My friend Li is an Evangelical Christian and, in keeping with her family values she keeps an eye on what her children view and read. In the summer, she took her 12-year-old daughter to the Hunger Games. “It’s the perfect movie for her,” Li commented. “No swearing and no sex.” No swearing; no sex. Just people stalking and killing each other.
The Motion Picture Association of America agrees with Li’s priorities. So did the writers of the Bible. Our love-hate-love affair with violence goes way back.
It also appears to be changing. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Stephen Pinker lined up information from a wide variety of sources to show that human societies are less violent now than ever in recorded history. Violence dropped precipitously with the agricultural revolution, and then again with the Enlightenment and more recently, with the emergence of universal human rights. In the U.S., recent decades have seen a decline in murder rates and gun ownership. This finding is counterintuitive for several reasons. We have become more sensitized to kinds of violence that once were accepted as normal, like child and wife abuse; modern weapons of war have made killings more dramatic; we forget how brutish our ancestors really were; and thanks to media, modern incidents of violence produce shockwaves of trauma that once were impossible. All of this obscures a long and vast trend line toward—it sounds weird to say it—a kinder, gentler world. A medieval British man was fifty times more likely to die at the hands of another man than is his modern descendant.
We might be even farther along this path were it not for a dalliance with fantasy violence that, if anything, appears to be growing.
The Motion Picture Association of America has been rating sex, violence and profanity in movies since 1968, with the goal of limiting how much of each children absorb—or at least giving parents a tool that lets them make the judgment call. In 2006, the Annenberg Public Policy Center reviewed the top grossing movies since the rating system began. In fact, they reviewed movies all the way back to 1950. They found that explicit sex and violence had both increased over time, but that “ratings creep” affected only violence. Explicit sex is still reserved for “R” rated films; explicit violence is not.
Many parents naively trust that media targeted at young children are developmentally harmless even though brain science suggests otherwise. They similarly tend to assume that a G-Rating means a movie is low on violence. In reality, it may mean simply that the violence is less realistic or designed to trigger laughter rather than fear. A Harvard study published in 2000 reviewed every animated feature film produced between 1933 and 1999, 74 in total. At the time, the findings made headlines because they were startling:
- Every single film had at least one violent act. The amount of footage devoted to violence ranged from 6 seconds to 24 minutes.
- Most of the films showed physical fighting as a means of resolving conflict.
- Characters used weapons including swords and guns and every-day objects.
- In half of the movies at least one character gave violence a thumbs-up at some point by cheering or laughing.
A follow up in 2004 showed that G-rated movies, like all others, gradually are becoming more violent. A 2007 study sampled 77 PG-13 films and tallied 2251 violent actions, with nearly half causing one or more death. Researchers classified most of the incidents as “happy violence” meaning it was “cool, swift, and painless.” Today, by the age of 11, the typical American kid has seen almost 8000 murders on TV. Why? Because we like it that way. Movies that are rated R for violence make more money than those that are rated R for other reasons. The video game industry with violence as a mainstay is worth over 100 billion annually and some games even market military style equipment. We are attracted to violence and we are inured to violence. Most Americans—not just my friend Li–find murder to be more acceptable fare for children than sex or swear words.
Our peculiar hierarchy of priorities may be due in part to the influence of Abrahamic religion on Western Civilization and the unique standing accorded to the Bible in American Christianity specifically. The Bible amalgamates the mythology and legal codes of a specific kind of culture: a clan-based tribal society in which herdsmen struggling for survival in an arid and increasingly denuded environment. Males competed to control females and territory while maintaining the purity of bloodlines and inheritance; gods that were modeled on warlords competed for fealty. Consequently, while codes governing sexuality and blasphemy were strict, codes governing violence were complicated.
Yahweh himself originated as a war god. Non-Hebrews were regarded with hostility and indeed, much of the founding story of the Israelite people comprises tales of triumphal genocide. The violence in in the Bible is so extreme that it defines vast portions of the book:
[Edmund Leach] looked at the Bible through the eyes of a communications engineer and asked: what message are these authors trying to get through to the reader? The answer, Leach thought, was that they were trying to obscure the fact that mankind began through incest (Adam and Eve) and so the strategy was to compile a list of atrocities so heinous that, in the end, the original incest would come to look like a harmless act.
