Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Culture of Cruelty?

On first date, he
skips restaurant bill
and steals her car.

On Truthout today there is an exceptionally provocative article by Henry A. Giroux entitled, “Living in a Culture of Cruelty: Democracy as Spectacle.” I believe everyone should read this insightful piece and think seriously about it.

I have long been appalled by the level of violence we now experience in our culture. I know that older people often idealize life as it was “back then” and decry the changes that have occurred “since they were young,” and so on. I confess to feeling exactly that way. But I know the changes that upset me are real, not imaginary. Of course there was violence and occasional cruelty when I was younger. It was in many ways just built into our lives, probably largely as a result of our pioneer and agrarian heritage. For example, no one hesitated in shooting various “critters” on sight. If you saw a hawk or an eagle, you automatically tried to kill it as it was an enemy of your chickens. Similarly, we made sport of shooting gophers, weasels, owls, snakes, and other birds and animals considered in some way dangerous either to ourselves or our animals or crops. And sometimes we just shot things for fun. I remember being encouraged to shoot what was called a “fish duck,” for no apparent reason other than it was there. And when we received our first .22 rifles, at about twelve years of age, we immediately set out to shoot just about anything that moved: songbirds, rats, gophers, and so on. It was target practice, sport. Of course animals like coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, badgers, and such were hunted and killed wherever found as they were considered threatening to our domesticated animals and even children. No one in those days thought about the long-term implications of this behavior, it was just the natural way of life. It was violent, but it was not by design, cruel. There were sometimes instances of random cruelty, of course, but these were not commonplace. I remember once a man shooting his .22 pistol at the rear end of a black bear running away from him, knowing full well he could not kill it, and sadistically enjoying giving it pain. But few ever set out to inflict pain or suffering deliberately on anyone or anything. Wounding, but not killing a deer or elk was considered extremely bad form, and hunters would track animals for long distances to “put them out of their misery.”

There was violence in our movies, too, but, again, nowhere near approximating the virtually unremitting violence in our films these days. The good guys shot the bad guys, cowboys shot Indians, policemen shot gangsters, our soldiers shot enemies, but always for good reason, and there were musicals and romantic comedies and dramatic films that provided entertainment for the entire family. Films were not made specifically for the 16 year-old market as they are nowadays. The gratuitous violence than characterizes so many of our contemporary films was almost completely absent (indeed, the Hays office and others made sure it stayed that way for a long time).

There were homeless people, too, but not in large numbers in the cities as there are now. We had “bums,” or “hoboes,” and sometimes gypsies. These latter, on the rare occasions we encountered them, were generally distrusted and believed to be thieves and con artists of various kinds. But bums and hoboes, living mostly along the railroad tracks, were very often fed and performed odd jobs in return. I do not recall they were held in the same contempt we now feel for the homeless. There was no welfare system or food stamps in those days, most people just pitched in and tried to help the unfortunate as best they could. There was discrimination, of course, and in some areas there were lynchings and racial violence as a matter of course. Blacks and Jews and American Indians were denigrated and treated shamefully. But even so, I would argue that things were, in fact, very different “back then.”

Contrast this with what Giroux describes as the “Culture of Violence,” that has been created over time by a culture mired almost exclusively in the quest for profit at any cost, where the value of individuals has come to be reckoned largely in terms of cost-benefit analyses, where “working to get ahead,” has been replaced by the struggle merely for survival, and where many are now considered simply as excess baggage to be left behind, not even worthy of having health care or employment. Giroux does not paint a pretty picture of contemporary American society, but it is a picture that should be carefully considered if we are to have a future worth living. I think it is true that sixty or seventy years ago there was violence, but nowhere near as much as there is now, and there was much less overt cruelty.

There is some magic in wealth, which can thus make persons pay their court to it, when it does not even benefit themselves. How strange it is, that a fool or knave, with riches, should be treated with more respect by the world, than a good man, or a wise man in poverty!
Ann Radcliffe

The cassowary of New Guinea is claimed by some to be the world’s most dangerous bird.

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