“What is so different about Americans? Are we homicidal in nature?”
This important question was raised by Tom Mauser, father of a Columbine victim, when interviewed by writer/producer/director Michael Moore in his 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” As I understand it, the film wants to explain the cause of high gun deaths in the United States of America, but it went far to explaining what causes violence in general in the U.S. It named possible factors that could cause this… mass media, the president, history, etc, but Moore never really arrived into a conclusion.
With regard to the question raised by Mauser? Moore and Mauser ended up exchanging “What is it?”
But is it really possible to know the answer to begin with? The fact of the matter is: it is really hard to single out a specific factor (or factors) that cause violent behavior among Americans (and among all people for that matter). But I would like to assume that it is their culture that heavily influences people in the U.S. to do violent acts. After all, it is really hard to ignore the role of culture. This culture is cumulative of so many factors, and influenced by so many factors. There are so many of these I am sure the documentary failed to name all of them. For that, I have become interested in patching up the ideas in the film to make a broad framework that can help explain what influences (rather than cause) violent behavior: There is an interrelationship between a person’s behavior, the culture in the society where he is in, and other external factors (like formal institutions). Though these three factors interplay with each other, what I would like to give emphasis here is that the behavior of a person is heavily influenced by the culture in which he is in, and this culture is heavily influenced by the institutions around the people.
Behavior refers to the actions or reactions of an object or organism, usually in relation to the environment (Wikipedia 2007). In the film, the focus is on violent behavior. It featured moments of violence in the US, and have named some factors that possibly cause and influence violent behavior of the Americans. It’s definitely wrong though to assume that all Americans are violent. Most of them are just paranoid in the sense that they don’t trust their neighbors (so they have to lock their doors), they don’t trust black people, they don’t trust the police, etc., leading many to carry a gun.
As the film suggests, those examples of behavior are highly influenced by the culture where Americans are in. As defined by Williams (1983), culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts, the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values, culture systems may on the one hand, be considered as products of action, and on the other hand a conditioning element of further action. From this definition, we find out that culture and behavior (action) actually have a mutual relationship, but what I want to emphasize here is the influence of culture on behavior. In the U.S., as emphasized in the film, the dominant culture influencing the violent behavior of Americans is their “culture of fear.” Adapted from the title of Barry Glassner’s book, this kind of culture explains why Americans fear the wrong things. Many Americans identify with this kind of culture and some of them may even act (behave) in accordance to this. And how does one react to this kind of culture? It’s a spectrum of actions that include being simply paranoid, carrying a gun, or doing violent actions. A gun has even become a part of the “American identity” since it has already been embedded in the American culture. It represents an “American responsibility” in the perception of Americans as well, as a man from the Michigan Militia stated that “If you’re not armed, you’re not responsible.”
There are formal institutions that fan this kind of culture. The film suggests that some of these institutions actually benefit from fanning this culture of fear (and violence). Some of these institutions are the government, (some) corporations, the mass media, the school, the family, and the constitution. These institutions may also directly affect the behavior of the people (as opposed to influencing the culture, and letting the culture influence behavior). According to Marsh and Stoker (2002), seemingly neutral rules and structures actually embody values and determine appropriate behavior within given settings. Institutions influence actors’ behavior by shaping their values, norms, interests, identities, and beliefs. Through the process of socialization, these people adapt with the ways of these institutions, or adapt with the culture that these institutions influence.
In the film, the American government was portrayed as a violence-and-war-loving body. There was even a series of clips showing the American government’s participation in international conflicts, and a clip of the president endorsing military action. Some may have problems with Moore’s biases in portraying the government, but I should say that to a certain point, he has got a point. And if I live in a place where “violence is endorsed by the government” (as I perceive it), then I’d probably think that it is fine to solve conflicts through violence.
The American constitution also provides a basis for American people to bear arms. The second amendment of their Bill of Rights states that: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms should not be infringed.” Think about it, if the citizens have restricted rights in bearing arms, then there should be less gun deaths in the country (emphasis in “gun deaths”, since they could use other primitive weapons to kill). I think their constitution allowed a tradition of carrying weapons, which in turn fans their negative culture. The U.S. has very loose gun laws. I can’t imagine getting a gun by opening a bank account here in the Philippines. Also, I can’t imagine Hi-Top or Shopwise selling handgun ammunitions.
The school was also pointed to be one of the bad influences of Eric Dylan and Harris Klebold, the young killers in the Columbine massacre. As it was said by one of the creators of South Park, Matt Stone, who used to study at Columbine High School, their high school teachers scare the students by saying that “if you are a loser now, you’re gonna be a loser forever”, and by doing this, they induced fear to the students. He said that Harris and Klebold were called fags and were made into thinking that “I’m a fag now, I’m gonna be a fag forever.” After doing the massacre in Columbine, both Harris and Klebold ended their lives, probably thinking that there they have already avenged themselves from Columbine and that there is no more future for “fags” like them.
The (broken) family was also pointed to be a factor that causes violence, where parents are not there to guide their children. In the film, this was portrayed in the case of Temarla Owen’s son, a 6 year old who shot another 6 year old. This specific case, as shown in the movie, was caused by other contributing factors: poverty, racism, and corporate interest bringing black women into work.
