I have been at a loss for words. At first, my blogosphere silence was caused by wrapping up a semester of teaching, research, and service. I figured I would just wait until December 31 and write an anniversary post (Creative Infrastructure will be two years old on that day). Then Newtown happened and I was silenced by shock, sadness, and anger. I was reminded that one of my earliest CI posts was a blank page, a “moment of silence,” for the Tuscon shootings, which occurred January 8, 2011. Moments of silence and the tolling of bells are respectful initial responses. Thoughtful action is a respectful second response. I am sorry that I did not actively respond after Tuscon (although I did engage my state legislator in some “discourse” on the topic of guns on campus – discourse that made its way, in part, into the Huffington Post). Thoughtful action requires preparation, learning, and of course, thought. What I have been thinking about is the role of the arts not only in healing but in prevention, the preservation of freedom (especially the freedom of speech), and policy.
When I first heard of the tragedy, I was stopped in my tracks. I took a breath and then posted the following on facebook:
We must rein in this country’s worship of guns and of violence, we must provide mental health services with compassion, we must support public schools, neighbors, and neighborhoods. We must move from a culture of fear to a culture of love and empathy.
The arts have a unique capacity – and now, I think, a duty – to build that culture of love and empathy. Neurologists find a connection between specific neurons called mirror neurons and empathy (see VS Rmachandran’s talk on the subject) and further between certain types of live performance (theatre, dance) and the firing of mirror neurons. Watching theatre and watching dance can cause individuals to adopt the point of view of others empathically. Doing so can build our ability to see the world from the perspective of others. If Adam Lanza had had the capacity to see the world through the eyes of an innocent six-year old, perhaps he would not have killed 20 of them. Perhaps that is pushing the idea beyond credulity, but if we can empathize with others, with “the other,” how many of our social problems could be addressed differently? Gun control, immigration, access to healthcare, could be addressed with compassion and not just cost/benefit analyses.
Gun enthusiasts, and even gun makers, often use “freedom” as both a mantra and a brand (the manufacturer of the gun that Adam Lanza used is called “The Freedom Group”). The arts community needs to tread carefully around the question of freedom and do all it can to preserve it. While the second amendment provides the “freedom” to bear arms, it is the first amendment more than anything else that enables arts and culture in this country: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…. On the Sunday following the shootings, President Obama made a televised speech at the Newtown memorial that interrupted the Sunday night football broadcast. The twitterverse lit up with vitriolic hate speech describing our democratically elected president with the worst kind of racial epithets for privileging sympathy over football, a game, I note, based on war strategy. Several people suggested twitter remove the hate speech, to which I say NO! Censorship cannot be the answer. Once we go down that road, we have not only an armed state, but an armed state that censors speech. Instead, let the arts lift up the haters and help them to find the love and empathy we need to heal. It is not only an issue of racism toward our first non-white president, it is an issue of a culture that worships violence in the movies and on the playing field. Having just expressed my absolute refusal to censor, what to do about it? Offer alternatives. Offer concerts and performances that are as much fun. Offer films that celebrate the human spirit rather than crush it. Support sports that are not about violent combat, but are instead about finding home (OK, my baseball worship shows up here).
Finally, policy. Something must be done to curb the easy access to guns and to open easier access to mental health services. As artists we can deliver content that makes this point, but as individuals we can contact our elected officials, attend community meetings, volunteer at clinics, organize educational forums about gun violence and always remember to vote.
Or, we can continue in silence, forever at a loss for words.