The Cassandra Syndrome

Tuesday, 14 April 2009 06:51 By Michael Nagler and Michael N Nagler, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

The Cassandra Syndrome
(Illustration: Vicious Media, Credit: Ric Stulz,

    Last month, 57 people lost their lives in eight mass shootings across America. "The killing grounds," Timothy Egan wrote in The New York Times last week, "include a nursing home, a center for new immigrants, a child's bedroom. Before that it was a church, a college, a daycare center." It is hard to argue when he calls this epidemic "the cancer at the core of our democracy."

    It's not that hard to understand why we're experiencing an upsurge in "senseless violence." More to the point, it isn't all that hard to see what we can do about it.

    This rash of killings was an uptick on a very general trend. That's important, because we don't want to just level out the trend that is already higher than any country calling itself civilized should put up with: we want it drastically lower. We want the killing to stop. It's not particularly easy to face why we've been inflicted with all this violence, but we must, because how else will we find a solution. And in the end, the solution may not be as unpleasant as we think.

    As a colleague of mine in Public Health recently declared, "We are increasing violence by every means possible." He was talking about the mass media. The enormously high, and increasing, level of violence in the "entertainment" industry - including the violent emphasis of the nightly news - makes violence seem normal, unavoidable, sexy and fun - even a source of meaning. The studies documenting this go back for decades, only lapsing for a while in the early eighties when scientists began to realize nobody was listening to them. They could say, as the US Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior said in 1972, that the "preponderance of evidence" makes it very clear that television was already making young (and other) people more unfeeling and aggressive; they could complain about it in PTA meetings (as I have done) or shout it from the rooftops: neither policymakers nor producers nor us, the end consumers, paid much attention.

    Summing up in 1996, psychologist Madeline Levine wrote, "there is a large, consistent, and damning body of evidence that says that watching a lot of violence makes children aggressive and fearful;" and she adds, tragically, "we are losing our awareness of what it means to be human." Since then we not only did not reduce violent viewing, we "advanced" from passive television to interactive games that, according to preliminary evidence and common sense, dehumanize people more effectively.

    What scientists and the public did not know when this research began (and the public still does not) is the striking evidence now available from non-invasive methods to study brain activation, primarily Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It has given physical reality to the observation of all psychologists and anyone who knows a child that we're profoundly imitative creatures. In a conversation I had about the effects of the mass media recently with UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, he told me that we humans are so "wired for empathy" that, "If we could stop all the violence for a week, it would never come back." Translating this into practical terms, anyone who could step out of the "exciting" barrage of violent imagery would so reduce his or her artificial provocation to violence that the rest of the problem could, over time, be brought down to very minimal levels. Enough of us doing this and we'd be on our way to living in a nonviolent culture.

    Since government is not likely to intervene (it sounds too much like censorship), and the industry itself shows no sign of waking up to its responsibilities, we are left with one recourse, and fortunately it's a good one: if we don't buy, they don't sell. You may think, "Oh, I'm just one person," but that's the point: As writer George Orwell said of a hanging he had to witness back in the bad old colonial days in Burma, "One life less; one world less." Never underestimate the damage that's being done to your mind - or the power of your example once you repair it.

    Am I saying that everyone who wants to stop this shameful mayhem should stop watching violent programming, even when it's disguised as news? I am. But I also say something else: let's have more legitimate satisfactions that take us in the opposite direction. Real human contact is the most effective substitute. Of course, actual people can be a pain in the neck (present company excepted), but it's way more fulfilling to talk to your neighbors, have coffee with an old friend or a potential new one, say your piece at a book club, or even have a reasonable argument with someone who disagrees with you than trying to have a passive relationship with pixels on a flat screen.

    Gandhi had a famous formula he called the "Seven Social Sins." Wealth Without Work was one of them, I remember, and Science Without Humanity. I think if the Mahatma were physically alive today he would add Entertainment Without Discretion. So let's not turn our scientists into Cassandras, doomed to predict the future with nobody believing them. Let's act, at least individually and in our families, before we become a civilization without a future.

Michael N Nagler

Michael N.Nagler is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and taught the upper-division nonviolence course as well as meditation and other courses for more than twenty years, and is the founder-president of The Metta Center for Nonviolence Education.
Last modified on Tuesday, 14 April 2009 09:58