Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus Christ, “What is truth?” Perhaps given the recent, senseless bloodbath at Aurora, we Americans need to ask ourselves, “What is freedom?” That is, does freedom mean that we should have as few constraints as possible on our wants and desires? Pro-gun activists and those in support of the “freedom” to view, for example, pornography might answer in the affirmative. Or does freedom involve more than a lack of impositions or constraints on my personal desires? In other words, does it have something to do with the kind of people—both collective and individual—we are conditioning and actively shaping ourselves to be?
The tragedy of the Aurora massacre has now been before our eyes for a few days, piercing our hearts and unsettling our minds as we attempt to comprehend how and why this horrible event occurred. George Zornick and others have tackled (and rightly so) the issue from the perspective of the ease with which Americans can obtain assault rifles, handguns, and other high-powered weapons—not to mention explosives readily available through the mail. As Jack Healy and Serge F. Kovaleski reported in their July 21, 2012, New York Times article, having dropped out of his doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Mr. Holmes had been stockpiling weapons for the past two months—handguns, an assault rifle, and “6,000 rounds of ammunition,” which the police have indicated were purchased online and delivered to his home and his university. According to several news reports, not only did Mr. Holmes enter the theater with an assault weapon, but also he is said to have been decked out in full body armor.
Although what follows is merely a working hypothesis, it is nonetheless worth considering given the horrific violence recurring day after day and year after year in the land of the free and home of the brave. (Recall the not-too-distant publicized instances of innocent blood shed and lives lost at the hands of armed men: Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s open fire on students at Columbine High School, Seung-Hui Cho’s shooting spree at Virgina Tech, Jared Lee Loughner’s gunfire unleashed upon an unsuspecting crowd in Tuscon, and George Zimmerman’s bullet snuffing out young Trayvon Martin’s life.) Sociologists, cultural theorists, and feminist scholars have written tirelessly of how our culture has become a culture of violence—not only violence but glorified and celebrated violence fed to our children and young people via video games, television, film, and various cultural narratives and gender stereotypes.
Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, taught that cultivating proper habits is crucial to one’s moral and intellectual development. According to this theory, a virtuous person is, among other things, one who has made intentional choices and who has engaged in purposed activities that enable him or her to both grasp (1) what it is to be courageous, generous, temperate, and the like, and (2) to actually live courageous, generous, and temperate lives. Do we really believe that young people who spend six or more hours per day playing video games in which they sexually assault and physically mutilate other characters will not be negatively affected by such activities on at least some level? Certainly not all or even most will become rapists or mass murders, but how is one’s view of women, for example, shaped when one acts out sexual or other violence against her repeatedly in some virtual reality? Robert Jensen, in his introduction to an excellent scholarly work entitled, Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality, provides a succinct summary of how pornography is not simply an isolated personal expression of “free” choice affecting only oneself, but rather mediates social values and solidifies harmful social, cultural, and gender narratives. As Jenson, explains certain feminist critiques of pornography highlight how “the sexual ideology of patriarchy eroticizes domination and submission and that pornography is one of the key sites in which these values are mediated and normalized in contemporary culture” (ibid., 2). In a similar vein, to be “masculine” is scripted in American culture—whether in fundamentalist religious narratives or via popular media venues—as somehow to be “by nature” aggressive, physical, forceful, conquering, and the like. Males who reject such stereotypes are often labeled nerds, effeminate, “queers,” and are often the recipients of ridicule and, you guessed it, physical violence. What if we as a culture valued the cultivation of human virtues, intellectual, moral, and spiritual, rather than promoting essentialized views of masculinity and femininity that advance impoverished views both of males as brutes controlled by mere instinctual drives and females as inherently inferior rational creatures or mere objects existing for male sexual pleasure? Humans are far too complex for these oversimplified, facile, generalizations, whose supposed universal and “natural” properties are all-too-often the particular and constructed script imposed by those possessing the economic, political, and cultural “capital.”
So where do we go from here? Perhaps we should at least begin by asking the following questions: “What is freedom? How do our cultural, political, social, and “personal” habits shape us, and what kind of people are these structures, narratives, and personal choices shaping us to be?” Debate regarding the current gun laws is, no doubt, needed and tragedies like Aurora highlight why such dialogue must take place. However, we also need to interrogate the cultural narratives and socially acceptable forms of “entertainment” shaping the hearts and minds of Americans both young and old, as we engage in our mundane, so-called “normal” activities.