But the institution that I think was most emphasized for fanning this culture is the mass media. For example, in the news, while crimes in America were falling in reality, the crimes shown in the news were rising. There were scares about the Y2K (millennium bug), the Africanized bees, and the blade in the apple at Halloween, but none of them really happened. It has also been an instrument for further diversifying and dividing America by portraying the black people as bad and the white people as their victims. This was particular in the show “Cops”. Because the news has a legitimizing effect on us, we tend to believe them, and it even came to the point, as said by Moore, that they don’t need to give a reason at all. The mass media just loves to inflict fear to the American people that the Americans now tend to become afraid of the wrong things. Marilyn Manson said that people are made to be afraid so that they will consume. If they have bad breath, no one is going to talk to them. If they have pimples, no one is going to have sex with them. Just imagine how the mass media plus other corporations benefit from inflicting fear.
Of course the behavior-culture-institutions relationship is not only applicable to the American society. And I think the film should inspire us to start thinking: Are we also in a culture of fear? Are we in a society that endorses violence? Is our society in threat of being just like the Americans’? It should serve as an impetus for us to stop scaring ourselves of the wrong things.
And as to the Americans being homicidal in nature? I do not think so, because if yes, all Americans would be killing each other. I especially disagree with it if what we mean by ‘in nature’ here is that Americans are born violent or born to be violent. I do not know how much the nature-nurture debate could be of applicability here. But I would like to stress the point that violence in the American society is undoubtedly a product of “nurturing.” With a culture that makes people afraid, and with socializing institutions that ‘allow’ people to be violent, Americans are socialized to be really violent beings. But despite this kind of culture that America has, it is still unfair to say that all Americans are violent. After all, sharing a culture does not mean that people are necessarily in agreement in specifics (i.e. “This world is making me paranoid, maybe I should get a gun to protect myself and kill those who are going to be a threat to me”). Only they possess a similar understanding of how the world works (i.e. “This world is making me paranoid”) (Williams 1983).
Behavior. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavior. Accessed 16 September 2007.
Marsh, David and Stoker, Gerry. “Theory and Methods in Political Science, 2nd ed.” NY: Palgrave Macmillan. 2002.
Williams, Thomas Rys. “Socialization”. NJ: Prentice Hall. 1983.
- J. Asama
The title stems from the events that took place on that 20th of April, in Littleton, Colorado, when two armed students went for an early morning bowling class just before they began the catastrophic Columbine massacre where 12 students and a teacher died. Everybody were shocked at the thought that two teenagers could master using a gun for such a mass killing. Michael Moore begins his documentary with a lot to say on his subject of violence in America with a much bigger focus on gun-related issues. His quest to find answers takes him into Littleton and to the Beverly Hills estate of Heston. He tries to corner the NRA's Charlton Heston making a statement as to why America is so in love with guns and why there is so much violence compared to other countries. One part that was incredibly moving in the film was when Moore interviewed the survivors of the massacre and telling the story of a six-year old Kayla being murdered by another preschooler. However, in his attempt to chew over the forces behind America's culture of violence, Moore sometimes draws some associations that seem quite airy.
The thought-provoking documentary seems not that much convincing in terms of Moore's arguments. His thesis on American violence ends up rolling a complete gutter ball (J. Heilman, 2002) as he ends up unmasking his willingness to ambush interviewees emotionally and in some way distort some facts. He seems to not realize that his guide lightsare similar to the one's that he is attacking. For example, he compares the raw number of crimes in America with no regard for population differences, instead of just saying that it's five times as bad as in Canada. The documentary seems a one-man crusade. I was thinking why he did not invite other anti-gun activists with him.
There was indeed a cohesive theme that glued all the pieces of the documentarian's questions together- that being the question of 'why the strong relation in the US proliferation of “arms” and violence (versus the Canadian context). As a thesis statement, Americans live in a culture that uses fear as a mechanism of social control, the way guns are used, and the way people treat each other and act out their discussion about gun control.(Glassner, 2000) Its not just the mere presence of guns that makes the country or any culture violent; in the US, it is the manipulation of its population through fear, propagated by media, gun manufacturers, the government, etc...
Bowling for Columbine illuminates both the perils and the potential political interventionist strategies in a media-saturated society in which film, network television and the Internet interact. (Mattson, 2003) Media is both shaping and is shaped by the public opinion. ( Heywood, 2002) The perception of viewers and spectators, as well as the course of action that actors may apply are input for the media. On an equal sense, media is also an influence to the viewers. What we see on our screens may manipulate our perceptions on issues. Media manipulation can only be solved by free thinkimg in the public. Although the film was a documentary and it is supposed to be a documentation of facts, the film itself is a form of media that the director intentioned to edit for the viewers to see what he intended for them to see. The director or the film maker has his own bias, even the lenses of his camera. In a way, the director intentionally or unintentionally manipulates the facts and edits the film so that his audience can only realistically be expected to see the information presented in the film in the light that he desires. In the film, I assume that Moore was expecting that his audience are drawing their own conclusions. Later, its quite not as such. At some point it made me think it was a connect-the-dots puzzle.
There is a lot to chew on, intellectually, in the film. Michael Moore which happens to be a first-year college drop-out before has asked an important question that open up discussions and debate surrounding his arguments and assertsions. Overall, the film is certainly thought provoking and oddly entertaining.
Heilman, Jeremy. Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Movie review posted on MovieMartyr.Com on October 27, 2002. Accessed on 8 September 2007.
Mattson, Kevin. “The Perils of Michael Moore”. Dissent; Spring 2003, Vol.50 Issue no.2, p.75, 6pp.
- R. A. Gaspar