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Joker Backlash: Has the Era of Alarmism Returned?

Wherever the Joker goes, controversy is almost sure to follow, and the build-up to the classic DC villain's very first solo film has certainly been no exception. While Todd Phillips' Joker has been met with glowing praise following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, it has also been a source of concern among some critics, who believe the film's seemingly sympathetic portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime could inspire incels and white supremacists to commit real-life acts of violence.

Given the volatile political climate we currently live in, these concerns are not entirely unfounded. After all, it seems just about everyone is perpetually on edge these days, and justifiably so. However, the idea that Joker -- a piece of entertainment -- will result in some sort of incel uprising sounds eerily reminiscent of the scapegoating prevalent in the 1990s and early 2000s, which wrongfully attempted to paint movies, music and video games as the cause of society's ills.

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For as long as there has been media to consume, there have been those who try to vilify it. However, much of the rhetoric related to anti-entertainment alarmism in the United States can largely be traced back to a few people, starting with retired politician Bob Dole. In the '90s, Dole set his sights on Hollywood, claiming violent films were to blame for real-life violent crimes and accusing modern movies of corrupting America's youth.

Dole's claims were not only sanctimonious, but also categorically false, as multiple studies have concluded that consuming violent or otherwise graphic media does not cause violent behavior. In addition to being erroneous and holier-than-thou, Dole was also incredibly disingenuous in his assertions, as he rarely -- if ever -- watched the films he was criticizing in their entirety, often formulating his opinions based on tidbits or secondhand accounts. If that sounds at all familiar, it's because that's exactly what's been happening with Joker. People have been preemptively trying to condemn the film since the first trailer came out, well before anyone had even seen the movie.

With that in mind, the belief that movies are to blame for real-life crime should have died with Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. However, the vilification of entertainment goes well beyond him. Take, for instance, the Tipper Gore-founded Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) -- the organization responsible for putting warning stickers on CDs to try and ensure kids aren't exposed to curses.

While the PMRC's activism actually predates Dole's arguments by several years, it too gained prevalence in the 1990s, which is when the instantly-recognizable version of the "Tipper Sticker" we know today was introduced. And even though the PMRC was dissolved before the year 2000, its work resulted in a resurgence of rock and rap music being demonized by out-of-touch parents and politicians alike.

If someone said or did something violent, the music they listened to was often called into question, perpetuating the cycle of blame-shifting. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that no one ever took to the streets to cause a riot inspired by Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," despite the PMRC accusing the iconic song of inciting violence.

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One more figure who bears mentioning in this discussion is Jack Thompson, a now-disbarred lawyer who, in the '90s and '00s, decided the best use of his time was taking aim at rap artists like N.W.A. and video games like Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series. Thompson, much like Dole, attempted to stoke outrage by asserting violent games were responsible for real-life violence -- a theory that, once again, has been discredited numerous times. Like Dole, Thompson's knowledge of the games he so vehemently criticized was tenuous at best.

With the history lesson out of the way, let's talk about what these people and organizations have in common: scapegoating. They take real-life social ills plaguing us and shift the blame to entertainment. What makes this so egregious is not only how fallacious it is, but also how ineffective it is. When you focus your efforts on something irrelevant, the real problems go unaddressed and ultimately unsolved. That's why seeing these outdated arguments making a return amidst the Joker discourse is so disheartening. If commentators really want to curb incel and alt-right violence, perhaps they should focus on the social conditions that create such toxic mindsets in the first place, rather than on a movie where Joaquin Phoenix dresses like a clown.

The fact of the matter is people who actively do or say violent or otherwise toxic things have issues well beyond a song they listened to, a video game they played, a book they read or a movie they saw. But certain commentators just love to point the finger at the perpetrators' choice of media. Why? Because it's easy. It allows them to rant about why a certain movie is "dangerous" and pat themselves on the back for a job well done, when in reality nothing was accomplished. Plus, once again, this argument completely ignores most scientific studies conducted on the matter, which have either failed to prove there is a causal connection between entertainment and real-life violence, or have proven precisely the opposite.

But what about the people who actually do commit violent acts and cite their favorite films, or characters like the Joker as inspiration? Well, ironically, they actually benefit from this misguided blame-shifting. They know all too well it exists and that it allows them to hide behind an argument of "the movies made me do it."

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In turn, those who demonize said movies get more ammo for their arguments as part of a vicious cycle of confirmation bias. By allowing someone to blame their actions on a piece of media, rather than holding them accountable, all we're doing is giving future perpetrators a way to avoid responsibility. The late, great Wes Craven had the foresight to realize this when he addressed the topic in Scream 2 all the way back in 1997. Why it's taken so many others so long to get with the program is anyone's guess.

Say what you will about Joker's seemingly sympathetic portrayal of its titular character, but at the end of the day, people are ultimately responsible for their own beliefs and their own actions. It's been proven time and time again that a piece of media can be as explicit as it likes in its message and in its portrayal of certain characters as reprehensible people, yet morons will still do mental gymnastics to justify identifying with said characters or just all around miss the point of what's being said. It is not the artist's fault when this happens.

Alan Moore is not at fault for the Rorschach wannabees, Chuck Palahniuk is not at fault for those who admire Tyler Durden, the creators of Marvel's Punisher are not at fault for the toxic use of the character's iconography, Christopher Nolan is not at fault for those who glamorize The Dark Knight's Joker and Todd Phillips is not at fault for any incels who may see themselves in his version of the Joker. Because people see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear and take away what they want to take away. As such, creators should not have their creativity limited simply because idiots exist. And even then, just because people like these characters doesn't mean they're glamorizing their actions. People have loved to talk about their favorite villains for decades. No one bats an eye when someone says they love Darth Vader or Voldemort, yet for some reason the worst is assumed of people who want to see Joker.

Those who raise concern about Joker appear to have good intentions. However, something they should be wary of is just how closely their talking points echo the outdated rhetoric peddled by such figures as Dole, Gore and Thompson. The reason these people have been named specifically is because they were at the forefront of what can be seen as modern media's First Era of Alarmism, which had its genesis in the '80s, thrived in the '90s and then bled over into the 2000s. Now, years later, it seems like they may have won in the end. The puritanical scaremongering of old appears to be back with a vengeance, and it goes well beyond the Joker conversation. Parents have been lobbying to get posters for It: Chapter Two pulled, a Tennessee Catholic school recently banned the Harry Potter books from its library and, worst of all, the foolish trend of blaming video games for mass shootings has had a massive resurgence as of late.

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Those ready to blame Joker for "inciting violence" -- particularly those on the older side -- should try to look at the situation from the perspective of someone who grew up during and caught the brunt of the First Era of Alarmism. Imagine being introduced to war and terrorism at a young age, seeing coverage of the conflict Iraq on television every day, but being told it's video games that are desensitizing you. Imagine being exposed to the injustices of the word, but being told your heavy metal albums are the reason you're angry. Imagine watching your family's financial situation crumble, but being told the movies you watch are the reason you're depressed. Sounds frustrating, doesn't it? Now imagine, years later, being warned of the "dangers" of a DC movie, of all things. It's just going to sound like the same old noise. This is where crying wolf leads and why scapegoating is ultimately self-defeating.

If you find yourself getting up in arms about Joker and were part of this generation, try to remember how growing up in that environment made you feel. After all, if you were putting on a Metallica or Wu-Tang Clan CD way back when, it's probably not because you were looking for inspiration for your campaign of violent crime. Chances are, you just wanted to listen to some cool music and would have liked to get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe consider extending that same courtesy to those excited for Joker, the vast majority of whom are simply DC fans from all different backgrounds who just want to go see a good movie.

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