March 10, 2013

Movies = "advertisements for mass murder"?

This column has a good summary of where we're at on media violence and its effect on people:

Who’s to blame for gun violence? Movie critics!

In a bizarre new essay, Thomas Frank suggests that Hollywood—and movie critics—are the NRA's "propaganda wing"

By Andrew O'Hehir
In fact, before I get to Frank’s wacky campaign to kill the messenger, I want to make clear that I feel some sympathy for the general tenor of his argument—and a whole lot of sympathy for the perplexing difficulty of making any coherent argument about the relationship between the pervasive violence of pop culture and outbreaks of mass murder. Frank is right to point out that “an industry under fire will claim that its hands are clean,” as the NRA and Hollywood have both done, and right to observe that when people in the film industry insist that movies have no effect on human behavior, they’re engaging in “self-serving sophistry.” He could have phrased this even more strongly: Sometimes the people who make movies want them defined as works of art, possessed of profound significance and enshrouded in First Amendment protections; sometimes they want them defined as meaningless effluvia, pornographic fantasies with fewer real-world consequences than an Altoids commercial.

I think we all believe, on a bone-deep level, that living in the media universe of the last 50 years or so has reshaped human consciousness and affected human behavior in ways maddeningly difficult to define. Even social scientists who have devoted their entire careers to the effects of media—and of violent media in particular—have the Devil’s own time explaining how it all works, and nearly all of them shy away from simplistic theories of cause and effect. In what might be termed the mainstream psychological view, media violence is seen as a “contextual risk factor” that “increases the likelihood for aggressive behavior” to some minor but measurable extent while also, so to speak, raising the overall social temperature. There is little or no clear evidence connecting violent entertainment to actual acts of criminal violence, but some scholars suggest that violent media can serve as a “stylistic catalyst” that inspires disturbed people to act out specific fantasies.

Given that academic context, Frank’s description of certain kinds of violent Hollywood movies as “advertisements for mass murder” is deliberately provocative. This is the moment, I imagine, where Frank expects someone in my position to throw up my hands in dismay and begin declaiming against censorship. Well, let’s skip that step. In fact, I think the argument that Hollywood is, in some indirect and unintentional way, inciting or inviting massacres is worth taking seriously, for two reasons. First, it fits with the known facts, including the striking fact that even as overall crime rates have trended downward over the past 30 years in the United States, spectacular acts of mass murder along the lines of Aurora or Sandy Hook have apparently become more common.

Secondly, it fits what most people already believe, on a profound if unscientific level. (As my inbox, or the comments section of every article I’ve ever written on this subject, will testify.) As I wrote in January and as Frank says here, LaPierre may be a shameless hypocrite and an apologist for literal engines of death, but he struck a sensitive chord, especially with parents, in pointing the finger at ubiquitous media violence. Most Americans enjoy consuming violent movies, TV shows and/or video games—and most also believe or suspect they’re socially harmful. This isn’t really much of a paradox; just consider our national obesity epidemic, or the millions who struggle with addiction. No one is under the misapprehension that OxyContin or Jägermeister or double orders of garlic fries or 46-ounce tankards of Mountain Dew are good for you, but that doesn’t deter us from indulging on a mind-boggling scale.
Comment:  I've written about this subject before--but mostly in the 1990s, around the time of the Columbine shootings, when it was a hot topic. It's relevant because media violence mirrors our national propensity for real violence. I.e., for shooting first and asking questions later.

We've seen this attitude in every war from the Indian Wars to Vietnam to Iraq to the war on drugs. We strike, invade, and kill first. Then, 10 or 20 or 50 years later, we realize we made a mistake. "Oops! Maybe we didn't need to slaughter so many people to achieve our goals."

A great example of this is Western movies and TV shows. Whether intentional or not, these shows served as anti-Indian propaganda. They conveyed America's "master narrative" about God giving the land to Euro-Christians to "civilize."

I don't know if these shows led to actual violence against Indians. But they led to racist thoughts and aggressive acts. It's probably no coincidence that Congress terminated many tribes while Westerns were demonizing Indians. Media violence made it acceptable "kill the Indian and save the man"--figuratively, if not literally.

For more on our violent culture, see Newtown Shootings Show America's Pathology and Aurora Shooting Shows America's Pathology.


dmarks said...

Overall a fascistic attitude. It is an attack on the freedom of artistic expression by film makers, perhaps in an attempt to hope that they are intimidated, or, worse yet, get censored by the ruling elites.

The case is invalid also. Consider your "great example". What was the result of the baby boomers raised on 1950s Westerns? A generation of non-Natives less racist, more sympathetic and accepting of Natives than ever before. And in the 1oth century and going further back when you have less and less mass media? Horrific mass slaughter and a situation where a repugnant extremist attitude is near universal.

Anonymous said...

I would say this: Everyone sees these movies, but most of us don't go out and kill random people.

I have issues with Hollywood; they repeatedly demonstrate their inability to read source material. How many movies have a soldier saying, to quote Commander Data, "to hell with orders"? (Because the military is all about doing whatever you feel. Oh wait, no, it's the opposite.) Or a cop who doesn't always follow procedures? (In real life, this can lead to a case being dismissed.)

dmarks said...

And no, my comment was not about how Hollywood violence CAUSED people to grow up to be peaceniks. I'm sure there were other causes. It's just that Hollywood violence really has no effect.