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Police in Highland Park, Illinois search for a gunman after a mass shooting on July 4th, 2022.

Law enforcement search the area of a shooting at a Fourth of July parade on July 4, 2022 in Highland Park, Illinois. Police have detained Robert “Bobby” E. Crimo III, 22, in connection with the shooting in which six people were killed and 19 injured, according to published reports. (Photo: Mark Borenstein/Getty Images)

What Is Wrong With Us?

We are habituated to the notion that deadly interpersonal violence is somehow normal and is to be expected anywhere and everywhere. Of course, this is not true.

Thomas Meisenhelder

We shoot each other.

We shoot each other in the streets. We shoot each other in our homes. We shoot each other in rural towns and in big cities. We shoot ourselves in the suburbs and in the ex-burbs. We shoot each other in large mass shootings and in small individualized events. We shoot each other in schools, at concerts, and at parties. We shoot each other in stores, at work, and on vacations.

What is wrong with us? Is this who we are? Some say we shoot each other because we have too many guns (I agree); others, like the NRA, say we shoot each other because there are not enough guns (I disagree). Some say we shoot each other because we don’t have good mental health care (I am all for better mental health care, but the mentally ill are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it). I am sure there are lots of reasons why we are shooting each other so often, but that is not the why I am writing.

What astounds and angers me is that our society considers guns and violence—graphic, brutal, and horrific—to be an acceptable form of popular entertainment. Our movies and television shows are stuffed full of beatings and shootings, microscopically depicted, glorified, and romanticized. In fact, loud and graphic images of deadly gun violence are perhaps the most defining commonplace element of our visual entertainment. A lot of money and efforts goes into making these colorfully exaggerated images of blood, gore, and brutality. Our films and programs, it seems, are based in the idea that guns and violence are entertaining. Is this really is who we are?

Please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that movies and television cause us to shoot each other. It may do so (most scholars seem to feel that visual portrayals of violence do fairly often lead to increased aggression amongst viewers), but that is not my subject. What I am trying to point out is just the simple fact that in our country ugly and stark depictions of guns and violence are a favorite form of popular entertainment.

We are habituated to the notion that deadly interpersonal violence is somehow normal and is to be expected anywhere and everywhere. Of course, this is not true; shooting each other is not normal everywhere and it is not considered entertainment everywhere.

So, why is it this way? Who provides us with these images and who teaches us to enjoy violence so much? What kind of person would be so foolish and irresponsible as to produce, as entertainment, the kind of slow motion, graphic violence that characterizes so much popular entertainment made in the USA? And why would they do such a harmful and ugly thing?

The only answer I can think of is that these images are the results of self-interested decisions made by the very wealthy people who create our visual mass media culture. These people, who sometimes preach to us about peace and love, seem to have no problem making movies and programs full of abhorrent images of guns and violence, blood and guts. They decry violence in our society while getting rich by producing and promoting violent images. They are the producers, writers, directors, and actors who we think of as glamorous celebrities.

To understand that it doesn’t have to be this way, all you have to to compare most European television shows about cops and law enforcement to American ones. The foreign shows can go a whole season without even one scene of blood and gore, while the shows made in the USA will contain several scenes of violence and a whole armory of weapons in a single episode.

Surely the "celebrities" who make our entertainment are aware of this, but they choose to make entertainment that is violent. Why? I can only guess it's because it's an easy way to get rich. They will probably say something like "we are only giving the people what they want," but that is not adequate as an answer or a justification. After all, the guy selling speed, the CEO pushing opioids, or the company selling cancerous pesticides is "only giving people what they want." In truth, all of them use advertising and other manipulative techniques to form our tastes and desires. Years and years of cross cultural research tells us that human beings are not "naturally" violent. It is not our genes that are the problem, it is our entertainment industry.

What do I propose? Well, let's start with the idea proposed by Hannah Arendt at the beginning of her book "The Human Condition" in which she wrote: "What I propose therefore is very simple: it is nothing more than to think about what we are doing."

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Thomas Meisenhelder

Thomas Meisenhelder

Thomas Meisenhelder is a retired Professor of Sociology from California State University, San Bernardino. He lives in Huntington Beach, CA.

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