Whether history or mythology or some fusion of the two, the Bible stories, when tallied, include an estimated 25 million violent deaths. Death is the prescribed solution for 36 legal offenses, many of them not even misdemeanors today. And yet, like any people, the internal narrative of God’s Chosen Ones is one of yearning for peace and prosperity, the dream of an idyllic past in which the lion lay down with the lamb; an idyllic future in which men will beat their swords into plowshares and the lamb and lion will lie down together again.
Like the ancient Israelites, we Americans see ourselves as peacemakers. During the midwinter holiday season, Peace on Earth is sung from choir lofts and hung in shopping malls. We complain, sometimes graciously, sometimes bitterly about our role as “policeman to the world.” And yet, if we could see ourselves as others see us, we would see a people who, like the ancient Israelites have created unparalleled archetypes of violence: the Rambo, the mushroom cloud, the Tommy Gun, the Cowboy. Hollywood ensures that, even independent of the world’s best funded military, violence is one of our top exports.
I once rode a bus to a then small town in Mexico called San Cristobal de las Casas. The ride was my introduction to a new phenomenon that would become a bane during subsequent budget travel: video on buses and trains. It was also my first awakening to the level of violence we Americans export to the world as storytellers. Real dialogue can be hard to translate; psychological or social nuance almost impossible. But sex and violence are universals, which means they are even more ubiquitous in the movies that cross cultural and economic lines than those that don’t.
On this particular bus ride, the gratis entertainment was about a serial killer who was making snuff films. As we swayed around mountain switchbacks, the sound blared. Men, traditionally clad women, and small children pressed against each other, with no option but to face the screen depicting death scene after death scene. My savage hope was that the other passengers were motion sick like me and that the pairing of the film and switchbacks was conditioning a permanent visceral aversion to sexual violence. Later that year, on an all-night bus, I would find myself assaulted by my first movie about people hunting people. The male lead was a hunky white supremacist, a farmer by day who secretly liked to hunt Blacks.
In movies, of course, it is the bad guys who do the unprovoked killing. Any violence perpetrated by the protagonist, meaning by us at a fantasy level, is vengeance or justice. Most people are deeply ambivalent about violence. We are both attracted and repelled by it. We enjoy and fear it. It turns us on and it horrifies us. Consequently, to get the satisfaction of a good blockbuster we need those bad guys to instigate things. The violence we like best is righteous violence, and—in movies and stories–most violence is just that. It protects innocence and restores justice. It safeguards women and children and the homeland.
Ironically, those who most relish the fantasy power of righteous violence are those who in real life are most likely to perpetrate unrighteous violence. Masculinity, the substance of action films, is defined by the Oxford Online Dictionary thus: possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men: a need for men to prove their masculinity through domination over women. Hypermasculine men hit women more, and a woman being pregnant is no deterrent. In the real world, tough guys are good guys until suddenly, sometimes, they are not. In the real world, most murders are triggered by the same motives we find so satisfying on the screen: righteous anger, a sense of violated fairness or honor, the outrage of feeling wronged, the conviction that the one murdered was the bad guy.
Most of us will never kill. These days, most of us don’t even hit. Even so, if we hope to continue the trend toward less violence, the challenge is not whether we can call up the heroism to face down villains and demons like those in our stories but whether we can continue to face away from our own dark fascinations. Alexander Solzhenitsyn posed the painful conundrum: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Who of us is willing even, to miss the next blockbuster? In The Hunger Games, the bad people are the citizens of the Capitol who demand that outlying districts provide sacrificial contestants for their high tech version of the Roman Coliseum. Movie viewers and readers root for the kids and scorn those who give them no choice but to kill or be killed, those who watch the blood sport for entertainment. But the books and movie work only because we, as readers and viewers, ignore the disturbing obvious: we are the Capitol. The Hunger Games were staged for us; we are and always were the only intended audience. Suzanne Collins offered us a chance to watch kids hunting and killing each other, and we ate it up. Did she laugh we flocked to the book stores and theater, as we downloaded DVD’s and shared dog-eared copies and checked sequel release dates? Did she cry? Did she care? Do we?
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.