What I think about what happened in Colorado

I guess living in America (and when I say America, I mean the United States) you get used to a few things: presidential elections every four years, a media that specializes in “infotainment”, and mass murder.

Statistically speaking, the U.S. is a pretty violent place to live.

There was a mass shooting in Colorado five days ago.

The shooting suspect, James Holmes, is accused of killing 12 people and wounding more than 70 others.

It’s pretty easy to become jaded about things like this (to dismiss this as just one more crackpot on another killing spree) or to make light of the situation by cracking jokes about the color of James Holmes’ hair or whatever else we can laugh at from afar. But, as a human with a family of my own and people who I care about (not to mention caring for my own safety), I am horrified by the actions of an individual who, for whatever reason, decided to take the lives of innocent people. As an American, I am saddened by the realization that along with the shock and horror, inevitably will come the media with their vulture-like fascination with all things violent and tragic. But, as a philosopher, I am left to wonder why philosophers are so silent (or have been silenced) in the media?

Let me get this straight; I don’t want to throw my two cents in just because everyone else has something to say about what happened. There’s enough speculation and entertainment-izing of this tragedy going on as it is. But when every news show, entertainment program and blogger has either thrown in his or her “this is what I think happened”, with an unending que of guests, therapists, and experts ready and more than willing to explain their version of the what and why behind James Holmes’ act (most of these guests are tangentially connected to the event — at best),  I am left to wonder, if the actor Stephen Baldwin is acceptable enough to go on Headline News’ Showbiz Tonight to talk about James Holmes’ act, why wouldn’t a philosopher be welcome on any media program as well?

I can’t be the only person who has noticed this.

After all, are philosophers not qualified to discuss matters of ethics? Certainly we would place a moral value on what James Holmes did. If we say that what he did is wrong, why would we not trust a philosopher to explain why we feel that it is? Again, I ask, are philosophers not qualified to discuss the morality of violent cinema or gun control? Are philosophers not capable or qualified to discuss the ethics of how we treat the mentally ill, punishment and retribution or the death penalty? Certainly, if there is any time when we should look to philosophers, shouldn’t that time be now?

Is there not one ethicist that the media can talk to?

I suppose not.

Instead of philosophers, we get this:


2 thoughts on “What I think about what happened in Colorado

  1. There actually seems to be two problems here:

    The mass media doesn’t see a serious debate about the nature of violence in American society, the legal, constitutional and ethical positions of gun control or the triggers which lead to such acts of mass murder has winners in the ratings war. It is much easier to sensationalise events, concentrate on the death toll, interview victims and their families and wheel in psychologists and psychiatrists to speculate about the mental state of the perpetrator than it is to have a serious discussion.

    The second problem is one for philosophers and philosophy, there simple aren’t any philosophers in the United States that are capable of producing the kind of commentary which news producers are looking for and to be blunt they aren’t any philosophers that are seen to be interesting enough by news producers to be included in mainstream news broadcasts. Perhaps the question should be, why aren’t philosophers or philosophy relevant to the mainstream news agenda?

    You are absolutely correct in identifying mainstream television news as “infotainment”, news divisions are competing for ratings and advertising dollars along with every other form of media, even PBS have caught up in this. I’ve noticed even with the coverage of the banking and Eurozone crisis a reluctance on the part of news providers to actually have academic expert opinion, they would rather to talk to an economic analyst from the banking sector and talk about the impact on the markets than engage with substantive matters. Some will immediately rush to blame a culture of American anti-intellectualism in the media, however, I fear this really has more to do with commercial considerations. Ratings win out over everything and debate, discussion and informing the public come a very poor second.

  2. i absolutely agree with you, Ian. You caught something that I was thinking but did not mention, namely, that philosophers (tend to) lack “star” quality. That is, the nature of philosophy (emphasis of reason over passion, cogent arguments, etc) makes it difficult to sensationalize a philosopher’s argument.
    Let’s face facts: there is another reason why philosophers are not the first choice of news producers — many academics are not photogenic. The media is about the image, and a person who looks… well… like an academic, is not going to be the first choice if a celebrity is available — even if that celebrity absolutely is no expertise on the topic. If philosophers looked less like Peter Singer and Daniel Dennett and more like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie I would bet that philosophers would be called on more.

    And if such a philosopher could pull in ratings… that would be much better for the media.

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