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Doing Nothing Is a Copout

The enemy of progress is perfection.

Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles, as paraphrased in the LA Times, 7/1/01


From the LA Times, 5/23/99:

Don't Use Task's Enormity as an Excuse to Do Nothing

School Violence: Crisis-prepared cultures see the big picture but take smaller, specific steps to address the problem.


Tragically, the recent epidemic of school shootings follows the same general pattern of public and expert reaction that is found in virtually all major crises. If we could better understand and accept this pattern, we could take more appropriate actions to lower the potential for future tragedies.

First of all, there is never a single factor that is solely responsible for any crisis. Not only is there more than enough blame to go around, but the very act of blaming is itself a substantial contributing factor to the crisis.

Second it is not possible to measure the exact contribution of any single factor in a given crisis. This lack of precise determination is a major contributing factor to a crisis. Taking for example the crisis we now face regarding school violence, a 30-year stream of research in the social sciences has shown rather convincingly that the repeated exposure of children to violent TV shows and films is correlated positively with the increased aggressiveness of children. However, by itself the exposure to violent material does not case real world violence.

Nonetheless, the correlations are not zero, which if they were would indicate no relationship. Instead, they are typically in the range of 0.3 to 0.5. Thus, while we cannot say that simulated violence causes real world violence, it is a contributing factor. Ignoring this fact only exacerbates the problem by having us believe that there is nothing effective that we can do.

Third, we have constructed, both intentionally and unintentionally, a complex society that makes it virtually impossible to determine how much each factor contributes exactly to school violence. We don't even know the number of factors, since they are continually changing and new factors come into play daily. If we insist upon exact knowledge before we act, this is nothing but a convenient ploy for never doing anything. It is also an excuse for each contributing factor to wiggle its way out of assuming its fair portion of responsibility. Each can argue—as for example Hollywood has recently—that other factors are more responsible than we are for the tragedies or that we are merely a convenient whipping-boy, etc.

Fourth, the system has properties that none of the separate parts do, and the interactions between the factors are just as important—often more important—than their independent properties. For example, from the standpoint of the whole system, it is easy to see that we have constructed one that amplifies violence. All of the factors reinforce one another so that the case is far worse than if merely one or two of them existed separately. The exact contribution of each of the separate elements is irrelevant. Taking again the example of school violence, it is easy to see that in a society with 220 million guns—plus or minus 20 million—all that counts is the large available pool of guns, which almost ensures their easy accessibility to all. Does it matter that a child is killed with a gun that was obtained from a criminal or a law-abiding citizen?

From my experience in studying crises of all kinds in both the public and private sectors, I have learned that the organizations best prepared for a crisis do not waste time and resources trying to determine the exact contribution of any particular factor. Once they have identified a factor as a potential contributor—which means they are willing to settle for rough, approximate measures—they ask what they can do to attack the factor as aggressively as they can given their available resources.

In short, responsible organizations act as if they were faced with heart disease. Can one imagine the hue and cry, if as a society, we said that the fact that no one factor is solely responsible for heart disease means that we should not take action?

Throughout the Littleton, Colo., and other such tragedies, we have been constantly reminded that the problem is complex, that we need to understand all the factors and how they interact before we take action. That's true. But we can apply what we have learned about crisis management to the current mess we face.

And if crisis management has one central lesson to teach, it is that the general culture of an organization or society—the major, taken-for-granted background assumptions—are the keys to whether it acts aggressively or not. Crisis-prone cultures are full of rationalizations, denial and blame. Crisis-prepared cultures not only see the big picture—the whole system—but they attempt to do the best they can regarding all the factors individually or together. They do not use the enormity of the task as an excuse for evading their moral responsibility to do what is humanly possible.

Ian I. Mitroff is a professor in the Marshall School of Business at USC and the former director of USC's Center for Crisis Management.

As Mitroff noted, he's using school violence as an example. The same thinking applies to adult shootings, education reform, energy shortages, AIDS, poverty, world hunger, or global warming. With problems that are large, complex, and diffuse, no one will hand you an envelope and say, "What's written inside will solve the problem." Many factors contribute to such problems, so to address them, we must tackle the factors without perfect information now.

Violence everywhere = do nothing?
Regarding media violence, movie producer Irwin Winkler offered the typical Hollywood excuses that amounted to "other factors are more responsible than we are for the tragedies" or "we are merely a convenient whipping-boy, etc." A few letters to the editor neatly dismissed Winkler's views. From the LA Times, 5/4/99:

I wanted to respond to the quote by Irwin Winkler ("Hollywood: Ground Zero," May 1) in which he says "We're living with [violence] all around us" and "The easiest thing is to target one group and say the entertainment industry is filling our airwaves with all this garbage when it's really all around us in every possible form."

I think that Mr. Winkler is really overlooking the fact that many people don't have any direct contact or exposure to violence in their whole life, aside from the images that one is exposed to in the media. I seriously doubt that, aside from the violence that they saw in the movies, on TV and on video games, the boys who slaughtered those people in Littleton, Colo., would have ever conceived of that kind of violence or would have ever lived with that kind of violence "all around" them.

Los Angeles

Irwin Winkler's defensive comment begs a reality check. Surely Mr. Winkler must realize that "it's really all around us in every possible form" precisely because of the entertainment industry.

Redondo Beach

It seems the majority of media spokespersons are quick to excuse violence in their product, saying "it's all around us." Then I look at the pop music charts and see that Andrea Bocelli has the No. 1 album in Southern California for at least the second week, proving there is a market for nonviolent entertainment.

It's time to stop blaming everyone and everything else for the present violence-tolerant climate. All adults must shoulder a responsibility toward the health of the generations following us. More important than laws or money spent on younger people is the time we spend with them, exposing them to activities and experiences that will mold their lives more than material goods or hours spent in front of today's TV and movies. When different media have the quality to contribute to this nurturing, they should be part of the moral environment every one of us must work to develop for all America's children.


In other words, buy good comics like PEACE PARTY instead of bad comics like THE PUNISHER. <g>

The easiest thing to do
One more point. Winkler said the easiest thing is to target one group. No, the easiest thing is to utter a few vacuous sentences targeting no groups, then go home to your million-dollar mansion and plot your next multimillion-dollar movie that will inculcate cultural values in millions of viewers. To use myself as a counterexample, I'm not only pointing fingers at people, I'm also creating a permanent archive of information on my website and publishing fiction I hope will make a difference. What's Winkler doing to solve the problem he acknowledges?

To be fair, he's made some good movies: Rocky, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff, and Goodfellas. But even here we see an interesting pattern. All these movies embody a macho sensibility. They tell us that being tough, strong, and violent is the way to deal with life. None suggest being small, sweet, or sensitive (a la Snow White or Dorothy of Oz) as a model to emulate.

Consider Rocky. Rocky Balboa wants to keep fighting and his girlfriend Adrian wants him to stop. Guess whose view carries the day. "Yo, Adrian, I'm gonna keep pounding my head against their fists until I'm too brain-damaged to continue."

That's pure Americana—what other country makes so many boxing movies?—and it shows how pervasive the problem is. From High Noon to Star Wars to Gladiator, many of our best movies feature violence. Their message is that people should fight rather than switch (to a safer and saner solution).

Related links
Teenage violence...solved! (more or less)
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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