Blood, Guts, and Unsafe Art

A grieving father gets revenge on the two men that brutalized his daughter by murdering them and baking them into pies, which he then feeds to their mother. A man dying of cancer kidnaps a woman and forces her to escape a “reverse bear-trap” device before the timer runs down and her head is torn in half. One of these scenarios is from a Shakespearean tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1594). The other is a scene from the movie Saw (2005). It is widely thought that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus as a response to popular revenge tragedies of the era – namely those written by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. Revenge tragedies, usually based off classical Greek and Roman ideologies, usually contained a high level of bloodiness. The Saw franchise, and other films that fall into the sub-genre of “torture porn”, rose to popularity in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and provided a means for movie audiences to escape the violence and horror of the real world. 

Across centuries, Titus Andronicus and the films classified as “torture porn” are recognized as examples of unsafe art. These are pieces of an art form that are not identified as bringing anything deep and meaningful to the cultural conversation. Recalling an on-set conversation with the director Rob Zombie, an actor in the “torture porn” film The Devil’s Rejects remembers the moment of filming when he became deeply disturbed by the violent actions of his character and was hesitant about proceeding with the scene. Zombie pulled the actor aside and reminded him that “art is not safe.” The popularity of Titus Andronicus, and the rise of the horror sub-genre called “torture porn” in the 2000s, stand as examples that art is not always safe. Connected across centuries, these examples can show us that the world needs unsafe art. 

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To get started, we must establish the elements of a sub-genre. The sub-genre that is up for discussion is a direct offshoot of the horror genre known as the splatter film. Between 2003 and 2009, there was a resurgence of the 1970s original splatter film, with a very noticeable difference. The splatter films that were released following 9/11 lacked metaphor and depth. These films did not use horror as a platform for an existential conversation on humanity. 

Instead, these new films exploited and ante-up’d on the visceral gore and sexual exploitation. The film critic David Edelstein was the first to use the phrase “torture porn” to describe these new horror films. These films include gratuitous scenes of body mutilation and sadistic sexual violence. It is hard to say if these moments of gore and violence advance the plot because these moments are the plot. 

When juxtaposed against the rest of Shakespeare’s canon of tragedy – that include the well-known Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and MacbethTitus Andronicus is drowning in viscera and sexual deviance. Critics often refer to the play as “excessively bloody.” In the play’s first Act, “[…] Alarbus’ limbs are lopped / and entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (1.1 146-148). In the same scene, references are made to the consummation of a wedding bed. Act One finds itself layered in blood and dismembered body parts, as it celebrates royal marriage. There is no deep thematic reasoning behind this action, it is merely the plot of Act One, which also includes the title character killing his own son out of displeasure that his son does not respect the emperor of Rome. It is violence and blood for the sake of violence and blood. 

Titus Andronicus is a tragedy that ends with a mother consuming the dead flesh of her sons, in a pie that has been prepared by the title character as a means of revenge. Revenge for what? That is the grisly moment the play is famously known for – the rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Captured in the woods as a victim of another revenge plot, Lavinia is brutally sexually assaulted, and has both her hands and her tongue cut off so that she cannot identify her rapists. It’s a violent and gory moment in the play, and when performed with full effects can border on farce in its bloodiness and viscera. This is sexual violence and body mutilation for the sake of violence. The audience is forced to bear witness and becomes farther entrapped in the violence of the narrative. 

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The most famous films that make up the sub-genre called “torture porn” also exhibit moments of pure gore and violence. Much as the audience is trapped watching the horrific violence unfold on stage in Titus Andronicus, so are movie-goers forced to be tortured along with those on screen. In a final scene from Eli Roth’s Hostel, a character has her distended eyeball cut at the nerve with a pair of rusty scissors. Saw II sees a character fall into a pit of used hypodermic needs, another character dissolves her hand in a jar of acid. Meanwhile, the camera doesn’t look away, making the audience become both the victim and the torturer. 

What makes this qualify as art? Is it enough that both are textual examples of story – one a stage play and the other a film script? T.S. Eliot argued that Titus Andronicus was “one of the stupidest and uninspired” plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. While the Saw franchise has been called “crap” by various film critics and audience members. Yet, audiences still attend. Performances of Titus Andronicus were popular, and the tragedy “delighted audiences of the 1590s.” In his play Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson referred to Titus Andronicus as a “famous old crowd-pleaser.” The original Saw movie made 103.9 million dollars at the box office, and went on to become an eight-movie series. Hostel made 80.9 million dollars at the box office, and the sequel was even more over-the-top in its violence and sexuality. Does art always need an audience?

