There are two things in life I am extremely careful with. The first is violence in its many forms and second are the media and its many channels. Today for the umpteenth time I learnt of how violence in video games still a topic of discussion. That it is a topic of discussion is one thing but to single it out as a cause of violent behaviour paints a bleak picture. Violence and the media have a complex relationship. A relationship that stems me bleak like this picture.
First some context, more specifically my perspective. I grew up a Christian which included reading the Bible and praying everyday. To this day I like the Old Testament more. When I was young for the better and gory stories and now I am older for books like Proverbs that are still a good source for introspection and advice. I also grew up in the 1990-ties with Dragon Ball Z and I loved the show. I loved and still appreciate Medieval stories about knights and heroes who fight and kill for “their right reasons” because violence was a part of life. Think of the duels in Western Europe. In my opinion violence is part of life, best avoided and not to be underestimated.
My perspective and awareness of the trends of the 21st century force me to de-construct violence and the media for what they are in everyday life. I will make it clear yet keep it short.
Violence: to apply harmful behaviour to solve a social problem; intimidation, injury or death.
Media: to bring a message through a medium/media for an audience with a certain intention.
Violence: violence causes people to give in and obey or to fight back with counter aggression.
Media: the message reaches its audience which influences its behaviour and affects others.
Violence has many forms but is generally easily understood. The moment someone tries to harm another person there are usually two reactions: to allow it or to stop it. When the violence is allowed there is either a group consensus or the bystander effect. Most people think well enough of themselves to say “(public) violence is a bad thing” yet at the same time not everyone wants to be the person to step in and say “stop fighting!”
Add the media. The media are each medium owned and/or operated by people with certain perspectives, opinions, agendas and information sources. From traditional media in print to broadcasting media to digital media now there are many ways to bring a message to an audience. The media inherently exist to continue catering to their audience as long the people behind the channels find necessary. When you think about that inherent interest to exist and combine that with the topics that make the most sales you realise something. War, violence, crimes, scandals, gossip and taboos sell better than “today someone was kind to someone else.”
To get to the core of the complex relationship between violence and the media you start with reasons. Reasons to approve or disapprove violence and then specify whose interest is served first: the aggressor(s) or the victim(s). This forces you to enter the grey zone of society’s dilemmas and paradoxes. A good example is “Pax Romana” which through history has been westernised to pacification or peace by suppression and/or violent intervention. Society and its media channels tend to approve it while the victims are often ignored. Think of Western colonisation in the West and East Indies with “guns, germs and steel” to reference Jared Diamond.
Then dig deeper into the human psyche. The locus of control where a person is either externally influenced or internally motivated and both can happen at the same time. When people use violence there are often two scenarios: either one fights to survive or one fights for a cause and/or ideal. Sometimes survival and ideals cross paths in situations like revolutions, civil war or war(s) with neighbouring countries. From printed speeches to calls to arms and direct propaganda to join the armed forces the media play a role. The “Uncle Sam I Want You poster” from 1917 is a good example.
Dig even deeper into the human psyche and you enter the realm of the meaning of life. In general a sense of happiness derived from feeling loved and appreciated is usually mentioned. Some people add religion, philosophy or a career to that and you come to Dale Carnegie’s conclusion: “we all want to feel important.” How people define “feeling important” personally is too subjective to delve into. What is certain is that the sense of feeling important triggers how a person behaves.
All this brings me back to the bleak picture of how I perceive the topic of violence will be approached in the media. To think about violence forces you to bypass simplification and to look at society and yourself. You ask yourself “in a situation of this nature would I do x or y? Why and how?” and that is not easy. When something is not easy most people in charge of a medium that reaches an audience do not address it. “X is caused by Y” or “X is related to Y” is easier to communicate than “X and Y are connected in complex ways.”
The most difficult question to answer when someone does something is one word: “why?” Whenever I read about violent events in the news I look for “why, how and context?” and often I learn nothing. When you do not (try to) understand why you do what you do, you do not learn from your mistakes.
Violence is the result of several factors. When the media simplify it they do not tell the entire story…