Last night on the local news, I heard a brief interview with a very articulate woman who works for a domestic abuse shelter. In commenting on the current swirl of media attention and the larger societal conversation about domestic violence brought on by the now infamous elevator video of Ray Rice and his then fiancé, she said she hoped this discussion was not just a moment in time, but that it might be the beginning of a long and focused movement that would reduce the tragic and violent incidence of domestic violence.
I hope she’s right. Really, I do. With her, I hope that domestic violence’s current place at center stage might move us forward not just in conversation, but in a broad change of behavior.
Still, I’m not optimistic that it will happen. We’re still not willing to have the more fundamental conversation about the paradoxical truth that we are a culture that at the same time glorifies violence and decries it. And as long as we want it both ways, we won’t make significant progress in curbing its tragic effects.
The NFL earns billions of dollars putting on a weekly gladiatorial spectacle. Huge, iron-strong men go flying at each other. The more violent the hit, the louder the cheers. Those men train for years to get to that pinnacle of their violent sport where they are paid lots of money to play a very violent game that people love to watch. We knew from experience that the culture within the NFL encourages uber-violence. Remember the scandal of the New Orleans Saints a few years ago, when it became public that bonuses were paid to a player who knocked an opposing player out of the game? And then we’re somehow surprised when some of the players — many of whom grew up surrounded by the very societal violence that we seem powerless to change — are not able to make a clean separation between the violence on the field and their life off the field. Let me be clear: I’m not defending or excusing their off-the field violence. It’s deplorable. I’m just suggesting that it’s all connected. And we somehow seem to want it both ways.
Similarly, we are justifiably outraged and heartbroken when someone takes a large capacity automatic weapon into a school or a movie theater or a grocery store parking lot and opens fire. We can’t seem to figure out why someone would do that or how it can happen so often. Yet this is the same culture that is hellbent on preserving a dubious constitutional right to own military type guns that are manufactured for no other purpose than to kill people, to kill lots of them quickly and efficiently. And when a very few individuals are overcome with anger at society in general or act out of their own pain or mental illness, we are shocked and outraged. And when certain parts of our cities are war zones with innocents commonly caught in the crossfires, we wonder how this can happen. For a few days, we express our moral outrage. All I’m suggesting is that it’s all connected. And we somehow seem to want it both ways.
Once again in the Middle East a new threat has risen that wants to impose its will with guns and bombs and tanks. I grant that this new threat is particularly violent and barbaric. Any rules about ethical engagement in war (if there is such a thing) and the protection of the innocent and civilian, seem totally to be ignored. We justifiably deplore their action.
At the same time, for much of my adult life, we have been trying to impose our national will in the Middle East with guns and bombs and tanks and soldiers on the ground. I still remember that summer evening in August 1990 when I was at church with my two young sons and I heard the news that we had begun bombing Iraq. I had just celebrated my 31st birthday. I’m now 54 and last week we began another initiative to drop bombs in the Middle East. We’ve been doing that for most of the intervening years. We are outraged when someone else drops bombs for their cause, when someone else kills innocents; but when we do it, we are able pretty easily able to make a case for why it’s necessary. All I’m suggesting is that it’s all connected and we somehow seem to want it both ways.
So, I’ll join you in outrage at the incidence of domestic violence in the NFL, and I’ll nod my head when you suggest that the league has been slow at best in responding appropriately. I will stand behind you supporting the notion that these players should be held fully accountable for their actions.
But if you want things really to begin to change, then look in the mirror. We’re all complicit. We both glorify violence and decry it. We can’t have it both ways. See, it’s all connected.