As Roger Ebert said in a recent NY Times op-ed about the recent Colorado mass murder, “We’ve seen this movie before.”
I’m not exactly sure how much irony Ebert intended with the title of that article (if he wrote the headline at all). The column completely skirts a correlation between violent culture and violent actions, and instead is more about gun control and media hysteria than the movies we choose to attend. Personally I think Ebert was wrong to wave away even the possibility that culture and violence are intertwined.
Violence, especially in young adult literature, has been on my mind for some time, and I asked about it at the recent Comic-Con panel on what’s hot in YA.
It’s not a simple connection by any means, but with violent young adult novels arguably more popular than ever, shouldn’t we be thinking more about what America’s young people are reading and watching?
Shouldn’t we think about what we’re all reading and watching?
A collective shrug
I’m not in favor of censorship. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what people should and shouldn’t read. I don’t believe books and movies create murderers by themselves, and I recognize that there is some evidence to suggest that, among other things, access to violent games reduces violence. I believe in the marketplace of ideas and stories.
But as an author and reader I am disturbed at how little discussion has accompanied the rise of very violent young adult literature in particular. It seems to me that there’s been a collective shrug.
At least the kids are reading books? Or something?
Many of these violent books get a pass because they have a veneer of anti-violence in their story lines. Well, people argue, at least these books (usually) show the consequences of violence. At least they (usually) have anti-war messages.
But this seems to me to be a very flimsy premise when the very violence these books purport to eschew is inherent to the appeal of the books. Teaching nonviolence with a book where the slickly entertaining violence is the main attraction is like using pornography to teach abstinence.
Again, I’m not in favor of pulling books from shelves or controlling what should be published, and I think some of these books are really good. I may even write a violent scene or two myself some day. And whatever is happening in books probably pales in comparison to what kids are seeing on TV and movies every day. I get it.
But still, the collective shrug that accompanied these books disturbs me. I don’t know if anyone even thought to shrug in the first place — that would mean we recognized a potential problem.
In the wake of the Colorado shooting, journalist James Fallows bemoaned the fact that despite yet another mass murder nothing in our political rhetoric or actions or laws or anything was likely to change. We know it’s going to happen again and we do nothing about it.
Why are Americans so uniquely immune to violence, even though, despite declining rates, Americans are twice as likely to die a violent death than any other first world country?
Why do we accept all of this? Why does everyone just shrug?
Justifying what we like
I don’t have the answers, which is why this post is littered with questions. I don’t know that lessening the violence in movies and books would reduce actual violence. I’m sure the kids will be alright. Heck, I don’t even have kids whose media consumption it’s my job to monitor.
But I do know that story lines about teens learning to become violent badasses bother me. Stories that glorify vigilantism bother me. Stories that use our natural, inherent fascination with violence to cheaply entertain us bother me.
I also understand the counterarguments. That we live in a violent world, and at least violent books usually show teens responsibly navigating them. That kids are going to seek them out no matter what we do to try and stop them. That violence in culture can channel and diffuse our naturally violent tendencies. That they’re products of, not contributors to, a violent culture.
All I’m advocating is thought.
Let’s think about why there were so many children in attendance at a midnight showing of a trilogy with a particularly nihilistically violent worldview.
Let’s think about why we barely bat an eye at the level of violence in our culture but get up in arms about gay penguins.
Let’s think about why we’re more concerned about protecting the rights of chickens than we are about restricting the ability of someone to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition perfectly legally over the Internet.
I’m shaped on this issue by a formative experience in my childhood, a murder at my high school where I had known both the victim and the murderers all my life. It wasn’t one of those mass murders you heard about in the news, just one of the 18,200 murders that happened in the US in 1997.
Violence isn’t an abstraction. We storytellers can make it entertaining in fiction, but there’s nothing about real life violence that is entertaining, unless you are a sadist or have managed to dehumanize its victims.
