What Can be Changed?

It is no longer just a matter of opinion. Evidence has been accumulating that shows exposure to violence on TV and the movies increases the likelihood that people will act violently in life.

The debate used to be different, more a matter of prejudice and social class. Those who deplored violence on the screen may well have feared its impact on the young, but, more importantly, they deplored what was happening to popular culture. Violence was — how to put it? – lower class. Punks went into boxing, while the children of the affluent went into business. Poor kids brawled and poor neighborhoods erupted in violence. People in wealthy neighborhoods read books and mowed their lawns. Those were stereotypes, of course, but in the absence of hard evidence they underlay the discussion and shaped opinion.

But then popular culture, including gangsta rap and dirty dancing went mainstream. Many may have deplored those changes, but increasingly they kept their opinions to themselves. Violence became democratized.

Now we have evidence. According to a report in The New York Times, “There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior.” That is different from saying media violence causes violent behavior, and there are serious questions about the strength of the effect, but increasingly studies seem to be moving researchers in that direction. According to a review of the literature published in The Lancet: “The weight of the studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children.” (See, “Does Media Violence Lead to the Real Thing?”)

Will this change the debate? And, if so, how?

It is a bit like pollution and global warming. We keep spewing out the gases that block warm the atmosphere. The economy demands it, and we are hooked on the standard of living that inevitably produces it. Increasingly we understand the consequences of this behavior and we can modify it to some extent, as we sometimes have done by regulating automobile emissions. We seek alternatives, but despite what we can do, we will still be stuck with levels of pollution that will inevitably raise global temperatures. We lack the will and the political ability to make the radical changes we need to make to do anything but slow the process down.

Similarly, our culture glorifies struggle and combat. We have the highest prison population in the world, and if we are not at war with Iraq or Syria, we are at war with drugs or cancer or each other over issues like teaching evolution or offering birth control. We can’t regulate the sale of guns. According to The Children’s Defense Fund: “The number of children and teens killed by guns in 2010 was nearly five times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action that year in Iraq and Afghanistan.” (See Blow) The stories that capture the attention of the public are about threats of annihilation, intergalactic warfare, gang fights, evil plots to take over the world, etc.

To be sure, much of this is displaced frustration from lives of boredom or thwarted ambition or suppressed desire, the varied ways in which we do not actually act violently towards each other. But our culture does seem obsessed with violence, and as long as that is so we will be imagining it — and it will erupt with alarming frequency.

Perhaps the answer – to the extent there is one – is to get better at just accepting who we are.