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While we can never definitively settle on a meaning of art, both Titus Andronicus and the “torture porn” movies of the 2000s pushed audiences beyond their comfort zones. In unsafe territory, these narratives of gore, violence, and sexuality allowed audience members to disengage from reality and become both a victim and a torturer. By making unsafe art, Shakespeare and the screenwriters of a horror sub-genre gave audiences a safe place to find escape into violence instead of continuing to run from it. And that might be the most cathartic art form of all. 

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Context Matters: Hatred for Trump Blinds the Media

President Trump is no stranger to verbal missteps and political “incorrectness.” One merely has to visit his twitter posts to encounter grade-school level name calling and unnecessarily unpresidential racial remarks. Usually, Trump puts his foot in his mouth entirely on his own, and rarely needs help from the media to showcase his lesser qualities.

So its interesting just how much “out of context” spinning the media has done today regarding Trumps comments on immigrants. Quick to jump on board an erroneous conclusion, media outlets claimed that Trump had referred to all illegal immigrants as “animals.” The media cruxifixction was rampant and quick, making comparisons between language used by the Nazi party in the 1930s to describe Jewish people as “vermin.” Pop culture news sites, like Vox, breezed over the context of the quote in order to paint a version of Trump that is unapologetically racist and volatile.

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While it is true that Trump has a past history of racially prejudice statements – “bad hombres” comes to mind – in the case of calling illegal immigrants animals, the context works in his favor. To be fair to Trump, he was most likely referring to a specific group of violent illegal immigrants called the MS-13.

Coming into the United States from the Mexican border, the MS-13 gang is known for gruesome acts of violence, from kidnapping to chopping up the bodies of rival gang members. Calling these types of criminals “animals”, is not a difficult comparison to make. However, the media’s insistence on attacking Trump and taking these words out of context has actually served to do the opposite of the media’s intent.

By wrongly attacking Trump as racist for calling immigrants “animals”, the media has helped to contribute to dehumanizing language. By generalizing Trump’s original statement and connecting the term “animals” to include a larger racial and cultural group, these misguided media outlets are solidifying this label. In this instance, it is the media, and not Trump, that are guilty of dehumanizing people. And that is dangerous.

Trump knows the power that the media can yield – why else would he be so adamant about “fake news”? And this out-of-context reporting by various outlets is no exception. It is the responsibility of the media to tread carefully. There is enough hate being promoted from the Trump presidency. Please do not fuel the hate.

Let’s get High: Legal Marijuana and the Fight for Arizona Schools

On Thursday, April 26th, the teachers in Arizona are planning a state-wide walkout. They have had enough of low pay, ignored support staff, and crumbling buildings. Their textbooks, and their classrooms, are falling apart. Currently, teachers in the state have seen a 12% decrease in pay over the last ten years. Every state-funded area has been funded to reach pre-recession levels. Except for education. So far, Governor Doug Ducey has done nothing more than throw out a lame attempt at a cease-fire. His compromise was met with increased derision. Locked in a game of chicken over the conditions of education in Arizona, the teachers prepare to strike. Legalizing the recreational use of marijuana might solve these problems. 

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Currently, the sales tax on legalized marijuana helps to fund public education in the states of California, Oregon, and Colorado (among others). In 2015, critics warned that Colorado was getting their hopes up that the sales tax from recreational marijuana use would make a difference in the problem areas of crumbling school buildings, teacher pay, and classroom materials. These same critics warned that Colorado was setting itself up for failure. 

Fast forward to 2017, when the state of Colorado saw $300 million put into improving and building new school buildings, since the sales tax system for marijuana was approved by voters in 2012. Teacher pay has also increased, and public education is able to expend resources to improve the academic environment for their students – especially in underserved rural communities. 

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But would this work in Arizona? Based on a data fact sheet, legalizing recreational marijuana might just be the answer that legislators are looking for to solve their problems. Essentially, legalizing and taxing marijuana would create those extra funds that Ducey cannot seem to find. According to this fact sheet, by 2019 around “$38 million would be available to be distributed to schools” with $69.6 million being available by 2020. Out of these projected numbers, 40% of the funds would go directly to school districts and charter schools. Based on these findings, Arizona would be looking at a financial gain from the sale of recreational marijuana in the state – despite what critics are saying. 

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The country waits and watches what will unfold this week in the state of Arizona. The teacher walkout is imminent and school districts are sending out letters and posting to social media, in an effort to warn parents of potential school closures. Governor Ducey will be forced to face the music of an educational shutdown. He may find a solution in a controversial recreational drug.

