Dorner, Django, and the Tremendous Responsibility of the Artist

A theme fairly common to modern-day cinema is that of revenge.  Our hero was happy and everything was perfect.  Everything is taken away from him.  Battered and bleeding, he embarks on a righteous crusade for payback.

We love this sort of thing in our culture.  It makes us pump our fists and feel vindicated.  We might jump a little bit as our hero kills the antagonist in cold blood, but then we cheer.  “Justice” has been done and we get to watch it all happen in a two hour, nicely produced package.  We love this type of fantasy in film and books and we leave the living room or the theater feeling charged up and we hold our heads up high.

It looks different in real life than in fantasy.  Or perhaps not, for all of the same elements are there, only with real consequences.  For revenge is not justice, but rather a perversion of it.

In real life, the Hollywood revenge story looks uglier.  It looks like Christopher Dorner, a cop-killer and a 4-time murderer who was recently all over the news.  Citing vague notions of racism and corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, he decided that it was his moral obligation to blow the brains out of innocent men and women as they sat unsuspecting in their homes.

What is perhaps even more disturbing than his actions was the support that he garnered.  “Dorner Supporters” held protests near police stations, news outlets discussed the merits of his agenda, and many people brushed aside the bloodshed and justified the deranged and evil actions of this serial killer.  That is what he was.  Not a vigilante, not a crusader, but a serial killer.

If you type “modern day Django” into google, the first page is filled with results referring to Dorner. He’s been called a hero on the news.  ABC wrote an article entitled “Did Dorner Have Legitimate Complaints against the LAPD?”  All over the news, journalists were saying that he had a point, and the implication was that it’s an ugly business what he did, but it might have been necessary.

Oh, and forget about the families of the four innocent people who lie dead (only two of which were police officers and none of which worked for the LAPD).

And we continue to watch revenge cinema.  I intend in no way to excuse this man’s actions, for his choices were his own, but do you suppose that Dorner hadn’t seen films like “The Punisher” and “Django Unchained” and many, many others?  Those movies didn’t make him a killer, but they may have given him ideas, given him justification in his own mind.

Culture is ruled by narrative.  We remember stories we’ve been told, films we’ve seen, books we’ve read, songs we’ve listened to, and we accept their premises after repeated, conscious exposure.  Our brains like to build heuristics to handle life.  We like to treat each situation as the variables that complete our pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank worksheet.  Insert “LAPD” for evil racists who will get what’s coming to them, insert “Dorner” for wronged black man on a quest for vengeance, and we’re done.  No problems here.  (Never mind the fact that Emada Tingirides, a black, female sergeant in the LAPD, came out to passionately deny the presence of racism in the department.)  We fit situations into the fantasies that we’ve accepted.

I’m not condemning stories.  I’m not condemning film.  I’m not even condemning man’s practice of filling in the blank.  What I am saying is that this is the reality of how things work.  If movies, books, music, video games, etc. can shape our cultural narrative, shouldn’t we write them with fear and trembling?  Should not we be extremely purposeful in the messages that we purvey?

Artists have a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders.  It is often ignored, but it exists none the less.  What sorts of stories are we telling?  What is the moral?  For there is always a moral- intended or not.

The sad truth is that even if Dorner’s claims were true, it would still be horrifically wrong for him to do the things that he has done.  Yet that is not the way most people see it at first glance.  Our cultural narrative endorses revenge, which is one of the ugliest vices of man.  What if our stories, our narratives, endorsed forgiveness?  What if they endorsed patiently pursuing justice the right way?  What if our stories weren’t so self-focused?  I think the world would be a different place today.

Writers, musicians, editors, filmmakers, painters, actors, directors, and the rest of you, we have a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.  If not a responsibility, then at least an influence, and we should take tremendous care in what we do with it.  People want their lives to fit into a story, so let’s give them a good one.

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