One of the most famous scenes in movie history is the stabbing scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. A woman pulls into an isolated hotel on a dark night. A psychotic woman (man in disguise) comes into her room while she is showering and stabs her to death. Hitchcock spent considerable time arranging and filming that one scene from many angles. You never see the knife touch the woman, but it is a very visual and graphic scene. It is so horrifying that many women (and men) ceased showering in hotel rooms for long periods after seeing the movie.
Which answers the question, does movie violence have any influence over people. Yes. But not in the way that people often blame movies.
Every time violence occurs, some group points to the entertainment media and says, "There is the cause of our violence - there is the model for it." But studies*2 by those who monitor violence in the entertainment media indicate that only occassionally is there a correlation - only occassionally does the media come even close to actually inspiring violence in an individual. But another very insidious thing may happen.
There is a two-sided message in violence in entertainment. First there is the message that whoever has the greatest force wins. Usually the good guys win - right overpowers might. Pure force is no equal for the power of wit and the cosmic forces of good. This is a high concept type plot in its purest form, and the stuff that Lucas's movie series Star Wars is made of. People leave the theater feeling good, feeling confident of the power of good over evil, and full of popcorn.
But until the good guy finally wins, one or more bad guys do a lot of violent things against a lot of innocent people. Violence against innocent people is called victimization, and this is a major message in media violence, whether it comes from movies, TV, or television news. While the good guy (the law or the protagonist) may ultimately win, in the mean time several people are victimized.
So what? The problem is, victims feel powerless. They don't have the superhuman abilities of the protagonist so are given the message that everyone but the protagonist is powerless. They have no control over their lives and are subject to the whims of the bad guys, until the force finally rescues them - unless they die or are abused before he can. Is this effect real?
Does the media actually have any impact on how people view their world? The same studies*2 which show that violence has minimal impact on influencing people to be violent, also shows that there is a correlation with feelings of apprehension, mistrust, and even feelings of gloom and alienation. People who are in this state of "fear" are more dependent, and more easily manipulated and controlled. These effects are more apparent and sustained in those who are heavy TV watchers and are less well educated.
I lived for two years in Morocco n the '60s. During that time my only contact with the US was the Associated Press (AP) news wire, and the US News and World Report news magazine, both excellent sources. What I received was mostly a steady barrage of negative news and analysis. By the time the day arrived for me to return to the US, I felt that the US had slipped very badly while I was away, and I had some real concern about returning to the mess that the US now was. But after returning, it didn't take long to realize that I had gained a bad image of a mostly peaceful and great country. I had been isolated and fed mostly bad news.
There is a counterpoint to this to the alienation that victimization and bad news causes. The counterpoint is that exposing the public to the darker side of human nature makes us all better prepared for recognizing and avoiding people and situations that could lead to trouble. We become much more sophisticated about recognizing trouble through vicarious exposure to trouble. This is one of the premise (I think) that the news media uses to justify covering crime. "The public has a right to know," and that right involves prevention. There is always the complaint that education also educates the criminals, but there seems to be no shortage of criminals, and as stupid as their crimes are they really don't seem to be learning much.
This leaves open the question, "Does unnecessary repititive victimization in stories in the communications media, whether entertainment or news, have some negative impact on some segments of our society?" It is something for writers and news managers to think about.
Another way of viewing violence is to look at what is happening in our society over time. The amount of violence on TV has remained about the same since the '70s. The number of violent events is known to climb following periods of war. The US has been involved in nearly continuous conflicts all of the 19th. Century: World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, even tiny islands, etc. etc. The rate of violence did go up during the first half of the 19th. Century. One would expect violence to continue to be high, considering the continuing military conflicts. Yet the rate of violent crimes has been decreasing for years - this in spite of drug related violence.
We are, however, locking people in prison in the US at a very high rate. Around 1900, we locked up about .1% of the population. Today, partially due to much stiffer penalties, we keep around .4% of the population behind bars. The overall affect: despite considerably more people in prison today, we now have about the same likelihood of experiencing a violent crime as twenty years ago.
Why are we as likely today to experience a violent crime even though we are flooding the prisons and statistically the crime rate is steadily going down? Social problems, such as economic alienation and social disorganization (another form of alienation) are thought to be contributing factors. While we lock up . 4% of the population, a full 7% are African-American males, whose lives are negatively impacted by extremely high unemployment. And unlike many nations, we lock up a high proportion of our people for drug offenses. Although our prisons are bulging with drug related offendors, according to judicial reports this has minimal affect on drug related crime.
Economic problems aren't the only problems affecting minorities. Minority cultures are often fragmented. The question is, in a fragmented society, where do people get their moral and ethical values and attitudes toward the world? While the media may not be the cause, the media may be a source, and that source often focuses on power and victimization. Power and victimization, a double-edge sword of a message that teaches that those in power dominate while the powerless are victims. Those who would definitely feel powerless, and feel the need to gain and assert power, would definitely be the minority 7% we are locking up. To gain power, where can they see to turn except to violence?
