One question for parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles in the examination of conscience before confession reads: “Have I failed to exercise vigilance over what my children read, see on television or on the internet?” What are the possible effects of watching violent and unsuitable material? Is the certification of films really to be trusted? – – – – – – – – – –
‘I FOUND THE LEVEL OF VIOLENCE UNWATCHABLE’
“We often have TV dinners in my house and last night I sat down with one of my teenage sons to watch a film that he clearly thought I was going to enjoy as much as I did. It was called ‘Avengers Assemble’ and it is rated PG-13. As super-hero movies go, it was high quality – full of A-list actors, and of course the special effects were stunning with a budget of $220 million. But most of it showed intense violence interspersed with about 15 minutes of either talking about violence about to happen, or recovering from violence. It was a very, very violent film. Actress Scarlett Johansson said she spent months training for the role by fighting stuntmen. ‘It’s crazy – I do nothing but fight all the time,’ she reported. ‘Avengers Assemble’ is not alone. ‘The Dark Knight’ series also waltzed through the PG-13 filter, as did ‘The Hunger Games’. I wondered, do teens really need to see for entertainment entire cities destroyed in minutes by giant machines or a nuclear bomb blowing up an alien city? Unlike the millions worldwide who helped this production earn more than a thousand million dollars to date, I didn’t see it through to the end. ‘Calm down mum,’ my son laughed as I left the room, ‘it’s only a film.’ Well, I found the level of violence offensive and unwatchable. And I wondered: Does violence in the media affect the well-being of individuals and society? And is a culture that inundates itself with media violence a significantly more violent culture than one in which violence is rare in the media?
CREATIVELY LAZY FILMS
Timothy M. Gray, the editor in chief of ‘Variety’, questioned film violence in his January 2013 edition. ‘It’s the pervasiveness we should be concerned with,’ he said, ‘for you can see 28 explosions that kill dozens of people in seven minutes of movie trailers.’ He felt that you couldn’t actually count the acts of murder and mayhem, 24/7 on 500 TV channels. Gray’s editorial called for Hollywood to act. ‘When asked about violent or demeaning content, some in Hollywood shrug, ‘It’s what the public wants,” he said, ‘but there’s a fine line between catering to the public wants and pandering to their basest instincts.’ In the same issue, writer Callie Khouri pointed out that violent scripts make easy money but are ‘creatively lazy’. She said that, ‘writing a story that doesn’t have a gun or doesn’t have a murder or doesn’t have a violent incident in it is a whole lot more difficult than writing a story that does.’ Gray felt that after the terror attacks of 9/11, he expected to see greater sensitivity to mass killings in action films, yet in the most recent Batman film, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges are blown up, killing thousands, against a backdrop where the World Trade Center used to be. Gray felt if this is what passes for entertainment, if our memories are so short and our sensitivities so blunted, something is broken. I agree with him.
In Quentin Tarantino’s films, the violence, torture and bloodletting sit side by side with wisecracking dialogue and moments of slapstick. His latest, ‘Django Unchained’, features whippings, brutal wrestling matches and one scene in which dogs rip a slave to pieces. In many cinemas, audiences are laughing at scenes of hanging and shootings in the genitals. The challenge now for film-makers is to jolt audiences who’ve already seen death portrayed so many times on screen before. Tarantino deflected a question about film violence linked to real life massacres earlier on this year saying, ‘I think it’s disrespectful to the people who died to talk about movies; obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.’ I would exclude from concern those films which do not focus on violence as entertainment, but on highlighting the horror of violence. The Stephen Spielberg films, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Lincoln’ portray the evil of war and the fortitude to tackle it. Kathryn Bigelow assesses the psychological cost of global conflicts in ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. But more often, casual detachment about death is a staple of mainstream cinema.
