The philosopher George Berkeley made the logical but counterintuitive argument that things don’t exist outside of our perception. To be unperceived is to not exist. The idea that things are impermanent is disturbing; does half the world cease when I turn around? For Berkeley, ideas create reality, and what is forgotten ceases to exist.
Our world of mass media is proving Berkeley to be correct. Things take on a life of their own once they enter the screen and the public consciousness. Life really does imitate art, as when the Klu Klux Klan’s robes changed in design after Birth of a Nation to reflect the movie’s Klan costumes.
Alan Moore’s From Hell depicts the 1880s as an anticipation of the 20th century in its brutality and media frenzy. “Jack the Ripper” was just a name coined by the newspapers of the day to sell more newspapers, but then it became the canonical name for these series of murders. Ideas are what control reality, as when the psychic Mr. Lees confesses to making up his visions, but in the end they ironically became true: "I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part." In this fascinating interview, Moore discussing how permeable the imaginative world is, and what happens when fictional things start to happen in the non-fictional world.
Church and school shootings are connected to these ideas of brutality and media frenzies. This type of violence didn’t exist decades ago, but in a world of 24-hour television news and the internet they are now disturbingly regular. The concern is, the more attention we give to these events by naming the shooters and memorializing the events, the more attractive such violent acts are. If you are lonely and marginalized, the media attention showered on these acts creates further possibilities. Terrorist acts have been encouraged by the internet and modern media because they are, in part, public relations and recruiting events.
What would it mean to imagine a world without violence, especially against the innocent? This is a harder act of imagination. It’s much easier to tell stories of hell, like in Dante’s Inferno, or of violence, like in CSI. The work of a Fred Rogers is a much more vague work. It is real work that is inspiring, but somehow it resists the human imagination. Violence is always easier to imagine than non-violence.
Simone Weil reflects on this truth in her great statement that “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”