And yet somehow, despite our initial shock, we treat horrific violence as a fact of life instead of doing something tangible about it. And I fear that the constant exposure to entertaining violence in literature and movies, and the justifications that accompany them, teach us to do just that.
I might be wrong. I might be right.
Let’s at least think about it.
Art: “First at Vicksburg” – artist unknown
Andrew Leon says
That was polite.
As the mother of a six-year-old, I, too, wondered what little kids were doing in that theatre at midnight. My daughter is a super-hero fan – we've been letting her watch DVDs of the '67 spiderman cartoons, 1950s superman programs and the 1980s Incredible Hulk series, but I won't take her to see that movie, just as I didn't take her to The Avengers or let her watch the latest Spiderman movie. We are very careful with what we let her watch, and the superhero shows she watches are mild by today's standards, and yet weapons, and "being a warrior" still feature in so much of her play. When I was a kid people were talking about the violence in Saturday morning cartoons. But then, when I was kid, people weren't gunning strangers down in public places for no apparent reason. It's a scary, scary world we live in today.
Thank you for the post and for beginning to have people discuss difficult issues that we disagree on for a variety of reasons.
Oh, and one more thing…what really got me about it was the people saying that at first they thought the smoke and gunfire was just "part of the show". I think that really brings home how desensitized some people are to violence and the extent to which it is embraced as entertainment in our culture.
Anjali Amit says
I guess this is a discussion we are having right here, thanks for starting it.
Does anyone remember a time when fairy tales were frowned upon because they would scare young readers? Is the violence depicted in today's world not scary?
When you talk about "….the possibility that culture and violence are intertwined" you hit the nail on the head. If it is a peaceful culture then violence will be an alien concept — kind of like the bottle of Coke falling in a village in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. Media (books, digital) depicts the world as it is.
But oftentimes it is a gratuitous depiction of violence and in doing so we cater to the lowest common denominator. The writer's responsibility lies not in the choice of topic but in the depiction of it.
You know, I'm not certain we are desensitized to it. I remember watching the towers fall on 9/11. I remember how horrified everyone was by the violence, the tragedy. I remember Columbine. And Virginia Tech. So many of us were and are deeply troubled.
And yet, violence is most certainly part of our history, our humanity, our nature.
And there is no doubt that it can be thrilling to watch or read about as an entertainment device. Our past is full of violent theatrics. I don't think we can get away from it. And I'm as guilty as anyone of reading and watching it, from Michael Connelly to Game of Thrones.
So, I'm rambling. But I do think this is just an interesting and important conversation. Personally, I throw my weight behind more gun control (bigger punishments never stopped anyone. People committing crimes don't often consider the aftermath). I don't like the argument that criminals find ways to be criminals because they are criminals. It sounds so trite and bigoted. Who is a criminal? It could be your brother. It could be your neighbor. These are people. These are people who belong to others, who live among us. This is not a cartoon world nor is it so black and white. James Holmes, I gather, is mentally ill. Not some "lowlife". He is a troubled individual who unfortunately found it way too easy to get guns and ammo. Extra precautions and barriers would probably have made the difference in preventing 12 lives lost.
My overriding question about violence and culture is this: why are we such a gun culture? Why is it ok to have that bumper sticker that says "Gun Control means using both hands". Or "Kill em all and let Allah sort them out." I've seen both. It is one thing to have a gun it is another to flaunt it, preach it, want everyone armed at all times. That's my big worry. That kind of us vs. them and ready for war and fear and hatred.
ARgh! Sorry! Sometimes the soapbox comes out and I can't help myself.
Jenna St. Hilaire says
Anjali Amit said "Media (books, digital) depicts the world as it is."
This is usually the first argument I hear about any sort of morally questionable content in YA lit, and actually I don't quite agree–though I think I get what you mean.
I'd posit that books and movies depict the world as the creator imagines will be a) most entertaining, b) most likely to sell, c) most likely to make some cared-about point, and/or d) fascinate others the way it fascinated its creator. None of that tends to work out to life as it actually is. Even carefully artistic contemporary tales nearly always streamline life down to the events which, for whatever reason, are expected to be of most interest.