Glock Blocked: The NRA and the Fight Against Research on Gun Violence

In 2015, Congress quietly extended a ban on gun violence research following the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Lifting the ban would have allowed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to move forward in studying the underlying causes of gun violence. There is no lack of evidence that this study was blocked by the influence of NRA lobbyists. In 2012, President Obama lifted the ban, and ordered the CDC to “get back to work research gun violence in America”. Yet, the CDC did not jump to conduct research, as if someone (or some group) was keeping them from doing so. As the mass shootings continued to claim lives – of adults and children – the blocking of research into gun violence by the NRA is becoming a conflict of interest with the very American people that the gun-advocacy group claim to want to protect. 

America has a long history of blocking research on gun control and gun violence. This has lead to studies done on violence by the CDC that strongly omit the mention of statistics directly related to gun violence. As the protests calling for tighter gun control grow in volume, this omission becomes evidence of just how much pro-gun propaganda controls the information that we receive – alarming when this information is connected to the safety of children.

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The National Rifle Association (NRA) has built their philosophy around telling people that owning a gun will keep your family safe. To the NRA, gun ownership is the key to protecting the lives of people you love. A study in 1993 by the CDC changed all that when it found that owning a gun actually increased the chance of death within the home. Panicked, the NRA jumped to lobby for the passing of the Dickey Amendment. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, stopped the research into gun violence by slashing the budget the CDC spent on this type of research. 

For decades, the Dickey Amendment kept the truth about gun violence from gaining any research-based traction. Instead, people watched as news story after news story reported on the deaths that guns were causing – from domestic murders to massive school shootings. 

The absence of research from the CDC on gun violence has again become a popular focus of interest. The mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School and the March for Our Lives movement has caused many to point out that the Dickey Amendment doesn’t actually ban the CDC from conducting research on the causes and results of gun violence, only that the CDC cannot advocate for gun control. 

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This realization about the specifics of the decades-old Dickey Amendment begs the question: What is the NRA so afraid of? Common sense will tell you that the NRA is afraid the research into gun violence will speak for itself – that it is, in fact, the gun that kills people.  

Musings on Emma Gonzales and the Power of #NeverAgain

For almost six minutes on March 24th, Emma Gonzales stood straight and strong at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. Her decision to remain silent proved to be a powerful message to the world. In her silence, millions across the globe were able to feel the agony that her and fellow students at Stoneman Douglas High School felt as they waited at the mercy of a school shooter. As Gonzales stood strong and silent, the audience watching could see tears fall down her cheeks, the pain still raw from the shooting that took seventeen of her classmates in February 2018.

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Since Gonzales decided to join her fellow survivors as the #NeverAgain movement, she has become the visual figurehead for pro-NRA scapegoating. Since calling “B.S.” on gun advocates and lawmakers, she (along with other members of #NeverAgain) has received death threats. Adults have thrown public insults from right-wing television programs. A Maine politician resigned from his campaign after receiving backlash for calling Gonzales a “skinhead lesbian.” Yet, despite this hatred, Gonzales continues to spread the message of gun control and continues to encourage young people to show up at the polls.

Emma Gonzales and her resolve and persistence have not been able to end the voices of adults across social media. Each day, a new post or meme is shared that attempts to discredit her and the other teenagers leading the #NeverAgain movement. Blatantly photoshopped images of Gonzales ripping up the constitution have circulated at a massive rate, as those that support her rush to spread the truth. She has been called a “crisis actor” and a fraud. There are many adults that have become so used to dumb teenagers that eat Tide pods, that they are unable to process that smart teenagers still exist. Spoiler Alert: They do. And they are at the gates of the White House.

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The truth is that Emma Gonzales and her peers from Parkland, Florida are not typical teenagers. They did not receive the underpaid and unappreciated public education that millions of students across America receive. These particular students are in AP classes, and have been trained in speech and debate techniques since elementary school. Their teachers have prepared them to fight. They have been prepped to become leaders of this country. That they happened to be at the center of the most recent large-scale school shooting is a matter of coincidence. This coincidence might just change the world.

Sending Dangerous Messages to Kids: The Power of the Walk Up Movement

On March 14, 2018, kids across the country showed their solidarity with Stoneman Douglas High School students by walking out of school for 17 minutes. These 17 minutes symbolized the 17 lives lost in the school shooting that occurred in Parkland, Florida in February. According to USA Today, hundreds of students from 2,800 schools walked out at 10 a.m. on March 14th. These students ranged in age from elementary school to high school. The student leading this movement are quickly becoming the future of American leadership. They have the power to change what we have become. And they know it.

