For Lack of a Because
Violence in movies is not the problem. Violent stories are as old as fiction. Likewise, the realism of cinema and video games may be new, but in prior eras people didn’t need the visual aids. The livestock bled when slaughtered; the forest road was menacing in a way that needed no symphonic score.
The problem isn’t even that the Dark Knight’s Joker had a point. The forces of darkness have had a point since the snake in the garden. Human beings are flawed; Creation can be brutal.
The problem is that the knights no longer have a because.
In a 1996 essay titled “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” Tom Wolfe summarized Friedrich Nietzsche’s prediction a century earlier that a society of Godless people, in Wolfe’s paraphrase, “would loathe not only one another but themselves.” As a result, the coming generations would see “wars catastrophic beyond all imagining.” The human need that God once filled would be inflated with the less transcendent, more manipulable meaning supplied by factions and nationalism.
Surface quickly from these depths to Batman. The justification for Bruce Wayne’s superhero persona was, essentially, that his vision for humanity was better than the degraded society that crime begets. Heath Ledger’s Joker casts the battle as one between chaos and order. And he has a point in that the difference is largely aesthetic in their world.
As religion has faded, Western civilization has striven to maintain its fumes and hold back the darkness with a vague sense of a human community. Batman has faith in the people of Gotham. That is his community — indeed, readers would be hard-pressed to separate the two — and he is bound to it as part of his identity.
Ay, there’s the rub.
For all the analysis already set to drift in the public reflecting pool, the matter of the Aurora killer’s field of study has yet to find its candle. Is it too terrible a thought to mention? Neuroscience.
The self, as even passive recipients of science news may have heard by now, is mere illusion — a narrative that the sparks of the brain generate in order to organize the stimuli of life. If that’s the truth, then a question naturally arises: What community can Gotham be if Bruce Wayne himself is not?
There is an answer to the riddle. The peculiarity of this era’s philosophical battle is that investigation of the universe has fostered a mechanistic view as oversimplified as any attributed to the rigid theologians of yore. The materialists make a model and call it reality. “My two dimensions are sufficient; yours are a comforting illusion.”
Evolution, that venerable old god-killer, is a process of stimuli’s effects on the malleable medium of life, but the stimuli must come from elsewhere. Perhaps neuroscience will map the processes of the evolved brain into a fine and useful model, but promoting that model as more than a limited sketch will be a potentially cataclysmic experiment in how the social minds — real human beings in four-dimensional action — respond to the stimulus of finding themselves to be fiction.
The problem is that scientists have a narrow species of imagination and are insufficiently careful about propounding on their findings. The problem is that philosophy has become a sadomasochistic litany of narcissistic poses. The problem is that storytellers have seduced themselves with the quick fixes of sex and violence, and what philosophy they have, they lift from the philosophers’ bloody bed because the stickiness has the tactile sensation of an intelligence they lack. And the problem is that plenty stand to profit, in government and business and society, by this degradation.
The nihilistic killer in Colorado may prove not to have thought of himself as acting from the conclusions attributed to neuroscience, or any conclusions at all. To be sure, we see in him most markedly a metastasized mental illness.
Nonetheless, we should take the lesson. Evil will find its lever, and it is no less monstrous when accomplished through normal and natural biological processes. While chemical imbalances may provide the mechanism by which an idea becomes horrific action in an individual, sustained moral decline requires the idea partly to be, “Why not?”
Human society evolved to its present state on the strength of our heroes’ because. When even the men who shielded their dates and died on that terrible movie night are explained away as acting from biological necessity, it may not be long before the decision whether to murder or to protect comes down to the toss of a mad culture’s coin.