issue of media violence just doesn't go away. The debate raged when the
Reagan administration deregulated children's television in the United
States, and was revisited after the Montreal massacre on December 6,
1989. And the rash of high school shootings in North America and Europe
at the end of the century has fuelled the debate anew.
Many pundits argue that media violence is at least partly to blame
for the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, Taber, Alberta and
Erfurt, Germany. Ex-army psychologist Dave Grossman, a leading American
activist, points the finger squarely at movies and video games. He
argues that Hollywood films have desensitized kids to the consequences
of violence, and video games have taught them how to handle a gun. But
others, like psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, maintain, "just because a
film has a murder scene doesn't mean people are going to commit the
act... That overstates the power of the image and under-estimates the
role of parents."
It is important to recognize that the discussion is not a purely
scientific one. Social scientists have been unable to establish clearly
that media violence causes real-life aggression. As early as 1985,
Anthony Smith noted that the demand for "evidence" was driven more by
the intensity of the debate than the desire to find definitive answers:
"Social science has gotten itself into something of a scrape in the
matter of television, especially in the area of violence; none of the
various sides of the argument about violence will permit social science
to depart the field." (For a review of the scientific literature, see Research on the Effects of Media Violence in the menu below.)
Media Violence as a Public Health Issue
On the other hand, many social scientists have concluded that there
is a weak correlation between watching media violence and real life
aggression—enough to convince organizations like the Canadian Pediatric
Society and the American Medical Association that media violence is a
public health issue. After all, governments don't wait for scientific
certainty before they act to protect the public from smoking or
drinking; all that's required is proof of a risk. If there is evidence that an activity or substance will increase the probability of negative effects, then the state is justified in intervening.
Media Violence as Artistic Expression
However, others maintain that the crusade against media violence is
a form of censorship that, if successful, would seriously hamper
artistic expression. Researchers R. Hodge and D. Tripp, for example,
argue that, "Media violence is qualitatively different from real
violence: it is a natural signifier of conflict and difference, and
without representations of conflict, art of the past and present would
be seriously impoverished."
found that every aspect of even the trashiest pop-culture story can
have its own developmental function... Identification with a
rebellious, even destructive, hero helps children learn to push back
against a modern culture that cultivates fear and teaches dependency.
(Source: Gerard Jones, Violent Media is Good for Kids, 2000)
Many commentators, from artists to film makers to historians, agree.
Comic-book creator Gerard Jones contends that violent video games,
movies, music and comic books enable people to pull themselves out
of emotional traps, "integrating the scariest, most fervently denied
fragments of their psyches into fuller sense of selfhood through
fantasies of superhuman combat and destruction."
Pullitzer-Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes says that video game
violence enables young people to safely challenge their feelings of
Psychologist Melanie Moore concludes:
"Fear, greed, power-hunger, rage: these are aspects of our selves
that we try not to experience in our lives but often want, even need,
to experience vicariously through stories of others. Children need
violent entertainment in order to explore the inescapable feelings that
they've been taught to deny, and to reintegrate those feelings into a
more whole, more complex, more resilient selfhood."
Media Violence as Free Speech
The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression lists a
number of reasons to protect media violence as a form of free
- censorship won't solve the root causes of violence in society
- deciding what is "acceptable" content is necessarily a subjective exercise
- many of the plays, books and films banned in the past are considered classics today
- it's up to individuals and not governments to decide what's appropriate for themselves and their children
The Québec Writers Union (l'Union des écrivaines et écrivains québecois, or l'Uneq) makes the same argument in its publication Liberté d'expression: guide d'utilisation.
For l'Uneq, legislation restricting the production or importing of
literature is part of a larger structure favouring censorship.
The frequent and graphic violence in [the] critically acclaimed film [Saving Private Ryan] is a reminder that the portrayal of violent behavior can serve artistic and moral purposes.
(Source: Center for Media and Public Affairs, 1999)
And, as the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) noted in its
1999 study of entertainment violence, media violence can be compelling
social commentary. According to CMPA, the most violent film in 1999 was
Saving Private Ryan, a fictionalized account of the D-Day
invasion of Normandy which has been critically acclaimed for its
realistic portrayal of the horrors of war.
Many media critics, like George Gerbner and Joanne Cantor, agree
that censorship is not the answer. However, they question whose rights
are protected when governments give, in Gerbner's words, a "virtual
commercial monopoly over the public's airwaves," in effect delivering
our "cultural environment to a marketing operation."
As journalist Scott Stossel notes, parents used to tell children scary
stories face-to-face, so they could moderate the content and teach life
lessons: "Children today, in contrast, grow up in a cultural
environment that is designed to the specifications of a marketing
is not the answer. But the pattern here is that [the right to free
speech] is aggressively used to protect commercial interests at the
same time that the free speech rights of child advocates are stifled.
(Source: Joanne Cantor, Whose Freedom of Speech is It Anyway?, 2002)
Shari Graydon, past president of Canada's Media Watch, and Québec
activist René Caron remind us that the air waves are a public utility,
and those who control their access and distribution must do so in ways
that represent the best interests of all Canadians. Caron states,
"violence has been used by the industry to capture the attention of
boys, to captivate them and manipulate them." Although this
strategy may be profitable, "from a social viewpoint, from a moral
viewpoint, this approach has had abominable repercussions."