The Walk Out movement was not embraced by all. A teacher in Virginia, named Jodie Katsetos, posted an image that went viral. The Daily Beast reported on the image that Katsetos shares. Her image pushes for a movement called Walk UP not OUT. Counter to the school walkouts, the Walk UP movement encouraged students to stay in school and “walk UP to someone and JUST BE NICE.” This idea of Walking Up and not OUT soon went viral across social media platforms. On March 14th, several schools across the country shared images of their students walking up to others and working to stop bullying. Others on social media were quick to point out the dangers of the Walk Up movement. Not only was it too naive and simple a solution to a complex problem, but it worked to invalidate the students protesting by walking out of school. Invalidating the Walk OUT movement sends a message to the future leaders of our country that their voices are not powerful when, in fact, they are.

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As the Walk Up movement gained momentum, individuals on social media were quick to share their own stories of the reality of walking up to students and being nice. As a adults, it can sometimes be hard to remember the reality of social situations in junior and senior high school. We work hard in our later years to forget earlier memories of awkward cafeteria seating arrangements and being bullied by classmates. Luckily, there were adults on social media that reminded us.

One of the first to advocate against the Walk UP movement by sharing their own story was a writer for The Daily Beast. Mandy Velez recounts to her readers a story of walking up to one of the outcasts at her school. She was fifteen and the experience did not go as planned. The outcast student, a boy, asked her out. When Velez declined, he told her that he would shoot her. Various other posts on social media echo Velez and her story, proving that it is not as easy as it sounds to just spread kindness.

Another social media post shared the negative effects of the Walk Up movement from the opposite perspective: the outcast. This former student tells of an experience being “reverse bullied” by the student spreading kindness. Constantly, the “outcast” was asked if she would shoot up the school. The student working to be kind even asked if she would be spared “since I have been nice to you.” The former “outcast” ended her social media post by explaining that she was just a quiet kid with social anxiety and that she just wanted to be left alone. The author of the (now) viral post explains that the Walk UP movement towards kindness only was effective in heightening her social anxiety at school – not making her feel more welcome and comfortable.

Making students feel that they are directly responsible for school shootings based on how nice they act to their peers is not a healthy message to give to kids. Students must be reassured that school shootings occur because of various factors outside of their control, such as lax gun laws, mental health issues, and security around campus. It is entirely possible that students who do go out of their way to be kind to others may feel guilt following a school shooting because they have been told they have the power to stop it from happening. Studies already show that students that survive a shooting on their campus suffer from PTSD – we do not need to add levels of guilt to this.

One of the more dangerous factors that comes out of the Walk UP movement is that it invalidates the voices of students. As a result of increasing incidents of school shootings and gun violence on campus, students across the country are becoming more and more afraid for their safety while in school. Statistics say that they should be. However, the message that the Walk UP movement sends is one of silence: go back to class and be nice to students. Stop bullying and you won’t get shot. Students are not buying into this rhetoric as a viable solution to their fears.

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Students, and adults that support them, are calling the Walk UP not OUT movement what it is: a form of victim blaming. Glennon Doyle, author of Love Warrior, explains that the movement is “another way for [adults] to deflect responsibilities [and] it is not our children’s responsibility to protect themselves from gun violence. It is ours.” These students are taking a stand because they feel that they are not getting the support that they need from adults. By victim blaming, the movement started by Katsetos is only fueling their anger at adults. Can we blame them?

Malcolm Gladwell Explores a Theory on School Shootings

In 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Thresholds of Violence”. In his article, Gladwell explored the motivations behind school shooters – using his trademark combination of interviews, data, and psychological theory. Gladwell is a renowned journalist, popular for the insights he brings to issues of the social sciences. This article is not the first time that he has explored topics of social psychology ahead of current events. In his book Blink (2005), Gladwell explored the mistakes that police officers can make when they are in the heat of the chase. As we know from the current Black Lives Matter movement, these mistakes can often have very controversial and tragic ends.

It is fitting to revisit Gladwell’s article in 2018, as the students of Parkland, FL have begun a massive movement to change the gun laws that are to blame for the epidemic of school shootings that occur in America. These driven teenagers are angry. Why shouldn’t they be? But as the marches and school walkouts sweep the nation, there is still an ongoing debate revolving around the cause of these mass shootings. Malcolm Gladwell had a theory on what was behind the motivation of these killers – and he shared that theory with the world more than 3 years ago.

