On April 20, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 23 others at Columbine High School in the United States; one of many such tragedies in that nation of schizophrenic gun laws, but perhaps the one that is best known because of the 2002 Michael Moore movie.
In the justifiable search for a root cause of such a horrifying incident, the conservative factions turned their attention as they have done so often, to heavy metal music, using the argument that the messages contained within it, have the ability to lead especially susceptible children to acts of violence.
When it was suggested (erroneously, it turns out) that the leading musical light for Harris and Klebold was the polarising rocker Marilyn Manson, the whole thing picked up a dozen gears. It’s not hard to understand why Manson troubled middle American moms and dads; on the one hand, the very nature of their generically conservative political and religious viewpoints makes Manson a terrifying threat; on the other, Manson’s visual persona and music videos appear purposefully designed to shock.
Indeed, the video for his song The Beautiful People is a flash flood of dystopian images which are as mesmerising as they are twisted. It’s hard to believe it didn’t elicit a chuckle when Manson and his people first viewed it because as a visual representation of the song, which is also singularly unbeautiful, it’s absolutely spot on.
In the years after Columbine, Manson was haunted by the stench of culpability based on the often repeated view that his lyrics and visuals specifically advocated hate, violence, death, suicide and drug use. His defence was that he was actually trying to say there is a way past those thoughts.
For many however, the debate centred not on the content of Manson’s words, but on the content of his character and he was confidently labelled a satanic nazi in at least one credible newspaper headline; the editors apparently taking the view that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck …
And yet Manson was responsible for one of the most sane comments of all in the movie Bowling for Columbine, in an interview clip with Moore himself:
Moore: If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine and the people in the community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?
Manson: I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I’d listen to what they had to say and that’s what no one did.
He could have answered that question in a million different ways, but despite the way he looks, Manson’s response was that of a concerned guidance counsellor. Perhaps the comment was the external expression of an internalised feeling of persecution; perhaps he wished someone would listen to him instead of talking, talking, talking.
But it’s the one scene from the movie that I have never forgotten for one simple reason: we are all really good at making assumptions about the content of other people’s thoughts and character based on the most superficial of evidence.
As a result, we constantly connect dots that in actuality may not even remotely exist. When we disagree with someone else’s point of view, we assume that all of their views must be equally wrong and that by default, they are an idiot. When we dislike someone’s taste in music, we make an assumption that they have poor taste in everything else too. When we observe someone’s ethnicity, religion, gender or nationality we assume aspects of stereotype.
But what if we’re wrong? What if instead of making assumptions, we made a decision to first find out. Or if we must pick an assumption, what if we assume there may be a difference between people and their ideas?