Violence: Are the Media Just Giving Us What We Really Want?

I have to confess I don’t understand the passion that so many people have for vicarious violence. In films and video games for men the violence is physical, involving absurd displays of massacres and bodies hurtling from explosions. In many films for women it is psychological violence, with the heroine often the victim for most of the film, until she gets revenge, often physically (is that so their male companions will sit through the film?), in the final minutes. Even television dramas like Law & Order and CSI now wallow in increasingly barbaric physical and psychological violence, and have tossed aside the mystery and intellectual elements that once characterized these shows. Even most television comedy is now based on humiliation and ridicule, a form of psychological violence. This obsession with violence even shows up in porn, which, although it cannot be too explicitly violent or misogynistic (to get past the censors) seems overwhelmingly angry, rather than about an expression of love. So-called reality TV is more of the same, a form of public self-abuse augmented by a humiliating process of elimination that lingers excruciatingly on the agony of the losers’ faces and displays of embarrassment.

Because of this dumbing down of drama and comedy, and in the absence of any good porn, my TV-watching is now limited to House MD and the odd non-depressing documentary like The Take (though I confess I do catch The Daily Show and Bill Maher from time to time), and my movie-watching is mostly ‘chick flick’ romances like Love Actually, Raising Helen, Jersey Girl, The Prince & Me and Lost in Translation. None of these movies would make my top 50 list, but they’re pleasant entertainment with some clever writing in them. Of course the critics have called them saccharine, vapid, and anti-feminist stereotyping, which suggests they take themselves and their jobs far too seriously, perhaps due to the dopamine and adrenaline addiction that such a job must engender today.

I know several women and men who admit to enjoying heavy doses of physical or psychological violence on the screen, but they can’t seem to tell me why. These are people who appear healthy, work hard, have apparently functional families, and have other interests I can relate to and even share. But give them the movie theatre listings or the TV guide and I can’t bear to watch. It seems to be pure escapism, but what is it they are trying to escape from? I heard on the radio last week that there’s a movie out that features a real-life couple making love (and talking to each other as they do) for two hours, with no other plot than that. If you want escapism, why doesn’t that beat two hours of psychological terror, eating worms or axe-murderer decapitations?

None of the theories I have heard for why people watch these films and programs — boredom and emotional numbness, imaginative poverty, the vicarious working out of anger, or surrogate release from sexual frustration — make sense to me. What I have discerned however is an epidemic of attention deficit, an inability of people to concentrate either for too long or too deeply on anything. We are, after all, a species that for its first three million years on Earth lived intensely in the present, the here and now, and our brains were not (and still are not) wired to think and plan and stay focused on things for an extended period of time. Have the media pandered to this to the point we have lost our ability to concentrate and focus on anything longer than a sound bite? Does the ‘laugh track’ so preclude our need to pay attention that we can think about a million other things (the cute legs of the person sitting beside us, the things we have to do tomorrow, the Viper parked outside…) until we hear the canned laughter prompt and then we can mentally replay the punch line and (if it’s not too complicated or subtle) belatedly laugh? Does the dissonant music or the sound of guns or racing engines in the movie (or in the case of porn films, the start of the saxophone music) likewise prompt us to pay attention for a few seconds in anticipation of some enormously expensive, gruesome, lurid and/or violent special effect, before we let our minds wander again? And in the absence of any such prompts, as in a romance or a whodunit or a documentary, are we unable to gather any focus whatsoever, so we leave the theatre or living room saying “huh, that (from what little I remember) was boring“?

The second cause of this obsession with violence, I would hypothesize, is the astonishing lack of self-esteem in our modern society, and the pent-up feelings of rage, helplessness and frustration that this lack of self-esteem engenders. The people I know with the biggest real egos (as distinct from those who exhibit the most bravado) tend to be among the least violent people I know. Some of them are depressed (maybe they feel they should be doing more, with all the ability they have?), but very few of them are angry. The people I know who are angriest, and who are most addicted to vicarious violence, are those who have been put down (or feel they have been put down) all their lives. They are the men who are most misogynistic, most (beneath the surface) insecure, most delighted to watch acts of violent retribution, and who most associate with ‘average Joes’ who overcome adversity and humiliate or brutally kill their subjugators. They are the women who associate with the horrifically victimized women in film, and get pleasure from seeing others humiliated (usually but not always deservedly) in ways that make them feel stronger by contrast — Schadenfreude.

I blame our economic and political system, rather than bad parenting, for this near-pathological insecurity and lack of self-esteem. The economic system creates a demand for its overpriced, crappy products by playing on our insecurity and lack of self-esteem. Buy this muscle car, or wear these sneakers, or slap around the women you know and become a crack dealer, and others will look up to you, so you will feel better about yourself. Or eat these potato chips, take this viagra or this pain-killer and everything will feel better, you’ll be happy with yourself. Likewise the political system terrorizes us with exaggerated dangers (if you vote for a Democrat, they’ll double the size of government and make marijuana and assisted suicide legal, maybe even compulsory, and let all the killers out of jail — and encourage Bin Laden to attack us again). It is in their interest to make us feel stupid, helpless, powerless, to keep us in our place. It’s not surprising that it is the government and ‘organized crime’, not the big corporations, that are the bad guys in most movies. They are the surrogates for everyone who ever put us down.