Gladwell pads his article with massive emotional appeal, laying out the psychology of the issue using the power of storytelling. In this piece, Gladwell is telling his audience the story of John LaDue, a seventeen-year-old kid from Minnesota who almost became a school shooter. Gladwell isn’t interested in how police were able to stop this event from occurring, instead he is fascinated with the motivation that drove LaDue to the point of murdering his fellow students.

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LaDue tells police officers in his formal interview that he “just wanted as many victims as possible.” As a motivating factor for murder, it is a pretty weak one. Gladwell seems to find it weak as well, and probes deeper to find a more substantial reason that LaDue wanted to murder, not only his classmates, but also his own family. In the interest of hooking into the emotions of his readers, Gladwell stops LaDue’s narrative for a moment to review the painful history of American school shootings.

There are a lot of school shooting incidents to offer up as evidence that this issue has become a major problem for Americans. Tragically, since this article was published in 2015, there are many more incidents of school shootings that Gladwell can add to his list. According to Gladwell, “since Sandy Hook, there have been more than one hundred and forty school shootings in the United States.” Sandy Hook occurred in 2012. These statistics hit the reader hard. They are supposed to.

One of the elements of school shootings that Gladwell’s article aims to explore regarding this “modern phenomenon” is that the shooters do not appear to fit into any pattern. This is a problem because it makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to prevent school shootings. Gladwell provides narrative evidence of this puzzle by showcasing the individual backgrounds of various shooters – some were the products of “chaotic home life,” while others “had not been traumatized.” He mentions that Eric Harris, the mastermind behind the massacre at Columbine High School, was a “classic psychopath” that was able to manipulate and fool everyone around him. At the conclusion of this psychological survey of school shooters, Gladwell returns his audience to the story of LaDue. LaDue also does not fit any profile that law enforcement and professional criminal psychologists have created to explain school shooters.

It is here that Gladwell finally presents his social psychology theory on school shooters to his audience. He has effectively reached readers and connected to them on an emotional level. It is time for some logical reasoning and social science.

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Gladwell carefully unfolds a decades-old theory for his readers. This theory, developed by Stanford scientist Mark Granovetter, seeks to explain “a person or group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are and what they think is right.” Gladwell sees an instant connection between this phenomenon and the school shooters of modern America. He acknowledges that Granovetter’s theory was an attempt to explain riots – but that it can be adapted and brought into the future.

The key element of Granovetter’s theory about riots is that it diverged from the popular (at the time) idea that the motivation to join a riot occurred on an individual level. Unlike others that believed individuals altered their personalities while in the moment, Granovetter saw riots as “a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around him.” This theory hinges on another social science theory – the threshold. Gladwell explains that Granovetter described the concept of thresholds as “the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.” Gladwell continues to explain that thresholds build on each other in levels, until the group becomes so large that it pulls in more and more individuals that would have never even conceived of joining the group.

This is a very powerful theory. As the reader begins to see how Gladwell connects it to the puzzle of school shooters, a figurative lightbulb begins to turn on. The implication that these acts of group violence (riots) can grow and evolve means that “they have depth and length and a history.” Something that is becoming true of school shootings in America. Gladwell argues that this theory of thresholds and riots can be effectively applied to seeing school shootings as “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot” that seems to have no end in sight.

After explaining and evolving Granovetter’s theory on riots and making his powerful hypothesis that this theory could explain school shootings, Gladwell brings the reader back to Columbine High School in 1999. Gladwell quotes another social psychologist, Ralph Larkin, to argue that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – the two Columbine shooters – “laid down the ‘cultural script’ for the next generation of shooters.” It is a powerful observation, and something that a reader can validate by turning on the news in 2018. Gladwell uses statistical facts to support Larkin’s argument. There is no denying that the majority of school shooters that were interviewed after Columbine cited Harris and Klebold as heroes.

Gladwell returns to the narrative of LaDue, the wannabe school shooter that was arrested before he was able to carry out mass murder. To Gladwell, LaDue fits the profile of a “high threshold” individual – based on Granovetter’s theory. LaDue was pulled into the phenomenon of school shootings, but lacked the “lower threshold” personality that was required to actually follow through. This saved lives only because the police arrested him in time. There is no way to know if LaDue would have gone through with his plans.

Gladwell ends his explorative argument by observing that “the problem [with American school shooters] is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts.” Gladwell tells us that it is worse because “young men no longer need to be disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.” It is entirely possible that the future safety of America’s schoolchildren lies in the exploration of Granovetter’s threshold theory.