing. But even Huesmann cannot answer the obvious question: Does media violence cause real violence, or are naturally violent people drawn to violent media?

He simply asserts that his explanation is "more plausible."

But people aren't blank slates. They make decisions based on innate personality characteristics and a lifetime of experiences so varied that it is impossible to trace causal links.

Looking to the culture to explain random incidents of violence is good for only one thing — shifting blame away from where it belongs.

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