Power can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. Those in the US live in the most powerful country on Earth. While the US may give the impression of "walking softly," the US has the military might to force any nation or group of nations to do its bidding. The US has the economic power to negotiate forcefully with any nation or trading group. The companies within the US respect the power of those corporations with the most power - they outbid or outperform each other for goods and services in a competitive atmosphere, and often assume the role of predators. Individuals amass great fortunes and influence, and relish the idea of having and wielding power. The people within the US regularly seek the power of the US Court system for legal remedies for any grievances they have with others or with companies. The French are disgusted with us - they fear we are taking over the world, and they don't want to live like we do. Perhaps that is a warning sign of which we should take note.
People in the US live in a power atmosphere, and they are enculturated into the ethos of using power to get what they want. Is it any wonder that our stories are full of power motifs, themes, characters, and plots? Is it any wonder that our stories are littered with victims to demonstrate the might of the truly powerful - both of the antagonist and protagonist?
Is it bad or good for a nation to be aware of and dwell on its power? Would the people of the US take a stand against the people and things which are wrong in the land and in the world were we not so conscious of our power?
What to do, what to do?
Two things can occur in violent encounters. A bad person can harm an innocent person - victimization. And an antagonist and protagonist can battle. Is victimization necessary? Often it really only takes the encounter of the antagonist and protagonist to tell a story. Innocent people can be threatened without being harmed. And innocent people can rise and conquer their adversaries, finding within themselves the power and abilities to stand against threats.
Would telling stories in this way be a good thing? It would probably make terrible horror movies, whose audiences seem to revel in being scared. It seems many people have a need to taste powerlessness and terror, possibly to remind them that they are flesh and blood, and possibly to remind them that there are powers that are greater than they are, or maybe just for a rush. Who knows? And then, some people seem to live on the borderline of paranoia and are easily swayed. Only an occassional reminder that there are bad people in this world is enough to keep them looking over their shoulder even inside their own homes in front of their TV, or in their shower.
Can we afford to change our stories? Beyond the normal role of violence in our stories, we seem to rely a great deal on the sensational. Our news stories and our movies rely on violence to draw a crowd. But I think that it is quite possible to write stories similar to action movies that have high impact without incorporating a lot of violence. The Hurricane is one such story, and it shows in a positive way how regular people - not superhumans - can win against victimization by other people and systems. Not that every story should be this way, but I think that in the news media and in the entertainment media too many fail to resist the powerful dollar and go for the cheap and easy story - the one with the victim. While violent crime has dropped 20 - 40% in the last 25 years, the number of murder stories on newscasts has actually increased 600 percent.*3 (Note: statistics often tell the story that their authors wish.)
Real violence in communities alienates people from each other. Is the flood of violence in stories alienating people? I continue to believe that while primarily art mimics life, over a long period of time life does to some extent mimic art. In a small but significant way, we are in the process of creating our world by what we choose to dwell on.
Next and final article in this series: Part 6: Corruption.
Disagree? I hope so. Write a better one. Comments are welcome and won't be published. Contact Primary Contact.
*1 Janis, Irving L., and Mann, Leon. Decision Making. A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment.1977, 10, Coercive Demands during the Watergate Coverup.
*2 Violence Profile, CYCF Electronic Clearinghouse.
*3 Glassner, Barry. The Culture of Fear .
Petty, Richard E., and Cacioppo, John T. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. 1981.
Schmitt, Richard, and Moody, Thomas (Editors). Alienation and Social Criticism. Key Concepts in Critical Theory. 1994.
A related creative writing story synopsis, Enemies, can be used for writing a story on alienation. The story is designed to be written by opposing individuals or groups.
A note about this series
For a reference text, I tried to choose a book as likeminded in approach as myself. That is, a book that takes a very wide view of the subject, that is not reactive or driven by a separate agenda, and not mired in past research yet cognizant of the value of past research. I chose Alienation and Social Criticsim: Key Concepts in Critical Theory, 1994, Edited by Richard Schmitt and Thomas Moody. But this series isn't a book report. I chose the book as an authorative reference that would not only guide me with a reasonably extensive framework, but would mostly stimulate my thinking by my reacting to it.* The subjects that I am writing about are intentionally beyond the scope of the reference book.
As usual, the intent of this series is not to teach anyone anything or to assert my opinion, but to stimulate creative thought and interest through a thorough exploration of a timely subject about the human condition. The hope is to encourage stories (creative, nonfiction, journalism) that are better informed. My own bias is simply to ask, "What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?"
* In the previous series, Finding Meaning in Life and Characterization, I found myself studying three to five reference books for each article even though I had outlined the entire series in advance. While worthwhile, and maybe necessary for that series, that was a tremendous drain on my time. I hope to keep this series to only a few references.
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