On account of which, I think there's a very real danger of artistic irresponsibility, of playing off the human tendency to gawk–or the tendency to gather round the town square for the week's hangings. Modern marketing departments are often quite shameless about this. And I suspect that it's very possible for well-meaning writers to try to "speak to" some issue and just wind up selling popcorn to the gawkers.
If I'm right, then it's particularly a problem in YA lit, where the goal always seems to be to speak to some issue or another.
Anjali, I'm challenging that particular phrase because the way it's normally used, I believe it's a major flaw in the arguments for morally questionable content in books. I don't necessarily disagree with you overall. Your last paragraph is beautiful.
I agree wholeheartedly and am so happy to see someone with your platform speak out against pervasive, desensitizing violence in entertainment media. Or maybe you wouldn't consider that you're speaking out against it so much as opening up a discussion and asking us all to Think About It.
I know I've personally copied–somewhat mindlessly–violent actions I've seen in movies…things that were portrayed as "funny." It's just what we do. We're mimics.
If we just keep this in mind, that we WILL copy what we see, at least to some extent, then we can feed our senses accordingly.
Don't we strive to do that for our children? Show them Good Examples? The way we Want them to behave, not the way we Don't Want them to behave? It applies to everything.
And it applies to us.
Here's something stupid: I'd kept violent images out of my home, apparently I'd done a good job. A couple of years ago, I messed up and let my five-year-old see one person punch another onscreen. My son's head snapped back. He was obviously distraught. (And no, I don't care to hear from anyone about how the child needs to be toughened up…I've heard it and disagree. 'nuf said on that.) He Knew: You Don't Hit. It hurts.
If I would remove my child from a violent father or sibling–a violent influence/example–why would I sit him down in front of a tv and tell him to watch the same thing or give him a book and tell him to read it? The barrier that that one step of emotional and physical removal creates…is it good, bad, neither because it depends?
I'm thinking I'll just protect my children from the idea that harming others is fun, funny, a rush, entertaining or in any other way acceptable.
I think I don't do the kind of job at that that I would like…especially as they grow older and have other influences in their lives: spouse, grandparents, friends…
Thanks for making me think about it a little more today, Nathan.
Sam Mills says
I just wanted to add something on the topic of books/tv/movies with a message. Many have already debated whether Hunger Games glorifies violence or condemns it through the protagonist. Unfortunately, I don't think it matters whether the book was *supposed* to have an anti-violence message.
Those who agree with that message will connect with it. Those who don't care about that message will ignore it and enjoy the violence.
Zequeatta Jaques says
I've thought about the violence shown in our current world and discussed it with others. Do we really have more violence today than in days gone by or are we just more aware of it because of the ability for instant news world-wide now?
There has always been violence throughout history. Horrifying violence. And yes, we have to have laws in place that protect others from predators but I don't believe a knee-jerk reaction is the answer.
We need to talk about the issue and discuss what can be done to lower the violence being displayed. We need to dig deeper into its causes and then act. Arbitrarily enacting laws and censoring just because someone says it's the fault of not enough gun-control laws or the fault of violence shown in movies and books is not the end-all cure.
Thanks for the post, Nathan, and for starting a discussion. Last night I watched a show on Ancient Rome and the Colosseum. Our society today would never go to an arena just to watch the violent deaths of innocent people for pure entertainment, yet back then that was their version of a Super Bowl or blockbuster movie. It sends a chill to my core when I think what human beings are capable of. Somewhere along the way we found our humanity. Let's never lose it.
Other Lisa says
Can anyone come up with a really good argument about why we should not ban military assault weapons, clips holding over 10 rounds? Or why there shouldn't be some sort of system in place that tracks the sales of 6000 rounds of ammunition? Or why we shouldn't close gun show loopholes that allow people to buy guns without waiting periods?
I don't have a problem with people owning guns, but I really can't understand the reflexive response that gun control somehow threatens our freedom. I don't understand the argument that because criminals obtain guns illegally, we shouldn't have gun control for law abiding citizens.
