Why do we watch violence?
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Chris Hedges
It was an unsettling question when I was first asked and one I still feel uncomfortable with. It is one I feel less and less uncomfortable about bringing up in conversation although it tends to be a conversation stopper.
It seems to me that our first reaction is that it is a “silly” question as that “of course” we watch it because it is “exciting” or simply entertaining. I realize too that there are many that actually are very careful and do not watch violence.
I should also be specific in that I am referring to movies and televisions and realize that many, many people still choose not to view these or simply do not have the time. From the start we should not be simplistic and forget that from time immemorial literature has dealt often, almost exclusively, with violence so the quest is why do we even bother with the Iliad and the Odyssey or the tragedies’ of Shakespeare?
The answer is not obvious. The world has always been a dangerous place and this question is only probably even at all sensible in that the world is relatively much more safe compared to only one hundred years ago. That is it would have been laughable a few years ago as to walk out in the street would to be to see what was on stage. I believe it was the humorist Dave Barry who invented the hotel game of “100 Channels.” The idea is to flip through 100 cable channels without seeing a gun. You “win” if you do not see a gun; pretty impossible to do. The idea is when is the last time you saw a gun in real life? I live and work in a pretty tough neighborhood and have not seen a gun except in the holster of an armed guard or policeman in about five years, and that was in lock box in a friend’s home.
This was not the case only a short time ago and throughout, at least recorded history, crime, famine, disease and war where common. It is recognized that often this resulted in times when the general mental status of the common man was quite unstable only adding to the turmoil. That is despite the common notion of “how bad things are,” things have greatly improved (see excellent summary of the decline of crime and violence by Steven Pinker). But they have only recently improved and so there is a huge legacy and history of violence and of course still too often our ways of solving problems involve violence; war to capital punishment and of course crime. I should even though this is about a “negative” point, “our penchant for watching violence”, emphasize and once again encourage you to listen to Pinker’s summary to encourage a positive “scene” and say that without a doubt things are getting better and we can always do better.
And no, I have not forgotten “domestic violence” which has altered by who knows how much but for sure is alive and well in amounts much more so than any one dare to admit or report.
Until the advent of movies, now only a little over 100 years old we only had the theater which was only accessible to the tiniest part of the population if we were to have live entertainment and then reading which again has been available to such a small part of the population despite the printing press, until recently. It seems to me that the electronic representation of violence has much to do with interest, interest as a reflection of the violence in our own lives. Being so very ignorant of the causes for the chaos in our own lives we our subconsciously desperately looking and hoping for answers. Unfortunately so many people grow up with such seemingly mindless violence ( I say seemingly because it in the end it all has a logic) that much is watched as a means medication, and retraumatizing or reliving trauma. Do others live the hell that I do? Why do they? How can I survive it? At its worst media is also, unfortunately often and frequently a classroom of “oh that is how you defend yourself in this or that situation.”
A coherent view of how emotion drives history can be seen through the study of Psychohistory. From the start I say I have a problem with its foundations in that it uses Freudian ideas where I argue for the more direct approach of motivation to action through our innate feelings. I think little if anything is lost of Lloyd DeMause’s work and thinking if you substitute one for the other when he talks of infant and childhood terror states being the cause for domestic and international terror. His “Foundations of Psychohistory” is a classic. It is not for everyone. If anything is violent this book is. It is the true history of violence against children. It puts into a historical context why our interest and excitement are focused on what he calls “sacrificial themes,” and why we search them out.
So we watch to learn and to relive and then there is again the pure emotion of it all. Chris Hedges teaches us of the addiction to battle. A former war correspondence he finally realized that he and many of his colleagues where “chasing the battle” that in fact he had become addicted to battle. He sobered up. His quote that is used to open this essay is used to open the movie “The “Hurt Locker” the “Best Picture” of 2010 explores one mans addiction to the thrill of disarming military ordnances and IED’s to the point that it is the only “real” thing in his life. He reenlists leaving his mate and young son.
I claim always to be monitoring myself against watching violence. I will often wait a very long time before I will see a movie that I think is violent. Often I will never see it. But then why do I eventually see some? There are some distinctions to be made the most obvious is gratuitous and non gratuitous violence. Of late I have been surprised with my acceptance of how I have been disavowing much of the violence around me. This is not good and dangerous. Sticking your head in the sand is not good. So, watching works that present themselves as honest and I have found to be honest has helped me evaluate the real world around me. The ends of “Macbeth” or “Hamlet” are not displays of gratuitous violence. And as much as the end of “Reservoir Dogs” might look like “Hamlet” it is not “Hamlet.” There is a movie I waited years to see. I was seduced simply by the name and its staying power in my memory. I forgot it was by Quentin Tarantino. I for example will not see “Inglorious Bustards.” He is who he is and for me he feeds the addiction of and for violence. I hear him say he has no obligation whatsoever to have a moral stance. His stance is free-floating excitement and whatever serves that end is fine with him. To me his violence is by definition gratuitous because it is only there to entertain and to satiate because there is no further end, no moral, no real plot. What is the point of most marital art movies except excitement? Or the discharge of anger, rage or disgust?
Why do you enjoy violence?
Shame and Humiliation
Shame and Humiliation
http://www.squidoo.com/thinking-feeling-doing (Summary of Principles used in these posts.)
Tomkins, Silvan S.: Affect Imagery Consciousness NY: SPringer Publishing Company, 1963.
Shame and Pride : Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self by Donald L. Nathanson Paperback (March 1994)