The death of reality
On the second day of international media coverage after a gunman killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Australia last year, Dr. Park Deitz, the FBI's leading consultant on mass murder, told the London Times that tv coverage of a similiar tragedy in Dunblane, Scotland probably inspired this mass murder in Tasmania. Deitz figured that the Port Arthur killer realised "this man (the Dunblane killer) had a tremendous impact on the whole nation...he probably thought to himself 'I am as powerful as he is. The world need to know my suffering and feel my rage.'"
In Canada, Macleans's magazine reported recently that "in the 1990s the tenor of the TV debate has taken on a dark new tone...much of the concern - fueled by a spate of gruesome, lethal crimes by mere children - revolves around TV violence." And in America, best-selling author John Grisham created a furore a year ago when he accused the Oliver Stone movie Natural Born Killers of directly triggering the fatal murder of a 58-year old man.
Worry about the deleterious effect of violent films, videos and video games -and indeed, even the electronic news - does seem to be growing. Yet our difficulty, perhaps, lies in our considering violent make believe only in isolation from the rest of the illusion saturating our lives.
Our lingering disquiet, in the wake of Dunblane and Port Arthur, may lie in the fact that these tragedies, like terrorist attacks, are not only acts of violence, but also acts of performance - for the world audience. The men who made small towns in Scotland and Tasmania household names round the world for a few weeks are killers, yes, but also, appallingly, actors and stars. Through a single well-calculated act, an ordinary member of the world audience can take global centre-stage; grasp Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. And thereby rival the greatest celebrities.
The simple fact is that little more than a century ago, most people rarely watched plays. When they did it was a big event in their lives. Nowadays, we are utterly saturated with recreational and commercial make believe. Through technology, entertainment of all kinds - including the news, lately called infotainment - is available to us around the clock. This illusion epidemic has caught us unawares - and is creating problems and challenges for which we are unprepared.
The English drama theoretician and BBC producer Martin Esslin has suggested that the exponential increase in the usage of what he calls dramatic communications in modern societies constitutes the most important social revolution since Gutenberg introduced the printing press. Certainly, the fact that each of us consumes a far heavier diet of illusion than our ancestors did is rarely discussed.
What is the effect upon human beings of massive, continuous and ever more powerfully realistic doses of make believe? My observation is that saturation levels of fiction tend to turn audiences into actors in everyday life.
The aim of entertainment is to have us voluntarily suspend our disbelief and make us imaginatively identify with some part of the action. Traditionally, the closing of the curtains and the raising of the lights served as an effective enough signal to audiences that the time had come to return to their own reality.
Nowadays, the enormous increase in the sheer quantity of performed make believe is inevitably causing us to carry bits of the illusions we watch back into our own lives and behaviour. Filmmaker George Miller, of Mad Max and Babe fame, observes: "As a practicing storyteller, I could hardly fail to observe that movies and and TV impinge on behavior...if movies and television influence the way we talk, the way we move, the way we play as children, how can we also say it doesn't affect our behavior at a moral or cognitive level?" Obviously the degree to which different people are affected at different times varies. We may become caught up in a particular trend in dress - and notice we have done so. Or we may thoroughly immerse ourselves in, for example, the Rocky Horror Picture Show cult. Most of our identifications most of the time are harmless enough in themselves. The problem lies in the fact that we are probably affected much more often and more deeply than we know.
Definitely, the incessant volume of all too readily available illusion in our society clearly triggers uncontrollable effects in some people - and not only violence. For the rest of us, the effect upon us is not least that our perceptions are often warped - illusion and reality blur together. When Ronald Reagan was shot early in his presidency, the first reaction of one of his aides was to want to see the replay. Following the Port Arthur massacre, survivors reported that at one and the same moment people were dying from the gunman’s bullets, running for their lives and laughing because they thought the whole thing was some kind of show put on for their entertainment.
Entertainment has become the latest and greatest drug of choice. Audiences now pop the illusion tablet with hardly a second thought, many times a day. Just imagine the ancient Greeks watching their tragedies and comedies everyday, all day, throughout the year.
At key historical moments, societies wake up to destructive or self-destructive practices and begin the long and arduous task of reversing the damage. Cigarette smoking, racial prejudice and vilification and child abuse are recent examples. It’s time now to take a good hard look at the illusion industry’s open slather, which, unnoticed, has been disintegrating individuals and society alike.
This article appeared in Adbusters Quarterly, Autumn 1997.