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Is there too much violence, both real and fictional, portrayed in the media? In this letter from John Norman, written in December 2008 and published with his kind permission, you can find out his views on this particular subject.

TopSome Thoughts on Violence

Some individuals, reformers perhaps, have expressed dismay at what purportedly seems to them an excessive and objectionable amount of violence in contemporary literature, motion pictures, TV, the theater, and so on.

Several questions would seem to be involved here. Some are as follows:

1. Is there a great deal of violence, proportionately, portrayed in these venues?

I think the answer to this question is that, proportionately, there is not much violence portrayed in such venues, compared, say, one, to the nonviolent elements likely to be therein encountered, for example, cooking programs and home-repair programs, though the cook might burn his hand on a hot pan and the TV carpenter might inadvertently strike his thumb with a hammer, and so on, and, two, compared to what might be encountered each evening in local and national newscasts.

2. Is the amount of violence in the media, and such, excessive and objectionable?

Here several problems arise, one or two of which might be noticed.

What counts as violence? The word 'violence' may suffer from an attack of rubber-band semantics, in which, say, any conflict, any harsh word, any unkind or unfair act, any illegal deed, any selfish behavior, any push or shove, any slap, any stomping out of the room, any slammed door, and so on, might be deemed violent. But let us suppose 'violence' is used here with marked seriousness, such that a noisy argument doesn't really count as violence, or just anything which might manage to provoke a tear or a twinge of regret. If 'violence' is equated with, say, conflict of any sort then the word serves more as a truncheon for infantile squealing and battering than a handy utensil for adult communication. On the other hand, there are certainly paradigm uses for the word, where, for example, intentional bloodshed, assault, mayhem, heavy strikings about the head and shoulders, dismemberments, and such, might be involved.

Do the people who are putting out this "violence" regard it as excessive or objectionable? Well, one supposes not. If they are artists, for example, of one sort or another, they are trying to put in just the right amount of violence to achieve their end, neither too little nor too much, and thus they would not personally regard the amount as excessive, and, if they achieved their goal, they would presumably not regard the amount as objectionable.

It seems then that the claim of excessive or objectionable violence is in a sense an external claim, one likely to originate with a critic, and not with a maker, or producer, so to speak.

Such a claim, of course, might be justified or not justified, from a given individual's point of view. It would seem to be justified from the critic's point of view, of course, as he is proposing that point of view, but, as the critic's point of view may be eccentric or idiosyncratic, one needs to consider the question more generally. The critic certainly counts for one, but it is important to keep in mind that he counts only for one. For example, let us suppose the critic is terribly allergic to radishes. He might then very well regard the appearance of, or mention of, radishes, in the venues in question as excessive and objectionable. Indeed, one mention a month of his vegetable noir, might suffice to make him disconsolate, if not actually to send him to his bed with palpitations. And he would be well within his rights to attempt to sway public opinion, organize anti-radish advocacy groups, bring lawsuits, lobby congress, and such, to try to ban radishes from the pages of books and magazines, and so on, and, even, with luck, from the stalls of astonished grocers. But those of us to whom radishes seem neutral, and perhaps even benign, need not applaud his movement, and certainly may hope not to appear on its mailing list.

It is to be noted here that to those who fear or abhor any portrayal of violence any portrayal of violence is excessive and objectionable. Even one radish is too much.

As a logical point it might be noted that a portrayal of violence is not violence. A photograph of a giraffe, for example, is not a giraffe.

As I understand the psychological issues here a normal human being habitually draws a distinction between what is real and what is not real. Indeed, a failure to manage this is a symptom of something or other, and not something desirable. In short, a normal human being is capable of reading a detective story without feeling it is then incumbent upon him to go out the back door and shoot a neighbor.

In short, normal people are in no danger from portrayed violence. No one has ever been trampled by a photograph of a giraffe, for example.

Ah, but what about the abnormal person?

Well, most abnormal persons, like their more typical fellows, do not read detective stories and go after their neighbors either. Rather, they do things like organize anti-radish movements.

Ah, but what about the occasional weird abnormal person?

I would suppose it would be difficult to protect oneself against that fellow.

The first thing to recognize is that even the hypothesized occasional weird abnormal person is not likely, if ever, to be influenced by portrayed violence, unless, one, it occurs in a religious text he has been taught to take seriously, and still thinks other people take seriously, the Bible, for example, or, two, he has seen the real thing, or references to the real thing, on, say, TV or in the newspapers, or such. Real-world occurrences, murders, hijackings, and such, are much more likely to encourage certain behaviors than fictitious accounts of such things, with which the abnormal person, in any event, is likely to be unacquainted. People who murder people, for example, usually have particular motives, real-life motives. They do not need to watch a movie to give them the idea of blowing away Smith. Too, murderers, statistically, are not big readers. Readers, on the whole, would rather read then shoot people. Wouldn't you?

I rather doubt that it would prove practical to eliminate all references to violence in a culture. If we were serious about it, really, one would have to start with things like the Bible, and similar texts, and dozens of assorted religions, which have been responsible for several wars and millions of deaths. No mystery writer has ever destroyed cities, slaughtered children, burned heretics, tortured infidels, and so on. Secondly, one should expurgate history, because most of it is the annals of a slaughter house. Too, we should not let the abnormal individual discover that nature is real, that it is on the whole a frenzy of wariness and sudden death. Keep from the abnormal person knowledge of the leopard and shark, the barracuda and cobra. And certainly do not permit him to watch the news or, if he can, read the newspapers. Suppose we were successful, and we could keep the human species in its socially engineered nursery school, its antiseptic, padded, stainless-steel cell, sheltered from all references to violence and unpleasantness. Would that solve the problem? I doubt it. Rather I think we would have found, after the door was locked, and the world shut away, that the beast we most feared was within, that it was on our side of the door, curled at our feet, looking up at us, that we had locked it within, and that it was part of us.

I think the market can manage violence, and such, better than laws and meddling. If violence is perceived as being excessive or objectionable people, statistically, refrain from supporting it. And things change. This is an example of evolutionary rationalism, or an illustration of systemic processes in action. There's a lot of smarts in the real world. There is more knowledge, wisdom, and simple common sense out there than is dreamed of in the philosophies of our "betters." We can trust ourselves more than someone else, particularly if they have a thing about radishes.

Why do human beings like violence, and will have it, in one way or another, even if they have to invent it? The answer is simple, and not hard to understand. We like it because it is a part of us.

It is stimulating. It makes life interesting. Without it we are bored, and trivial.

To deny the beast is impossible.

To kill it we must kill ourselves.

The question is not whether to live with the beast or not, but how to live with it.

Evolution in our species, in its lotteries and experimentations, has selected for both brain and beast.

The experiment is interesting, is it not?

I wish you well,
John Norman

Copyright © 2008 John Norman. All rights reserved.

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