I mean, argue about the meaning of the 2nd Amendment, but even if you believe it refers to the right of individuals to own guns, there's that "well-regulated" reference in there…
Others here have made far more eloquent arguments about the larger issue of why our society is so violent, so I'll just second those who said that our worship of violence to solve problems and the overall militarization of our culture and economy has something to do with it.
Great post, Nathan. You've picked one of the topics I as a foreigner find most strange about the US, which is
a), the massive glorification of violence, and how it's perfectly fine for children to watch extremely violent movies etc, but voe to you if they happen to see something related to sex. Because love and such will forever corrupt their little minds, but violence will make them grow up to be Real American Men…?
And b), the strong movement for the Right to Bear Arms. Why should that be a right? Who'd actually want the kind of society where private people need guns to defend themselves?
Of course, now that everyone and their uncle owns a gun, it'd be kind of hard to change strategy.
Great posts, Nathan and A.J. Fully concur with both.
Elizabeth O. Dulemba says
Hear, hear! I was recently asked to review an MG novel and honestly, I couldn't recommend it because it was too violent. MG! Heads were getting cut off, characters were being killed left and right.
At home we've even started to watch the Hallmark channel (uck!) because so many of the other options are just so violent anymore. Who needs it? Not us.
Gah, I am sooooo glad you wrote this post. Such an important topic. And one I struggle with. I sometimes think the "shrug" comes from people not knowing what to do about it. At least you are stirring debate.
I don't have the answer either. I was shocked when I heard the age of some of the kids at the movie, but then, my 4 year old loves the Avengers and Spider-Man, so who am I to judge? Am I screwing him up? Did Wile-E-Coyote and the incredible amounts of violence in Warners Bros cartoons mess me up? I dunno. I know that I detest the words "stupid" and "idiot" in my house and I hear them constantly on Disney Jr. and Nick Jr. shows. Drives me batty.
I guess we have to keep talking about it. Challenging ourselves to come up with the best answer for our families, for ourselves, and hope that we can lead by example???
Possibly your best blog ever, Nathan. And certainly, there are no easy solutions — only controversial ones. I personally like the movement that seems to be gaining momentum to deprive the offender (read: scumbag, unconscionable beast, Evil incarnate) of the attention and publicity he craves. It may not be a total solution to the problem, but a step in the right direction perhaps? Admittedly, I too am curious about what makes such a creature tick, his motives, etc., but I'm happy to remain in ignorance of that knowledge if such ignorance will discourage even one future offender!
I may have missed any comments about it, but I think there is a difference between watching and/or reading about violence and doing it yourself. The trouble with some of the video games is they are really close to "doing it yourself".
Also there are sensible lines to draw with gun regulation. I tend to think that if a weapon's only purpose is to kill as many people as possible, perhaps it should be WAY more heavily regulated nationally. I'm not for eliminating weapons, but I am for limiting access to certain weapons…
Maci Walker says
We're all clear on the idea that literature is a reflection of our culture. That said, kids choose literature to make sense of their worlds, to identify who they are and what it important to them.
Thank you, Nathan, for posting this important discussion. You're right: This isn't about more laws, however. I think this is the JFK moment: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what YOU can do for your country. It's time that we stood up for our culture and became active instead of passive.
I'll get off my soapbox now. 🙂
Ann Marie Gamble says
Here's a great piece on questions to ask/ways to analyze violent representations in art: https://henryjenkins.org/2012/07/a_pedagogical_response_to_the.html.
One point he makes is that the cultural frame has changed: rather than assuming that readers would be copycats, it used to be assumed that the violent acts would impress the moral point–in those works, though, we were meant to empathize with the victims, not the perpetrators (however ninja badass protagonist they might be).
Peter Dudley says
Wow, I wish I had time to read the bazillion comments. I scanned some of them, and there's a lot of good discussion.
