During the response phase to any tragedy, there is a common rejoinder that begins “Millions of people…,” referring to all those who engage in various activities without ever doing anything harmful or antisocial.Call it the millions versus the maniacs. It’s a pretty effective means of shutting down further conversation. In regard to violence and where to apportion responsibility, the “millions of people” response has been invoked from all sides. Granted, the argument usually sounds a trifle defensive. Witness Chris Suellentrop writing about videogames in the New York Times after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., and “the inevitable debate over violent games that emerged from the entirely predictable discovery that Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old man, played “Call of Duty” games. (Perhaps he also ate Big Macs; he’s in that core demographic too.)” In other words, a lot of people play videogames — just as they eat Big Macs — without doing terrible things. And because young men are overrepresented in both groups, attempting to link one pastime to violence makes about as much sense as the other. The appeal of that logic is one reason why the media-violence-guns-mental-health debate keeps going around in circles. In fact, anyone following the issue for a long time periodically feels as if we’re being subjected to a kind of depressing rerun. Twenty years ago, for example, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon convened 600 leading members of Hollywood’s creative community for a daylong summit to discuss media violence. The exchange did not go well. Academics and lawmakers offered their blunt assessment, suggesting a clear relationship between TV and societal violence. When “media psychologist” Carole Lieberman questioned the industry’s conscience, the late Edgar J. Scherick had heard enough, as the veteran exec and producer stood and released the room’s pent-up frustration, yelling where Lieberman got off accusing him or his contemporaries of not caring about children. And so it goes. During his introduction at that event, journalist Jeff Greenfield wryly called the occasion “an historic moment, or a smokescreen … a turning point, or an anthropomorphic fig leaf” to ward off action by Congress. Greenfield also nailed the politics surrounding the issue, saying, “Television violence has no constituency. (So) if you are looking for a target that has no other side, you have found it.” He was right — and that was before Hollywood further sullied its rep and served up more soft targets, from the “Saw” franchise to the nihilism of “American Horror Story” to deciding “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” cried out for a 3-D version. In the years since, there has been a lot of smoke, and sadly, plenty of fire. About as close as anyone ever comes to defending media violence is to remind the world millions consume it without behaving badly, which is pretty much what gun owners say when defending their side. As with other rules and regulations, the question becomes whether it’s possible to curb maniacs without terribly inconveniencing or impinging upon the liberties of the masses. There is also an assumption, underlined by the aforementioned videogame column, that people like you — sharing your views and interests — can control their basest impulses, whereas others are not to be trusted. So before we get too much further into 2013, let’s get a few key disclaimers out of the way. Each begins with the expression “Millions of people:” See violent movies without ever seriously harming, much less killing, another person. Own guns without ever shooting up a school, theater or workplace. Listen to rap music without ever threatening a cop. Watch pornography without becoming addicts, or worse. Are enthusiastic fans of celebrities without stalking them. Fly every year, without trying to blow up an airplane. Now, let’s think about all the others in the context of that last one, which doesn’t address media violence directly but is illustrative. Many recently returned from holiday travel where we dutifully removed our shoes and belts, which is generally considered an acceptable if irritating nuisance to deter and weed out the few maniacs. So having dispensed with those stipulations and that math, the question is, now what? And just where does one go shopping for a second-hand anthropomorphic fig leaf, anyway?
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