If there is anything I have grown convicted of as I get older, it is of the inherent value—and dare I say sanctity—of human life.
I have always been a sensitive person, in that regard. When I first learned of people in the world who didn’t have food or shelter, I cried myself to sleep. It is, in the terms of Inside Out, a Core Memory of mine. I often avoid conversations about genocides or other mass atrocities not because I want to ignore them, but because I emotionally just cannot handle it.
As I age, and as I settle in deeper into a religious context, the depth of this sensitivity has only grown. I find it hard to argue against the idea, even, that the Holy Spirit is trying to grow that spirit of gentleness in me—a fact I find a little ironic, because of my history of anger issues. The notion of Peace has grown within me the past several years, and I yearn for it as a deer pants for water.
It is becoming harder and harder not to notice the places where violence is infused in our culture. Of all of the places where violence simply exists and it’s made to seem normal. Ads for video games certainly are what I see the most; I regularly see ads for games that show clear and obvious killing of (virtual) people in the ads themselves. It’s revulsive, and I can hardly stand to watch the ads any more.
Because of children and friends and all sorts of other things, my wife and I simply haven’t gotten a chance to see many movies as of late that aren’t aimed at younger children. So I also have grown out of touch with action movies, and haven’t necessarily been soaking in a violent movie/show culture.
But I’m not sure I can stomach a lot of action movies any more.
What triggered it for me was Guardians of the Galaxy. While I didn’t explicitly count the number of deaths, watching the movie, I started simply being staggered at the number of them, and how the movie seemed to simply laugh it off. As though taking the life of another person is something comedic, rather than tragic. Not to mention the times it fixated and seemed to glorify targeted killing of more-prominent characters.
I can’t say it made me sick, but it was disquieting.
It’s a trend that’s bothered me for a while in movies, where there’s this idea that justice is done by killing the villain. I have begun to question our blind acceptance of that idea; begun to question whether it is truly justice; begun to consider what sort of religious moral it is to say “this person is beyond redemption”, as though the Christian God for all His omnipotence and wonder and majesty cannot, in fact, redeem even the most sinful of people.
The religious and moral implications are staggering, and it hides under the surface of our culture. It’s sometimes very difficult for me to articulate, but the emotional turmoil I feel is real; and the utter conviction it inflames in me merely grows as I live, subsumed in this culture.
And yet the death tolls from blockbuster action films merely rises.
In my novel Heir to the Gallery, about three-fourths of the way through, the main character, Kate, engages in a major sword/magic battle with a primary antagonist. Ultimately, the antagonist is killed, though it’s the first time—and arguably, the only time—that she kills someone. Her almost immediate action is to weep as a result of what she’d done, and the other death and destruction she witnessed the antagonist having wrought.1
Some short time afterwords in-novel, she has started to come to terms with what she’s done. In one scene, she is at a party with her friends, and they clamor to play a fighting game heavily inspired by the Super Smash Brothers franchise. Kate declines—along with her best friend, Ami, who also recently killed her first person—and ruminates a little on how it hits too close to home. It’s difficult for them to fully divorce the experience of playing a fighting game with the actual experience of having been in a real fight where they had to kill. It is though I was presaging my own emotional journey a decade after I wrote the book.
I don’t know if I could write those fight scenes today. The novel is sitting in my metaphorical drawer to edit down to something reasonable, and I would love to do so, but those scenes are going to be more difficult. Certainly, I try not to glorify the violence, and Kate’s decision to kill is seeped in moral ambiguity—though there isn’t quite the Christian idea of redemption lurking in the shadows. But when I consider fiction I have written recently, or plan on writing, violence is not much a part.2
Instead, I seem to want to focus more on the interpersonal relationships and the conflicts and awkwardness that arise from different people seeking different goals and encountering resistance in each other.
On the other hand, I have talked with soldiers I have known, about how tours of duty have affected their sense of violence. Some gain a distaste for violence—though they still argue for its necessity at times—but some do seem very capable of emotionally separating the fictionalized violence in our movies and games from the very real violence and killing they enacted upon other people.
It’s yet another reason I could never be a soldier.
I wonder, though, if a distaste for violence generally comes with age. It wouldn’t surprise me, that coming into parenthood and raising a family, you start to focus on different things, and stop trying to hard to prove yourself to the world. Or perhaps it’s a rarer thing, and I happen to be one of those rare individuals.
What I do know as a result, though, is that my desire to see action movies lessens as time goes on. It bothers me to a very large extent just how easy it has become for movies to show gleeful mass killing, and shrug it off as if those human (or alien) lives mean nothing. What are we inculcating in our youth, in our adults?
I don’t have a particularly good way of wrapping this up. I’m not even, truly addressing the emotional and moral complexity of the subject—such as how it ties into my growing preference for cooperative board games, or how it doesn’t bother me to play a game in which violence occurs in an abstract or removed capacity.
It’s a deeply difficult subject to discuss and articulate. And I don’t think that the pervasive violence in our culture makes it any easier.
The scene immediately following, in which Kate is forced to reflect on what just happened, contains one of my favorite lines of dialogue from the novel: “With just a single word, I can do a lot of things. But I have a choice to say that word or not, and I choose not to!” It cuts deep into the novel’s theme, but I digress. ↩
One of them does involve a hunt for an animal, which notably does have violence, of the hunting variety. ↩