Senseless violence shows banality of cool

Updated: 2014-06-04 08:14

By Berlin Fang (China Daily)

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Senseless violence shows banality of coolOn May 23, California student Elliott Rodger slaughtered six students from the University of California, Santa Barbara, leading to a flurry of theories that tried to explain his senseless killing spree. One explanation that I read is Elliott Rodger's mind, like many, was a pro-duct of "media programming" which celebrates a culture that justifies killing and violence of the young as shown in the movie Hunger Games. Ironically, the killer's dad was an assistant director on the movie.

Controversial as this theory may sound, I do think it offers a legitimate explanation of Rodger's morbid mind. From a video he recorded before his rampage, the killer felt a false sense of injustice that he remained a "virgin" in spite of the privileges he enjoyed, including the BMW he drove. Popular culture does contribute to the misunderstanding that material possessions qualify someone to be cool, while those who do not have such things will never be cool.

In the meantime, a video, showing a young child being brutally tortured by three teenagers in the suburbs of Beijing, went viral in China. I relate it to the "virgin" killer as the three perpetrators in this case were also heavily influenced by what popular culture instilled in their minds as standards of "cool". The lingo they used while inflicting pain on a younger child seemed to be taken directly from youth movies such as Young and Dangerous, a series of Hong Kong movies about young triad members. From the video it is pretty obvious that the school gangsters of the movies, whose depravity is transformed into cool, were the role models for the teenagers. The teenagers were also stupid enough to shoot a video of what they did, as "it'd be so awesome if it makes it to the web," according to the member of the gang that was filming it all. Once again, this is an example of how pop culture idolizes popularity at all cost.

When such tragic things happen, we know that there might be a number of factors at play. For instance, the availability of guns contributed to the California shooting. Parental neglect contributed to the torture in the suburbs of Beijing. But blaming one factor alone does not get to the root of the problem. Yet, it is also irresponsible to dismiss one factor because there are other contributing factors. Popular culture, even if it is just one of many factors, should be reviewed if it risks teaching kids that it is all right to torture or kill others.

One thing that particularly bothers me about such "culture" is that looking cool trumps being right. Those that emulate what they see in movies and TV shows can never be cool as they lack imagination. They do things secondhand, even though those who have created the characters they think are cool may have other purposes in mind, for instance, exposing certain social problems that can lead to anti-social behavior. Young people who lack proper guidance may miss such messages while taking what they see at face value.

Looking at the bullying video from Beijing, I felt disgusted, but I also felt sorry for those teenagers who were as bored and lost as they are depraved and harmful. Their imitation of acts from Hong Kong gangster movies reveals extremely impoverished minds. I am very tempted to conclude, that banality reigns in these young people's perception of what it means to be cool. The kungfu moves they stole from a hooligan movie were not cool, they were just stupid and wrong.

To reverse this trend of cool-seeking stupidity, it is important for parents and educators to become involved in the day-to-day education of young people, to set authentic goals for their development, and help them identify real role models for them to follow. Recently my daughter's school assigned them to read the biography of neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, which inspired her and many of her schoolmates. Like many other city school districts, my daughter's school has bullies and young gang members. Carson is a good role model as he made an effort to break the bad habits of his youth and dedicated himself to personal growth through education. Such extracurricular reading will show the young people what it really means to be cool.

I hope we can create a culture that celebrates positive behavior as cool. So it is cool to care for others. It is cool to embrace difficult assignments at school instead of giving up or dropping out. Above all, it is cool to develop a dream and make every effort to realize it.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

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