The news of last week’s tragic shooting at Virginia Tech has brought the usual range of media reformers and culture warriors (never camera shy) scurrying back into the public eye to make their case that “media violence” must be contained, if not censored, if we are to prevent such bloodshed from occurring again. Almost immediately, longtime video game opponents Jack Thompson and Dr. Phil McGraw started appearing on television talk shows, predicting that the shooter would turn out to be a hardcore video game player. (The odds are certainly with them since a study released several years ago of frosh at 20 American colleges and universities found that a hundred percent of them had played games before going off to college and that on average college students spend more time each week playing games that reading recreationally, watching television, or going to the movies.) In fact, when the police searched the killer’s dorm room, they found not a single game nor any signs of a game system.
The focus then quickly shifted with the news arguing first that the shooter was a heavy viewer of television “including television wrestling” and then linking some of the photographs he sent to NBC with images from Asian cult cinema — most notably with the Korean film, Old Boy. An op-ed piece in the Washington Post asserted that Old Boy “must feature prominently in the discussion” of Mr. Cho’s possible motivations, “even if no one has yet confirmed that Cho saw it” and then later, claims that Cho “was shooting a John Woo movie in his head” as he entered the engineering building.
And then, of course, there was that damning evidence that he had construct violent and aggressive fantasies during his creative writing classes. Time magazine even pathologizes the fact that he was a college student who didn’t have a Facebook page! Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
None of this should surprise us given the cycle of media coverage that has surrounded previous instances of school shootings. An initial period of shock is quickly followed by an effort to round up the usual suspects and hold them accountable — this is part of the classic psychology of a moral panic. In an era of 24 hour news, the networks already have experts on media violence in their speed dial, ready for them to arrive on the scene and make the same old arguments. As a media scholar, I find these comments predictable but disappointing: disappointing because they block us from having a deeper conversation about the place of violence in American culture.
I want to outline here another set of perspectives on the issue of media violence, ones that are grounded not in the literature of media effects but rather in the literature of cultural studies. I have plenty of criticisms of the media effects approach, which I outlined in my recent book, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, but for the most part, my focus here is more on what cultural studies might tell us about media violence than it is in critiquing that body of “research.”
So, let me start with an intentionally provocative statement. There is no such thing as media violence — at least not in the ways that we are used to talking about it — as something which can be easily identified, counted, and studied in the laboratory. Media violence is not something that exists outside of a specific cultural and social context. It is not one thing which we can simply eliminate from art and popular culture. It’s not a problem we can make go away. Our culture tells lots of different stories about violence for lots of different reasons for lots of different audiences in lots of different contexts. We need to stop talking about media violence in the abstract and start talking about it in much more particularized terms.
Otherwise, we end up looking pretty silly. So, for example, a study endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that 100 percent of feature length cartoons released in America between 1937 and 1999 contained images of violence. Here, we see the tendency to quantify media violence taken to its logical extreme. For this statement to be true, violence has to be defined here so broadly that it would include everything from the poison apple in Snow White to the hunter who shoots Bambi’s mother, from Captain Hook’s hook to the cobra that threatens to crush Mowgali in The Jungle Book and that’s just to stick with the Disney canon. The definition must include not only physical violence but threats of violence, implied violence, and psychological/emotional violence. Indeed, if we start from a definition that broad, we would need to eliminate conflict from our drama altogether in order to shut down the flow of media violence into our culture. Perhaps this is reason enough not to put pediatricians in charge of our national cultural policy anytime soon. Certainly few of us would imagined our culture improved if these films were stripped of their “violent” content or barred from exhibition.
Almost no one operates on a definition of violence that broad. Most of us make value judgments about the kinds of violence that worries us, judgments based on the meanings attached to the violence in specific representations, so church groups don’t think twice about sending young kids to watch Jesus get beaten in The Passion of the Christ, and games reformers go after first person shooters but not World War II simulation games (which coat their violence in patriotism and historical authenticity) even though this genre is now consistently outselling more anti-social titles in the video game marketplace.
