Opinions

OPINION: Violence is embedded in American culture

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At the theater’s ticket booth recently, I asked the attendant if there were any movies without violence or profanity. With a blank stare, she responded weakly, “I’m not sure. Maybe the Disney one.”

“Tried it,” I said. “Too violent.”

Baby boomers like me were first introduced to violence through war movies and Westerns. But more graphic forms have been spoon-fed to succeeding generations in motion pictures, television, the internet, video games and, most recently, social media.

As kids we reenacted much of what we saw on the big screen. In summer, we created bows and arrows and slingshots from alder bushes. We made peashooters out of dried pushki weeds (cow parsnip). We had cap pistols and played cowboys and Indians. In winter, we built elaborate snow forts and engaged in protracted snowball fights.

The books we read as children had heroes and villains and themes of good against evil, as they do today. Most of the stories contained some level of violence, such as “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and “Aesop’s Fables.”

Our fathers were hunters and we were accustomed to guns in the house. After learning safety rules, I was given a .22 rifle at age 10.

Growing older, physically combative sports such as football, hockey, boxing and wrestling were a natural part of our lives, as they are today. Yet today, all of these sports seem to have become physically rougher.

The protagonist and antagonist lessons we learned as children strengthened the “them versus us” mentality that exists within most of us today.

I’m certainly no anthropologist, but it seems obvious that our innate proclivity toward violence allowed us, as primitive humans, to survive as we competed against others for food and shelter and dealt with other formidable challenges. And without this aggressive drive, civilization might not have endured the ravages of time. Certainly, our nation would never have prevailed in major world wars.

Unfortunately, we directed our penchant for violence and aggression toward the natural environment, acting to exploit resources rather than becoming stewards of them. Examples include the slaughter of buffalo on America’s Great Plains, overfishing our oceans and wantonly digging up the ground for valuable minerals.

But by the mid to late-20th century, it seems, we began to show signs of growing up, of evolving. We adopted measures to protect our natural environment and some of us became cognizant of our planet’s complex climatic balances. Wiser folks, such as the late architect Buckminster Fuller, likened our world to a space ship -- a precious vessel allowing us to survive in the cold vacuum of space.

Despite this increasing awareness about human’s impact on the Earth and its ecosystems, our predisposition to violence persists, supercharged by male testosterone, along with a deeply engrained “them versus us” worldview.

But having an idea about why we are the way we are isn’t enough. We know that for many reasons, some deeply troubled individuals cannot control their impulses and lash out at others. Their relatively easy access to deadly weapons of war have caused endless carnage and tragedy throughout our society, and it continues unabated.

As long as humans have walked this Earth, we have been conditioned to fight anyone or anything that threatens our existence. Otherwise, I doubt we’d be here today. But at some point in human development, and I hope it’s soon, we need to think about engaging in another epic struggle: a battle against our own violent nature.

Such a quest, of course, will be perceived by many as weakness, pacifism. Memories of Gandhi’s non-violent protests and Martin Luther King’s peaceful marches have faded. In the grand sweep of time, we are still deep in the woods with an obstructed view of ourselves. We are unable to clearly see our violent and destructive nature, let alone understand it.

But there is always room for hope. Some have ascended above the forest canopy and glimpsed the world that could be. The late astronomer Carl Sagan had that perspective. In his book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future,” he wrote about his request in 1990 to have NASA turn the camera of the Voyager 1 space probe backward for a photo of Earth as it left our solar system at a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

NASA agreed. In the photo the Earth is barely visible — only a pale blue dot. Referring to the photo, Sagan wrote: “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.”

Over time, fragments of truth inevitably emerge. It will take a lot of effort and even luck, but there is a chance that humans will someday learn to live in peace.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov posited that galactic civilizations refrained from destroying each other because they became economically interdependent through commerce.

Decades ago, perhaps Asimov came up with a road map for human survival: cooperation, interdependence. I like to think there is a possibility we’ll get there.

Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Frank Baker

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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