TV Violence: In Search of a Happy Ending
As we conduct national soul-searching over recent incidents of gun violence, TV networks, writers and producers are being questioned about the graphic violence in much of their programming. Before we discuss whether watching violence makes Americans more violent, we need to settle the bigger question: Is America more violent than other nations? LaVonne Neff has done some much needed homework for us on this very question. In her valuable post on Sojourners, Violence: It Isn’t Just About Guns, Neff compares the homicide rate in the US with the homicide rates of 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that most resemble the US in culture and economics to see if she could find any informative patterns. While correlation is not causality, as she rightly points out, at least her analysis helps us to see ourselves from outside ourselves, an exercise that can give us much needed perspective on our problems.
So what did Neff find? Homicide rates appear not to correlate at all with rates of gun ownership or religiosity. Whether a nation had a high or low rate of gun ownership or high or low religious identity was no indicator of increased rates of homicide. These are two issues that tend to get Americans riled up, so it seems right to try to lower the emotional heat with a few facts. (Whether the left and the right can give up their gleeful blaming of each other on these points is another question altogether.) What did correlate, however, were economic inequality, effective healthcare systems, and rates of military expenditures. Neff summarizes: “If you want to identify homicidal OECD nations, look for the ones with the strongest militaries and the weakest social services.”
Again, this observation is only a correlation and not a causal analysis, but it does seem to indicate that America has a violence problem. It’s not obvious how strong militaries and weak social services contribute to Americans murdering other Americans, but the same could be said of TV violence. Indeed, although there is clear evidence that televised violence effects the behavior of children, the connection defies our experience: if watching violence made us more violent, why don’t we all go on murderous rampages after watching entire seasons of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones? With your indulgence and against what seems prudent, I’d like to offer a possible explanation for America’s violence problem that connects strong militaries, weak social services and televised violence. Here goes:
Lurking implicitly behind our military budget, inefficient health care system, and our extensive menu of fictional violence is a story about violence. Not stories with violence in them, like Criminal Minds, but the story about violence that our culture tells, that we all carry around with us like tidy mental backpacks we don’t ever consciously open. That story tells us who the good guy is (me), who the bad guy is (anyone who opposes me and my desires) and who has the right to use violence (me not you). This tidy little story tells us that there are people who are justified in using violence to achieve their ends (me and my representatives like the police, military, spies and superheroes), and people who we condemn for using violence to achieve their ends (criminals, the military and spies of other countries, evil villains).
That surprisingly short story provides an excellent rationale for investing in large militaries because it places us and our interests as the supreme good, so supreme in fact that Americans believe with all our hearts that if we prevail in armed conflict, everyone wins. Even the losers win, even the dead, even those who will live their lives mourning the dead. This surprisingly short story operates on a personal level, as well. Me, myself and I represent the collective good. This royal we is permitted to demand anything, accumulate everything, and deny access to anyone who dares to pretend to be me by demanding the same.
“I, not you” is the short hand for this short story and phrasing it that way may allow us to postulate a connection between TV violence, military violence, homicide rates and weak social services. All these elements promote or benefit from the “I, not you” story. This may be a fanciful theory and I admit that it is speculative, but I invite you to think intuitively about the link I’m trying to make. Whether we are top decision makers in the government or at a network or whether we are voters or viewers, we all suffer from two rather profound delusions. The first is that we make our decisions about TV and government spending through a process of objective reasoning. We do not. Because we are human beings and not computers, we make decisions from within a story that helps us sort good decisions from bad ones. The second delusion is our shared short story. To pretend otherwise is to engage in a self-deceptive lie that creates false differences where none exist. Here’s the very human truth: There are no good guys or bad guys, just human beings who are both good and bad. There is also no valid justification for violence, only the myriad ones we each receive by accidents of birth and culture. And contrary to political rhetoric on the subject, the American work force is not composed of hard working, self-starters who are being dragged down by the lazy takers; there are only Americans who are indivisibly interdependent and whose success or failure is never entirely their own.
Should we hold TV networks, writers and producers responsible for the graphic violence in much of their programming? I think it will be a waste of time, unless we also hold ourselves responsible for our steadfast belief in “I, not you”. That short story is the culprit – violence on TV is just a symptom. So go ahead and attack the symptom if you like. But when you do just know this: it’s not the stories with violence in them that cause real world violence. The real problem is the story about violence that our culture has yet to question. To solve the problem of gun violence, we must begin to tell a new story, one that we could call the “I and you” story. I don’t know what solutions will emerge as we begin to tell that story together, but I am completely confident that it will have a happy ending.