Why is violence so persistent in our popular culture? Because violence has been persistent as a theme across storytelling media of all kinds. A thorough account of violence in media would include: fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, oral epics such as Homer’s The Iliad, the staged violence of Shakespeare’s plays, fine art paintings of the Rape of the Sabine Women, and stain glass window representations of Saints being crucified or pumped full of arrows, or for that matter, talk show conversations about the causes of school shootings. If we were to start going after media violence, then, we would need to throw out much of the literary cannon and close down all of our art museums. Violence is fundamental to these various media because aggression and conflict is a core aspect of human experience. We need our art to help us make sense of the senselessness of violence in the real world, to provide some moral order, to help us sort through our feelings, to provoke us to move beyond easy answers and ask hard questions.
Again, nobody really means that we should get rid of all media violence, even if that’s what they say often enough: we are all drawing lines and making distinctions, but all of those distinctions fly out the window when we read statistics that count the number of incidents of violence in an hour of television or when we read research that tells us how subjecting human lab rats to media violence may make them more or less aggressive.
In practice, it is hard to sustain the case that our culture is becoming more violent — not when we read it within the broader sweep of human history. Take a look at Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre which describes how workers in early modern Europe got their kicks by setting cats on fire and running them through the streets. Consider the role of public hangings in 19th century America. Or think about the popularity of cock fights and bear baiting in Shakespeare’s London. We have, for the most part, moved from an era where humans sought entertainment through actual violence and into a period when we are amused through symbolic violence. Indeed, where people confront real violence on a regular basis, parents are often heartened to see their children playing violent videogames — if for no other reason than they keep them off the streets and out of harm’s way. (This is borne out by studies done in American ghettos or along the West Bank.)
Nor can we argue that America is unique in its fascination with violent entertainment. I recently took a trip to Singapore and visited Haw Paw Villa, a cherished institution, where tourists can go into the mouth of hell and see grisly images of doomed souls being ground up, decapitated and dismembered, and impaled, drenched with buckets of red paint. For generations, Singaporeans have taken their children to this attraction for moral instruction, showing their young and impressionable ones what befalls those who lie to their parents or cheat on their examinations.
Our current framing of media violence assumes that it most often attracts us, that it inspires imitation, where-as throughout much of human history, representations of violence were seen as morally instructive, as making it less likely we are going to transgress various social prohibitions. When we read the lives of Saints, for example, we are invited to identify with the one suffering the violence and not the one committing it.
Media violence is not a uniquely American trend, though school shootings, by and large, are. Media violence is a global phenomenon. Indeed, the process of globalization is arguably increasing the vividness with which violence is represented not only in American media but in every major media producing country. The physicality of violent representations is easily conveyed visually, allowing it to be understood and appreciated by people who might miss the nuances of spoken dialogue, who might not understand the language in which the film was produced or be able to read the subtitles. For that reason, action stars are often the most popular performers in the global market. As the United States, Japan, China, India, Korea, and a host of other film-producing countries compete for dominance in the global market place, we are seeing an escalation in the intensity of representations of violence. And American media often seems mild when compared with the kinds of things that can be found on screens in Asia or Latin America.
Part of the problem with the initial response to the news of the Virginia Tech shootings was the assumption that the young man involved would turn out to be a fan of American media violence. In fact, the evidence so far suggests that he was much more interested in Asian cinema, which should hardly be a surprise given that he came to the United States from Korea. Indeed, the news media has more recently noted similarities between his two handed shooting techniques and the style made famous by Hong Kong action director John Woo; they have also identified one of the images — where he waves a hammer — with a publicity still for the Korea film, Old Boy.
