“It is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.” – Simone de Beauvoir
The first time I saw an advertisement for 13 Hours, the movie depicting the attacks that occurred in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, I couldn’t resist my initial irritation. It’s often the case with any widely reported incident that it must be eulogized after the fact, its devastation appropriated for entertainment, but with the tagline When everything went wrong, six men had the courage to do what was right, I couldn’t help but think of our culture’s inborn and instant response to situations that make them feel vulnerable: the veil drops.
In times where rhetoric is common and intoxicating, where a pop song or Twitter post is more stirring than critical thinking, it is easy to think one is crazy for being perturbed by the violence that seems intertwined with life. The Hollywood treatment of 13 Hours is only one of many that make up a litany of violent movies and advertisements that indict pop culture’s response. It seems like a signpost of our culture that we mask our vulnerability in the power sought through violence, however justly or unjustly meted out.
In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is the second condition in life that must be met and mastered so that we can move on to the next levels, to belonging, esteem and self-actualization. While our sense of safety is more debatable than ever, power is frequently sold as the apex of self-actualization despite the violence it often comes associated with. As long as fear is something we must suppress or reimagine, and cannot confess to, how can it be mastered?
In The Terror Dream, journalist Susan Faludi explored the mythology machine that appeared to ramp up after the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 unfolded. Faludi argued that American culture descended into its original myth after these events, dividing society and reasserting the concept of woman’s weakness and man’s strength as found through might. Faludi states that:
“…When we respond to real threats to our nation by distracting ourselves with imagined threats to femininity and family life, when we invest our leaders with a cartoon masculinity and require of them bluster in lieu of a capacity for rational calculation…in short, when we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only measure itself against a mythical female weakness – we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction.”
As Faludi seems to explain, the utility of rational thought can be left behind in order to bolster our own sense of safety, a quality that we no longer seem to believe in or feel. While the profusion of advertisements for movies and video games seem to exhibit war and power struggles as daily occurrences – the most reliable means of winning – there is a rational reaction being left in the dust, one that would enable us to move beyond our defenses and into a recognition that sits beyond security.
If it is risking life that puts us above the animal as de Beauvoir said, if it is only our sense of urgency and self-defense that makes us superior, do we not – in times like these – tailspin into reaction out of an inability to examine what destroys us? If there is only physical might and response is an ample replacement for reflection, when does the fighting end and will there be any clarity left to grab for when it is all over?