Why hasn’t violent media turned us into a nation of killers?

by on November 20, 2007 · 0 comments

One of the things I find most interesting about calls to regulate “excessively violent” content on television, in movies, or in video games is the way critics make massive leaps of logic and draw outrageous conclusions based on myopic, anecdotal reasoning. I was reminded of that again today when reading through an interview with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), one of the most vociferous critics of all sorts of media content and a long-time proponent of regulation to censor such violent content in particular (however it is defined). (I have written about his past regulatory proposals here and here).

Here’s what he recently told the editorial board of The Register-Herald of West Virginia:

Violent content has a way of desensitizing impressionable minds, he said, alluding more than once in the interview to school shootings, especially the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech. To buttress his point, the senator told of an 80-year-old World War II veteran who visited him at home and described his wartime experiences, how he helped blow up German troop trains.

“He said that he just got numb, that he lost any feeling,” he said. “One thing was that he couldn’t see them. And that’s also true with troops on the ground. It gives them post-traumatic stress disorder.” Then the senator borrowed a line from Gen. George Patton’s obscenity-laced rallying speech to troops, about making the other man die for his country — except Rockefeller omitted the salty-tongue warrior’s allusion to the enemy’s paternity.

“That is the point — you get immune to it,” he said.

Except that you don’t–at least not entirely, and Sen. Rockefeller’s examples prove that point. How is it, after all, that these brave soldiers witnessed and endured unspeakable acts of violence during those years and yet came home and became known as “The Greatest Generation”? They rebuilt post-war America and turned us into the greatest economic powerhouse on Planet Earth. But if we are to believe Sen. Rockefeller’s logic, they should have instead come home and turned America into a nation of murders, thieves, and thugs. After all, it’s “monkey see, monkey do,” right? If you witness violence, you will later perpetrate violence, or so the theory goes.

But, again, they didn’t. Why is that? It’s a really interesting question and it is one that many folks continue to ask with regards to exposure to violent media content in movies, TV shows or video games. After all, many people find something intuitively appealing about “monkey see, monkey do” explanations. Namely, it provides one possible and simplistic explanation for why some people do engage in violent behavior.

In reality, however, most humans possess a sort of moral compass or moral check on their behavior. They can witness something extremely violent–whether it is real or just a dramatization–and process that information in a rational way. Millions of soldiers throughout history have witnessed (and many have been forced to engage in) horrific acts of violence on a battlefield, and yet they would never think of carrying out those same acts on a public sidewalk. Similarly, millions of average folk have watched countless acts of violence in plays, movies, TV shows and games, and yet would never consider carrying out those same acts in public. Simply stated, most people can separate fantasy from reality–even children as they come to understand social norms about acceptable behavior.

I hate to use anecdotal reasoning here but I’m going to since I think my case is not unique. I grew up watching plenty of movies and TV shows jammed packed with senseless violence. In fact–and some people with think this is sick–my Dad and I used to have a fairly impressive horror movie collection on VHS tapes and would often discuss which “slasher movie” was better or had more blood. A little sadistic? Perhaps, but we found it all quite funny. The important point is that neither of us ever picked up a machete or a chainsaw and decided to take a stroll down to a summer camp to chop up teenagers! Same goes for the millions of other people who grew up enjoying those movies.

And where do I even begin to summarize how much violent video game content I have seen through the years? From my Atari 2600 in the late 70s to my current Xbox 360 and Sony PS3, I have probably played just about ever type of violent video game imaginable. The “Resident Evil” series was a favorite and I have played every one of them start to finish, but I enjoyed most of the popular “first-person shooter” games as well. Again, there are millions of others like me out there and somehow the vast majority of us grew up, got good jobs, created the Internet, so on and so forth. We didn’t take to the streets and start murdering each other just because we played a lot of Duke Nukem or Doom.

So, while the world isn’t perfect, it isn’t the hell-hole that the “monkey see, monkey do” media critics say it is either. Matter of fact, the world seems to be getting better in many important ways–and ways that it should not be if we are to believe all those “world-is-going-to-hell” critics. Just look at the facts about leading social indicators. A new article in Commentary magazine by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin entitled “Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News” points out that just about all the important social indicators (murder, rape, robbery, etc) have witnessed steady decreases. (I provide all the supporting statistics in this paper, starting on page 20). They point out that:

In attitudes toward education, drugs, abortion, religion, marriage, and divorce, the current generation of teenagers and young adults appears in many respects to be more culturally conservative than its immediate predecessors. To any who may have written off American society as incorrigibly corrupt and adrift, these young people offer a powerful reminder of the boundless inner resources still at our disposal, and of our constantly surprising national resilience.

Again, how can this be happening if violent media spawns violent minds and violent acts?! After all, there’s just as much violent media content out there today as there was in the past; some critics claim much more exists now than in the past. So how is it that the kids are alright? Why are things getting so much better when the “monkey see, monkey do” theorists tell us they should be getting so much worse?

The critics, like Sen. Rockefeller, have no answer. They just continue to arrogantly ride around on their moral high horses and tell us that were are all just ignorant sheep who are being programmed to be killers by the media that we enjoy.

In the real world, of course, the rest of of us just yawn, turn off the TV or video game, go to bed happy, and wake up the next day to live a normal, productive lives. Sen. Rockefeller and his fellow media critics should try doing the same thing and leave the rest of us alone.

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