A news story in the New York Times describes Old Boy as an obscure cult film which appeals primarily to those who are interested in excessive violence. In fact, Old Boy has emerged as one of the most important films in the recent Korean film revival, one which has won awards from film festivals and has been playing in art houses across the country. While the film includes some of the most disturbing violence I’ve seen on screen in some time, that’s precisely the point: the violence is meant to be disturbing. We watch the main character’s slow descent into his own personal hell and then as he seeks to right wrongs that have been committed against him, we see him pushed into more and more violence himself. The filmmaker doesn’t glorify the violence: he’s horrified by it; he’s using it to push past our own reserves and to get us to engage in issues of oppression and social aggression from a fresh perspective. I have always been struck by the fact that moral reformers rarely take aim at mundane and banal representations of violence though formulaic violence is pervasive in our culture. Almost always, they go after works that are acclaimed elsewhere as art — the works of Martin Scorsese or Quintin Tarantino, say — precisely because these works manage to get under their skin. For some of us, this provocation gets us thinking more deeply about the moral consequences of violence where-as others condemn the works themselves, unable to process the idea that a work might provoke us to reflect about the violence that it represents.
There’s a kind of deadening literal mindedness about such criticisms: to represent something is to advocate it and to advocate it is to cause it. To watch this film and decide to imitate the protagonist is a misreading on the order of reading Frankenstein and deciding to construct a creature from the parts of dead bodies or watching A Clockwork Orange and deciding it is fun to rape and terrorize senior citizens. It is certainly possible for someone who already is mentally disturbed to read these images out of context and ascribe to them meanings which are not part of the original but then again, that’s part of the point.
If we take most of the existing research on media effects at face value, almost nothing would suggest that consuming media violence would turn an otherwise normal kid into a psychokiller. In practice, the research implies that consuming media violence can be one risk factor among many, that most incidents of real world violence can not be traced back to a single cause, and that real world experiences (mental illness, drug abuse, histories of domestic violence, exposure to gangs, etc.) represents a much more immediate cause of most violent crime. Some research has shown that people in jail for violent crimes, in fact, consume less media violence than the general population, in part because they have not been able to afford consistent access to media technologies.
Understanding media violence as a risk factor — rather than as the cause of real world violence — is consistent with some of the other things we know or think we know about media’s influence. At the risk of reducing this to a simple formula, media is most powerful when it reaffirms our existing beliefs and behaviors, least powerful when it seeks to change them. We tend to read media representations against our perceptions of the real world and discard them if they deviate too dramatically from what we believe to be true.
In fact, children at a pretty young age — certainly by the time they reach elementary school — are capable of making at least crude distinctions between more or less realistic representations of violence. They can be fooled by media which offers ambiguous cues but they generally read media that seems realistic very differently than media that seems cartoonish or larger than life. For that reason, they are often much more emotionally disturbed by documentaries that depict predators and prey, war, or crime, than they are by the kinds of hyperbolic representations we most often are talking about when we refer to media violence.
None of this is to suggest that the media we consume has no effect. Clearly, those kids who already live in a culture of violence are often draw most insistently to violent entertainment. They may seek to use it to release their pent up anger and frustration; they may use its images to try to make sense of what they see as aggression and injustice around them; they may draw on its iconography to give some shape to their own inchoate feelings, and that’s part of the way I would understand those disturbing photographs of Cho Seung-Hui striking poses from Asian action movies. We can’t argue that these films had nothing to do with the horrors he committed on teachers and students at Virginia Tech. I think it does matter that he had access to some images of violence and not others and that he read those representations of violence through a set of emotional and psychological filters which distorted and amplified their messages.
Where does this leave us? It is meaningless as I have suggested to talk about regulating “media violence,” as if all representations of violence were harmful. We need to get beyond rhetoric that treats media violence as a carcinogen, a poison or a pollutant. Rather, we should be asking ourselves what kinds of stories our culture tells about violence and how we are making sense of those representations in the context of our everyday lives. The problem is not media violence per se. If there is a problem, it is that so many of our contemporary works banalize violence through reliance on simple minded formulas. What we need is more meaningful violence — representations of violence which incite and provoke us to think more deeply about the nature of aggression, trauma, and loss, representations which get under our skin and make it hard for us to simply sit back and relax in front of the screen. And we need to be having intelligent conversations about these media constructions of violence rather than trying to push such works away from us.