Media Violence and The Uncivil Society
The repercussions aren't limited to a potential increase in
aggressive behaviour. Many commentators worry that media violence has
become embedded in the cultural environment; that, in some sense, it's
part of the "psychic air" that children and young people constantly
breathe. That environment of violence, profanity, crudeness, and
meanness may erode civility in society by demeaning and displacing
positive social values.
Todd Gitlin goes further. He argues that media violence is a red
herring that allows politicians to divert attention away from very real
social problems. He writes, "There is little political will for a war
on poverty, guns, or family breakdown ... we are offered instead a
crusade against media violence. This is largely a feel-good exercise, a
moral panic substituting for practicality... It appeals to an American
propensity that sociologist Philip Slater called the Toilet Assumption:
once the appearance of a social problem is swept out of sight, so is
the problem. And the crusade costs nothing."
|"To be loathsome, popular culture doesn't have to be murderous."
(Source: Todd Gitlin, Imagebusters: The Hollow Crusade Against TV Violence, 1994)
Rather than focusing on violent content, Gitlin argues we should be
condemning "trash on the grounds that it is stupid, wasteful, morally
bankrupt: that it coarsens taste, that it shrivels the capacity to feel
and know the whole of human experience."
Media Violence and the Inequitable Society
Gerbner warns that the search for a link between media violence and
real life aggression is in itself a symptom of the problem itself. For
Gerbner, media violence demonstrates power: "It shows one's place in
the 'pecking order' that runs society."
For example, Gerbner's decades-long study of television violence
indicates that villains are typically portrayed as poor, young, male
members of visible minorities, and victims are overwhelmingly female.
He argues that by making the world look like a dangerous place,
especially for white people, the majority will be more willing to give
the authorities greater power to enforce the status quo.
This is an argument that Michael Moore used in the award-winning movie, Bowling for Columbine.
Journalist Thierry Jobin writes, "[Moore] denounces the way in which
the government and the media foster a feeling of insecurity,
pushing Americans to barricade themselves in their homes, a loaded 44
Magnum under their pillows." Gerbner worries that this sense of
insecurity and powerlessness will be used to justify a weakening of
Media Violence as Consumer Choice
Opponents of regulation argue that it's up to the viewer to decide
what to watch. If you don't like television violence, they say, then
turn off the TV.
However, research indicates that the popularity of a TV show depends
less on content and more on scheduling. As Gerbner points out, "...
violence as such is not highly rated. That means it coasts on viewer
inertia, not selection. Unlike other media use, viewing is a ritual;
people watch by the clock and not by the program."
Joanne Cantor criticizes the media industry for saying it's up to
parents, not the industry, to decide what their children watch: "They
make harmful products, which come into our homes automatically through
television, they market them to children too young to use them safely,
and they try to keep parents in the dark about their effects." Cantor
argues parents need tools to help them decide what is healthy and
unhealthy for their kids.
One such tool is the V-chip, which enables parents to program their
televisions with pre-set industry ratings to screen out certain shows.
Keith Spicer, former chair of the Canadian Radio-television and
Telecommunications Commission, calls the V-chip a "sexy, telegenic
little gizmo that fulfills the fantasy of a magic wand."
The industry has been quick to endorse V-chip technology but critics
argue that its real function is to protect the industry from parents,
not the other way around. Gerbner states, "It's like major polluters
saying, 'We shall continue business as usual, but don't worry, we'll
also sell you gas masks to 'protect your children' and have a 'free
choice!' ... Programming needs to be diversified, not just
'rated.' A better government regulation is antitrust, which could
create a level playing field, admitting new entries and a greater
diversity of ownership, employment, and representation. That would
reduce violence to its legitimate role and frequency."
Todd Gitlin agrees with Gerbner that the real issue is broadcaster
irresponsibility—though he does endorse the V-chip because, "parents
deserve all the technology they can get."
Media Violence and Active Audiences
Researchers like David Buckingham in the U.K. and Henry Jenkins in
the U.S. add another dimension to the debate. They argue that rather
than focusing on what media do to people, we should focus on what people do with media.
As Jenkins writes, media images "are not simple chemical agents like
carcinogens that produce predictable results upon those who consume
them. They are complex bundles of often contradictory meanings that can
yield an enormous range of different responses from the people who
From this perspective, people don't just passively absorb messages
transmitted through the media; they choose which media to consume and
are actively involved in determining what the meaning of the messages
will be. And that process doesn't occur in a social vacuum. Personal
experiences affect what we watch and how we make sense of it. Our class
position, our religious upbringing, our level of education, our family
setting, and our peer groups all have a role to play in how we
understand violent content.
Jenkins draws a different lesson from the shooting in Littleton:
"Media images may have given [the Columbine shooters] symbols to
express their rage and frustration, but the media did not create the
rage or generate their alienation. What sparked the violence was not
something they saw on the internet or on television, not some song
lyric or some sequence from a movie, but things that really happened to
them... If we want to do something about the problem, we are better off
focusing our attention on negative social experiences and not the
symbols we use to talk about those experiences."