Levels of Violence

Suderman makes a good point over at Culture11 (fast becoming the best blog for conservatism):

The attacks in Mumbai were stomach-churning to follow while they were happening, and good information was hard to come by — there’s a good case to be made that the best reporting on the scene was done via Twitter — but the Wall Street Journal has now put together an excellent, thoroughly reported rundown of the whole harrowing affair. One of the things that always strikes me when reading accounts of terrors like these is how eerily cinematic they are. I find it difficult to contextualize violent massacres without some sort of silver-screen reference point — and I suspect that’s pretty common. There are multiple reasons for this, of course: For one thing, most of us have no frame of reference for anything like this except what we’ve seen at the movies, so it’s natural that we make those comparisons. After 9/11, The Onion grimly compared the attacks to action-maestro Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies. And it makes sense: Violence on that scale, in an American city, is something that most of us have only ever seen in movies. But the thing is, most casual movie goers have seen scenes like that repeatedly; spectacular death and destruction is one of the movie industry’s specialties.

Hollywood exploits these sorts of events for their inherent tension, repackaging them as exciting and thrilling adventures rather than ugly massacres. It usually makes me queasy and unsettled, to some extent, because I’m an unabashed fan of violent entertainment. I’ll admit: I love onscreen gunfights and shootouts, the more over the top the better. I’ve waxed ecstatic over the bullet-ridden 45 minute finale of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, which includes one of the highest death tolls of any movie in the last few decades (the sequence is set at a hospital, and at one point, the film’s bad guy walks into a room full of hostages and mows them all down with an automatic weapon). Watching a sequence like that in a movie is exciting and fun; watching a similar scene in real life is deeply disturbing. Part of me thinks this is a problem; action movies train us not to react with horror to these sorts of events. But I also wonder if it isn’t natural, a release of some sort, a way to indulge violent urges without resorting to real violence, or a way for human beings to understand the daily, life-and-death struggle for existence — long before movies, human stories revolved around death and violence, and often involved heroes who slayed all those in their way. For whatever reason, we, as a species, seem to be drawn in by narratives of calamity, destruction, and bloodshed.

This has long been my issue with those who would restrict or ban movie violence. I believe that human beings are a violent species. We have to be. We are carnivores who have come to dominate the planet. The quest of civilization is not to end those violent urges, but to channel them into less destructive paths. Hence, the pretend violence of movies or video games, I believe, is a good thing. It satisfies our violent urge without doing any real harm.

People who think that violent entertainment is new need to get some historical perspective (in fact, everyone needs to get some historical perspective about just about everything — but that’s another post).

Two thousand years ago, entertainment consisted of tossing Christians to lions. Real people, real lions, real screams, real blood, real suffering. And the Romans considered it good for children to watch — it built character.

Five hundred years ago, the Spanish were torturing heretics as entertainment. Real people, real hot irons, real screams, real blood, real suffering. And they considered it good for children to watch and see the fruits of blasphemy. Around that time, cat-burning was popular in France. This consisted of lowering a bound cat over flames and laughing and feasting as it screamed. The medieval world and parts of the modern world are replete with similar examples.

A hundred years ago in this country, we performed executions in public. It was considered good entertainment if the noose failed to snap their neck and the condemned kicked and struggled while slowly choking over hours or days. It was considered good for children to go and see the fruits of criminality.

In light of this bloody history, I just can’t get worked up over two guys firing blanks at each other on TV or some kid blowing away pixels on a video screen.

As I get older, I find myself getting more and more bothered by the casualness of movie violence, identifying with the secondary and tertiary characters who just killed as if it’s nothing. But I don’t think I will ever fail to get that visceral thrill from pretend violence. It goes right to my nature as a human being.