Anyway, I'm not sure this is such a new thing. Maybe in literature, but that may reflect more on the nature of the publishing industry than on society as a whole.
I grew up on a steady fare of very violent old movies about World War II, kung fu vendettas, and cowboys & indians. The body count in the 1938 Errol Flynn version of "Robin Hood" is staggering. Remember Hamlet and Macbeth? And Homer? Can we talk about what Achilles did to Hector? (OK, a little facetious, but you get my point. Which is that the newness of violence in popular culture may not be so new upon further investigation.)
Also, violence has been a part of kids' games, as well as part of kids free play, for generations.
I think we escape into literature, games, and movies in part to imagine ourselves in unimaginable situations. Could I survive past the cornucopia? Could I clip the wire on a ticking bomb? Could I stare down a Balrog or point my X-wing at the Death Star or steal the NOC list or bust up a drug cartel?
I don't remember any situation where the reader/viewer is put in a position of asking themselves, "Could I buy a bunch of ammo online and go shoot up a theater full of unsuspecting people?" That, I think, would not be a popular book. If it ever got published to begin with.
Violence is. We've had war on our TVs for decades. As a parent, I've become much more aware of how pervasive violence is in reality, and I've had deep discussions with my kids about it.
I am not sure what to think about the questions you've raised, but I do appreciate your point that we should be not only asking them, but discussing them.
Robert Michael says
As a species, we, collectively, are violent. Violence from humans is usually brought on by a need or desire for aggression against another human or animal. "Need" is usually defined by a defensive posture required to maintain survival. "Desire" is generally characterized as a sport (football, boxing, MMA, hockey, competitive martial arts, etc), but is sometimes manifest as a breech of someone else's human rights. Examples of this would be an aggressor or instigator of a war, a murderer, an assailant, a rapist, or even someone using words or gestures in a threatening or psychologically harmful way.
Not everyone is violent, to be sure. Some people war against their nature to be peaceful, even when provoked, even when angry, or threatened. This is laudable. Throughout history it is evident taht these same individuals often receive the brunt of violence.
Incidents like the one in Aurora make us more aware. Our compassion and horror at such a tragedy demands some sort of answer, some kind of justice, some semblance of correction. Invariably, media such as books, television, games, etc get called in to question. These forms of art are reflective of our human condition. Although some of the reflection can influence a similar attitude in others, censoring media is correcting the symptom, not the disease. The same is true for gun control. Criminals will continue to commit violent crimes regardless of the the strictness of the law. The only thing accomplished by making stricter laws is to breach the civil rights of law-abiding citizens. Criminals will manage to continue their ways. The laws in place are manageable, but enforcement must be ramped up.
The disease is that we as a culture, as a species, has a delusion that violence can make things right, can correct an injustice, can make us feel better. Violence is not an answer. Simple as that.
Sadly, the United States in 2012 is a violent society. We now top the list of ALL developed countries in number of gun deaths, and that number is close to that of other countries known for violence. Whereas children in the United States used to be allowed a childhood that was an age of innocence and imagination, far too adults now argue that children need to learn the world's a violent place. In reality, our country is a violent place. And I cannot remember any recent time in which our public discourse and political will was so full of hatred and meanness. Other countries do not understand why we have so much animosity toward even providing health care to all our citizens, but we do. In 2012, we seem impressed by greed and aggression.
Bamboo Grovers says
Thanks for an excellent post, Nathan. I am mystified by the American obsession with guns. In Australia and New Zealand we read much the same books, view the same tv and movies, play the same games as people in the US. The difference is that if a person was deeply troubled here it is extremely unlikely that they would act on those feelings by mass murder. Guns are simply not part of our mindset or culture. What will it take for Americans to decide they want to change?
E.B. Black says
Violence in literature isn't something new. Even before humans had the ability to write stories down, they told violent stories. If we're apathetic now about it, then it's not because of fictional stories. In fact, it might be because of the news and the fact that we are bombarded with REAL violent stories (unlike in the past when there was no news) every day to the point where we don't care anymore.