If we could replace our economic system with a Gift Economy, and our political system with one based on self-sufficient, self-managed Intentional Communities (as my posts of the past three days argue), I think our exaggerated insecurity and lack of self-esteem would disappear. I’m not so sure that such changes would cure our lack of attention and concentration. Although the Gift Economy and Intentional Communities would almost assuredly reduce the stress in our lives, and increase the time we have available for things we really want to do, the firehose of information is a genie we cannot put back in the bottle, and new, inexpensive technologies will allow us to create even more, and more spectacular, distractions from our everyday lives. Whether there will come a time when we get bored of the power of information and technology to shock and exhilarate and consume our attention, and turn from these emotionally numbing tools to re-sensitizing tools like meditation and immersion in the natural world, is anyone’s guess.

Image is from the immensely popular and violent video game Grand Theft Auto

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10 Responses to Violence: Are the Media Just Giving Us What We Really Want?

  1. zach says:

    “the typical American child watches 28 hours of television a week, and by the age of 18 will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence.” I don’t get it either.

  2. Eric Hancock says:

    I think America’s lust for violence is a symptom of our bizarre sexual attitudes. Sex drive is sublimated as a vicarious thrill at violence.

  3. We could try replacing that big empty hole in children’s lives with what’s supposed to be there: fathers. Except that wouldn’t work, because most men/fathers aren’t any better people than they were when they were 16. Immature, irresponsible, and VIOLENT as in phyisically abusive. Kids grow up with lame-ass violent role models but no real worthy male role model in their lives. Obviously, we should blame all this on video games.

  4. Sudarshan says:

    A recent study conducted by students of Neuropsychology at NIMHANS ,Bangalore,clearly suggested that children in the age group 0f 10 – 18 who have known to show hyperactive and aberrant behavoir spent nearly 2-5 hrs surfing the net/watching TV.It was also observed that these children spent a miniscule amount of time in reading the content on the web. The increasing psychological violence and dwindling concentration (both the adults and children ) during their formative years can be effectively restrained by inculcating extensive reading habit and cut down the amount of time spent on Tv/surfing.

  5. Pearl says:

    Numbing down, dumbing down, it seems to be box office majority success. If people didn’t buy it, the marketing economy would shift to whatever does sell. The media isn’t particular. It’s made up of as good of people as any who want good things out there and to pay the bills. The violence is a safe release in a world where there is so much open ended, abstract, heroless, villainless. Some black and white is a relief and clears out the ole nodes to make sure our flight or fight is still in condition to work? Whaddya think. Any of that fly well enough?

  6. Brad Carson says:

    Bah! The formatting of my comment was stripped and I can’t edit it. Sorry about the spacing!

  7. Aleah says:

    Dave,I had a great conversation with a coworker last night, and one thing that is missing in the analysis is the fact that there are and have been reenactment “games” portraying the life/death cycle throughout history. My coworker’s philosophy is this: some of us are simply more hardwired to be hunters, and therefore seek to fulfill this desire through sports, video games, “cruising,” etc. Other cultures continue to promote traditional “games,” like the violent use of a headless goat in the place of a ball in Afghanistan and the Running of the Bulls in Spain.I tend to believe that we have always been fearful of and curious about death. In prehistoric times, bands of people would perform ritualistic slaughters of bulls (and in parts of the world, adult males) to pay homage to the goddess or to the life/death cycle. In the way that little boys will take a stick and poke an animal carcass, just out of curiosity, so we engage in death rituals – imagining ourselves to be the victorious hunter. No animal wants to be prey. And we are animals, after all.This is not to say I think these games are positive. They do desensitize us to violence. There are numerous studies that suggest this. But I believe there is an inner predator in everyone, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    I *thought* this post would be controversial. Sorry, I just can’t blame this on either TV or bad parents. The media pander, and parents neglect, yes, but we’re just not *that* much a product of nurturing. We live in a society that is suffering from massive mental illness. We’re born with our hormones out of whack, raised on bad food, bad air and water, subjugated by an opportunistic and out-of-control political, economic and legal system. Imagine the extreme case, if we were all raised our whole lives in concentration camps. Would we be healthy? Would our behaviour be well-adjusted? Would our choice of entertainment be peace-loving and joyful, or warped and violent? Would we get perverse pleasure in seeing others suffer worse fates than our own? Jennifer, I don’t think we disagree much at all here, though I think we need to be careful about seeing too much light in the 3-5% of us all the way on this side of the digital divide. Aleah, you may be right, but I hope not — if there is an inner predator in me, or in those I love, I can’t see it.

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