LINK WITH AGGRESSION
In the era of computer games like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Assasin’s Creed’, death isn’t taken very seriously here either. The debate over the effects of violence in the media really hotted up last year when a survey carried out by Australia’s Interactive Games and Entertainment Association found that large numbers of children are spending many hours a week playing violent video games. ‘When children are constantly exposed to violent media it raises the risk that they will choose to use aggression themselves when put in a conflict situation,’ commented Barbara Biggins, CEO of the Australian Council on Children and the Media. An earlier report by the International Society for Research on Aggression on the effects of exposure to media violence found that frequent exposure to media violence increased the relative risk of aggression. ‘Youth can now download, view, play, and listen to violent material any time of day or night, often from the privacy of their own rooms, and with little supervision from their parents,’ the report warned. Some people reject the idea that violence in the media will affect behaviour, but the report pointed out that when it comes to content that is not violent it is accepted that the media will influence what people do, as is evident from the existence of the multibillion dollar advertising industry. Violence in video games is more of a problem than in other forms of media, due to its interactive nature. Playing video games involves practice, repetition and being rewarded for numerous acts of violence, which may intensify the learning. The issue is whether watching violent movies and shows or interactively engaging in violent games in a virtual world increases the odds that people may engage in aggressive behaviour in a variety of forms, both in the short term and in the long term.
A number of studies have found that exposure to media violence not only increases aggressive behaviour, but also aggressive thoughts, feelings, psychological arousal, and decreases social skills. The aggression may not be immediate or severe, such as shooting someone; it can take a variety of forms, such as a child being more defiant and disrespectful. Violent images can also serve as a trigger for aggressive thoughts and feelings already stored in the brain. Violence in films, TV, or video games also leads to the desensitization of the process of moral evaluation of behaviour by an individual.
During the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, media outlets provided live, real-time coverage of battle for the first time in history. Network reporters were ’embedded’ with troops – transmitting battle footage straight into homes – and viewers felt like they were taking part in the war. Studies show regular exposure to traumatic events through television and film can increase stress and depression. The impact of seeing TV violence can even affect the way people interact with each other in society. ‘People overexposed to horrendous violence and death can reach a point of saturation similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome,’ says Ronald Barrett, psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University; ‘People may shut down and not be able to have normal feelings.’ In addition, the media presentation can blur normal feelings of compassion. The compassion meter runs differently depending on who is dying. When the person being killed is labelled as the enemy then very often there is little compassion. When one of our own soldiers is killed, it is framed as being more meaningful. In the ten years since the Iraq War it is now commonplace to see live war footage and other violent episodes.’
THE ‘ADMIRABLE’ SOLUTION
Viewers should not rely on the media to digest information for them, according to Sr Elizabeth Thoman, a member of the Congregation of Humility of Mary, and founder of Los Angeles Center for Media Literacy. She feels we should be asking, ‘How does this media coverage get to us? Is it being sponsored by someone? Is somebody making money from this? Are certain images being selected?’ She adds that, ‘even if we look at the same picture,we see it differently depending on what we bring to it.’ We should be asking, do we solve our problems with bigger bombs and faster planes? It would be lamentable if our young people are learning that violence is the solution to conflict. And not only is it ‘the solution’, it’s the admirable solution. If our heroes resort to violence to fix our problems then why don’t we? What a pity that you won’t find Pax Christi work on peace education in the mainstream media, or projects on non-violent meditation in conflict situations, such as in Palestine.
Extreme real-life violence does not need to be in a war context. In February, the video of a taxi driver being dragged to his death after being handcuffed to a police vehicle in South Africa went viral around the world. It became a worldwide symbol of police brutality in the country. Mido Macia was only 27-years-old when he died after a minor altercation with policemen escalated. The recording of the incident by horrified onlookers who beseeched the police to stop their abuse will at least mean there is evidence for securing justice. Over recent years mobile phone footage of attacks on indigenous peoples’ protests in Peru have reached the West, revealing the violence used against people trying to save their land from destruction by Western mining companies. And on alternative media such as Twitter and Facebook you will find inspiring stories about peacemaking that simply don’t appear in the mainstream.
CALL TO BE PEACEMAKERS
As followers of Jesus, who completely rejected violence and called on us to be peacemakers, we should become more alert to violent media and its effects on us all. We must not ignore the fact that the media consumption, especially in children and teens, is a strong predictor of both perceptions of the world and behavioural responses to crises. We must make smart decisions as parents, activists, and consumers… Immersion into a culture of constant violence is bad for anyone, and especially so for children.”
– This article by Ellen Teague, entitled “School of Violence” was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue May 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy