The myth of media violence

Contrary to the moralistic claims of Hillary Clinton and others, bloody video games and movies are not a major cause of crime. But they are a powerful drug we don't understand.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 18, 2005 1:08AM (EST)

Kids these days! They're all wasting their spare hours, or so we're told, with immoral trash like "Grand Theft Auto," the now-notorious series of slickly decorated and powerfully addictive video games. As Sen. Hillary Clinton explained last week at a forum hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "They're playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them."

Fans of "GTA" claim this is a typical non-gamer's misinterpretation -- it might be possible to kill hookers in the game, but it won't necessarily help you win -- but let's let that go. There's no doubt that "GTA" allows you, for example, to play the role of an ex-con trying to take over a vice-addled city by gunning down drug lords, cops, low-flying aircraft and pretty much everything and everybody else. These games revel in their pseudo-noir amorality, and they're basically designed to be loathed by parents, school principals and tweedy psychologists.

Clinton's attack on the latest manifestation of the Media Demon -- you know, the evil force within video games, action movies, rap songs, comic books, dime novels, Judas Priest records played backward and, I don't know, Javanese puppet theater and cave hieroglyphics -- is a depressingly familiar ploy in American politics. When you can't make any progress against genuine social problems, or, like Sen. Clinton, you seem religiously committed to triangulating every issue and halving the distance between yourself and Jerry Falwell, you go after the people who sell fantasy to teenagers.

What might be most interesting about this latest vapidity, in fact, is what Clinton didn't say. Five years ago, in the wake of the Columbine massacre, we were told that there was no serious debate about whether media violence contributed to teenage crime in the real world. A clear link had been established, the case was closed, and the only question was what we were going to do about it. By contrast, Clinton's comments were surprisingly mild and almost entirely subjective. She called violent and debauched entertainment a "silent epidemic," essentially arguing that it has effects, but we don't quite know what they are.

Over the long haul, Clinton said, violent media might teach kids "that it's OK to dis people because they're women or they're a different color or they're from a different place." Perhaps more to the point, she added: "Parents worry their children will not grow up with the same values they did because of the overwhelming presence of the media." That was it -- no claims that we were breeding a nation of perverts and murderers, and no mention of all the supposed science indicating a link between simulated mayhem and the real thing. Playing "GTA" and watching Internet porn might lead your kids to "dis" somebody, or to grow up with different values from yours (or anyway to make you concerned that they might). Katy bar the door!

As dopey as Clinton's remarks are, I don't mean to ridicule parents and educators for their legitimate concerns. Of course I'm not certain that violent movies and games (or, for that matter, dumb-ass sitcoms and vapid reality shows) are harmless. My own kids are still too young for this question to matter much, but of course I hold onto the naive hope that they'll spend their formative years hiking the Appalachians and reading about the Byzantine Empire, rather than vegetating in media sludge. But it's long past time to face the fact that while it's legitimate not to like violent media, or to believe it's psychologically deadening in various ways, the case that it directly leads to real-life violence has pretty much collapsed.

Hillary Clinton's equivocation may be something of a compulsive family trait, but it also reflects how muddy this issue has become since the summer of 2000, when the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and several other professional busybody organizations issued a joint statement proclaiming that "well over 1,000 studies" had shown a direct connection between media violence and "juvenile aggression." In 2002, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that it had become an article of faith "among conservative politicians and liberal health professionals alike ... that violence in the media is a major cause of American violent crime."

Actually, there never was any such consensus in the academic fields of psychology, criminology or media studies. And there weren't well over a thousand studies of media violence either -- that was one of the many myths and legends that sprung up around this question. In the years since then the mavericks have been increasingly heard from. Even in the theatrical United States Senate hearings convened a few days after the Columbine shootings in 1999, MIT professor Henry Jenkins observed that the idea that violent entertainment had consistent and predictable effects on viewers was "inadequate and simplistic," adding almost poetically that most young people don't absorb entertainment passively, but rather move "nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together a personal mythology of symbols and stories taken from many different places."

Jenkins was a lonely voice at the time, but more recently the edifice of mainstream certainty has begun to crumble. Psychologists like Pinker, Jonathan Freedman, Jonathan Kellerman and Melanie Moore have counterattacked against their own establishment, arguing that media-violence research to date has been flawed and inconclusive at best, and a grant-funding scam at worst. Some have gone further, suggesting that violent entertainment provides a valuable fantasy outlet for the inevitable rage of childhood and adolescence, and probably helps more children than it hurts. In the teeth of the 1999 hurricane, media scholar Jib Fowles published "The Case for Television Violence," a dense, dry and devastating dissection that surely counts as one of the most important books about American culture to appear in the last decade. (It's only available from Sage, a small educational publisher, in a paperback edition that costs more than $30 -- which may tell you something about the mainstream viability of Fowles' message.)

After being eviscerated by Pulitzer-winning journalist Richard Rhodes in his prodigious online article "The Media Violence Myth," even the researcher largely responsible for the exaggerated sense of social consensus on the issue has partially and reluctantly backtracked. In 1986, University of Michigan psychologist L. Rowell Huesmann presented the Senate Judiciary Committee with a dramatic bar graph purporting to show that boys who watched violent TV at age 8 were exceptionally likely to have been convicted of serious crimes by age 30.

The ripple effect of this presentation was tremendous; more than any other single event, it fueled the impression among critics of violent media that they had a scientific case. Huesmann did not admit for many years, until cornered by Rhodes, that the total number of boys he had identified in a Columbia County, N.Y., study who had watched violent TV and then became violent criminals was three. A trio of thugs in the boondocks had watched shoot'em-ups as 8-year-olds, and it somehow became a significant statistical finding.

In their lengthy and confusing response to Rhodes' article, Huesmann and his colleague Leonard Eron defend their view that media violence is harmful, arguing that several other studies support theirs. (This is perfectly true. As Fowles' book rigorously demonstrates, the problem with media-violence research as a field is that it reveals no consistent pattern of results, and people on any side of the issue can cherry-pick the studies they like and ignore the others.) In a mixture of brazen overstatement and social-science weasel words, they proclaim that the case "implicating media violence as a risk factor for violent behavior" is as strong as the link between smoking and cancer.

Then comes the bombshell. Near the end of their defense, but before a bizarre personal attack on Rhodes (for being a harsh critic of books he doesn't like, and for taking testosterone supplements), Huesmann and Eron write: "Nowhere have we ever indicated that media violence is the only or even a major cause of violence among youth." I had to read this three times to grasp it: These guys, whose quasi-bogus research subjected us all to a thousand preachy Oprah shows and Joe Lieberman speeches, now say that media violence is not a major cause of real-life youth violence. Instead, it's a marginal "risk factor," responsible for no more than 10 percent of the crime rate. (By contrast, Dave Grossman, the retired Marine colonel who is one of the nation's leading anti-media evangelists, claims that media violence is responsible for at least half of all violent crime.)

We've also heard from criminologists, lawyers and literary scholars as the tide of counterarguments has swelled. The latest of these last is Harold Schechter, a professor at Queens College in New York whose new book, "Savage Pastimes," provides an eye-opening survey of gruesome entertainment throughout the history of Western civilization. Schechter's main point concerns what scholars call the "periodicity" of campaigns like Sen. Clinton's latest screed. Every time a technological shift occurs (such as from books to movies, radio to TV, movies to video games), he argues, it produces a new medium for gruesome entertainment aimed at adolescent audiences, and produces a renewed outrage among the self-appointed guardians of civilization.

One remarkable example, not cited by Schecter: In 1948, there was an enormous uproar in Canada over a meaningless killing committed by two boys, ages 13 and 11. Pretending to be highwaymen, they hid near a road with a stolen rifle and shot at a passing car, killing a passenger. When it was revealed that they were avid readers of crime comic books, the anti-comics movement swelled. This story bears an uncanny similarity to a recent case, examined in Salon, in which two boys ages 15 and 13 stole their father's rifle, hid near a highway and shot at a passing car, killing a passenger. The youths defended themselves on the grounds that playing "Grand Theft Auto" made them do it.

The Jeremiahs who condemn violent entertainment, whether crime comics or "Grand Theft Auto," also invariably lament the passage of a golden age, generally contemporaneous with their own childhoods, when entertainment was healthful and wholesome, suitable for infants and grannies alike. I don't mean to impugn Granny, who may have a healthy appetite for phony bloodshed, but these moral guardians' sunny views of the past either reflect fuzzy memories or whopping hypocrisy.

Schechter offers an amusing catalog of the outrageous bloodshed and mayhem found in popular entertainment since time immemorial, from the classics (as he observes, the onstage blinding of Gloucester in "King Lear" -- "out, vile jelly" -- is one of the most traumatic acts of violence in any medium) to the pornographic sadism of Grand-Guignol theater, the lurid sensationalism of turn-of-the-century "penny papers" and the ugly misogyny of Mickey Spillane's best-selling pulp novels. Undoubtedly Hillary Clinton would prefer that today's kids read books instead of playing "GTA," and Schechter might suggest "Seth Jones: or, The Captives of the Frontier," a wilderness adventure that was one of the best-selling kids' books of the 19th century. In one scene, the hero comes upon the corpse of a man who has been tied to a tree by Indians and burned to death:

"Every vestige of the flesh was burned off to the knees, and the bones, white and glistening, dangled to the crisp and blackened members above! The hands, tied behind, had passed through the fire unscathed, but every other part of the body was literally roasted!" Seth is greatly relieved, however, to discover that the victim was not a white man. As Schechter says, it's impossible to imagine anyone publishing this as kiddie lit today, both for its gore quotient and its casual racism.

In another dime novel of the period, a rattling Western adventure called "Deadwood Dick on Deck," Schechter reports that more than 100 people are killed in the first two chapters, a figure that fans of "Resident Evil" and "Doom" can only view with awe and veneration. Then there's the gruesome "comic" yarn Schechter digs up from 1839, in which that authentic American hero, Davy Crockett, engages in a "scentiforous fight" with an individual referred to as "a pesky great bull nigger" (and also as "Blackey," "Mr. Nig" and "snow-ball"). Crockett ends the battle by gouging out one of his adversary's eyes, feeling "the bottom of the socket with end of my thum."

Schechter knows what you're thinking: At least those kids were reading, and as reprehensible by our standards as those books may have been, there's really no comparison between the printed page and the "hyperkinetic visuals of movies and computer games." The only answer to this is maybe and maybe not; critics of pop culture always assume that new technologies have rendered kids incapable of telling the difference between reality and fantasy, and so far they've always been wrong. Schechter writes that for children who had never seen a movie or a video game, "the printed page was a PlayStation, and penny dreadfuls were state-of-the-art escapism, capable of eliciting a shudder or thrill every bit as intense as the kind induced by today's high-tech entertainment." The relativist position that each generation is equally affected by the media available to it is supported by ample historical evidence, from the way that the audiences at early film screenings rose in panic when on-screen trains bore down upon them to the wildly Dionysian effect of that hypersexual, morals-corroding music, swing.

If Sen. Clinton might prefer an outdoor family activity in the sunny American heartland, there's always the example of Owensboro, Ky., where on Aug. 14, 1936, some 20,000 citizens of all ages crowded into the courthouse square. It was a "jolly holiday," according to newspaper reports. Hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks were sold, and there was a mixture of cheers and catcalls -- but no general disorder, as the local paper angrily insisted -- when sheriff's deputies brought a man named Rainey Bethea out to the scaffold, where he was hanged.

The Bethea execution, with its clear subtext of white supremacy (Bethea was a black man convicted of raping a white woman, and the crowd of onlookers was entirely white, except for the undertakers commissioned to retrieve his body), caused a national scandal, and pretty much brought an end to one of the Western world's most enduring entertainment traditions. In medieval and early modern Europe, public executions were major carnival attractions, and high-profile criminals were dispatched with loving sadism and a truly diabolical degree of invention.

Schechter cites the infamous opening pages of Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punish," which recount the horrible tortures inflicted in 1757 on Robert François Damiens, the attempted assassin of Louis XV. In 1305 in London, Scottish rebel William Wallace was hanged and revived, castrated and disemboweled while still alive, and finally decapitated and dismembered, with the pieces coated in boiling tar and strung up in various public places. (When Mel Gibson played Wallace in "Braveheart," we saw none of that.) Sometimes it's the little things that tell the story: During the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, children were given 2-foot-tall toy guillotines they could use to behead birds and mice.

Schechter doesn't bring up the Bethea execution to paint white Kentuckians of the Depression as depraved rubes; his point is that we actually have come a long way in seven decades. We're free to regard violent movies and video games as loathsome, but we also have to admit they reflect at least a partially successful sublimation of what William James called "our aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement." Few of us are eager for the return of public executions (except perhaps the programming executives at Fox) and no real cops or prostitutes were harmed during the creation of "Grand Theft Auto." Although a few juveniles charged with murder, or their victims' families, have argued that video games were responsible for murder, kids who play video-game shooters aren't outside gunning down the neighbors, possibly because that would mean getting off their butts and leaving behind the overlit universe of their TV or computer screen.

As Schechter says, there are two linked assumptions that underpin all the hysteria about purported media-influenced violence in the last 20 years, if not longer. Assumption No. 1 is that we live in an especially violent time in human history, surrounded by serial killers, hardened teenage "superpredators," genocidal atrocities and all sorts of amoral mayhem. Assumption No. 2 is that our popular entertainment is far more violent than the entertainment of the past, and presents that violence in more graphic and bloodthirsty detail. For critics of media violence, from the Clintons to Dave Grossman to the leadership of the child-psychiatry establishment, these assumptions go essentially unchallenged, and the conclusion they draw is that there is a causal or perhaps circular relationship between these "facts": Media violence breeds real violence, which leads to ever more imaginative media violence, and so on.

A longtime crime buff who has written several books about notorious murderers, Schechter mounts an impressive case in "Savage Pastimes" that, if anything, our pop culture is less bloody-minded than that of the past. Anyone who looks back at the 1950s, when Schechter himself was a child, and remembers only "Leave It to Beaver" and Pat Boone needs to read his discourse on the hugely popular "Davy Crockett" miniseries of 1954, "whose level of carnage," he writes, "remains unsurpassed in the history of televised children's entertainment." This series, with its barrage of "shootings, stabbings, scalpings, stranglings," was broadcast on Wednesday nights at 7:30 p.m., and presented as the acme of wholesome family fare.

In fact, as Schechter demonstrates, '50s TV was profoundly rooted in guns and gunfire, to a degree that would provoke widespread outrage today. But there are factors he doesn't consider, or considers only in passing, that fuel people's perceptions that the past was less violent, both in real and symbolic terms. Those '50s TV shows were mostly westerns, of course, which meant that they presented themselves as instructive fables of American history in its most masculine, individualistic form. They were racially and politically uncomplicated; "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" developed a social conscience in the '60s, but the white screen cowboys of the '50s were heroes, and the whites, Indians and Mexicans around them were clearly divided into good guys and bad.

In other words, while "Davy Crockett" and "Have Gun Will Travel" and "The Rifleman" were loaded with violence, it was mostly reassuring violence, presented without splatter and without moral consequences. The graphic media violence of our age, whether in "Taxi Driver" or "Reservoir Dogs" or "CSI" or "Grand Theft Auto," is deliberately unsettling, meant to fill viewers with dread and remind them that life is an uncertain, morally murky affair. This might put us closer to the murder-obsessed Victorian age than to the scrubbed '50s, and in examining both eras it's important to remember that this message can be delivered badly or well, used for a cheap roller-coaster effect or a tremendous "King Lear" catharsis. (It's also worth pointing out that Jib Fowles disagrees with Schecter, arguing, "It does appear that television violence has been slowly growing in volume and intensity since 1950.")

But if Assumption No. 2 looks questionable, Assumption No. 1 is just flat-out false. As Fowles painstakingly details in "The Case for Television Violence," violence has clearly been decreasing in the Western world for the last 500 years; as far as we can tell from uneven record-keeping, the murder rate in medieval Europe was several times higher than it is today, even in relatively violent societies like the U.S. While the 20th century has seen some spikes in violent crime -- correlating less to the arrival of television than to the proportion of young men in the population -- the downward trend since about 1980 has reinforced the general tendency. As Rhodes puts it, "We live in one of the least violent eras in peacetime human history."

Again, there are some complicating ambiguities here, although they don't make the absolute numbers look any different. If you're convinced that we live amid a psychotic crime wave, well, blame the media. Murder has become an increasingly rare crime, and most of it is pretty unglamorous -- poor people, many of them black and brown, killing each other in petty disputes over love affairs or insultingly small amounts of money. But whenever something truly ghoulish happens -- a serial killer hacks up some white girls or a mom drowns her kids in the tub -- we're exposed to so many pseudo-news stories and movies of the week that it seems as if society is totally out of its gourd and such things are happening every day.

I don't think there's any question that the sense of dislocation this produces, while unmeasurable by social science, can be profound. We know this as the "mean world" syndrome, and it's the reason why, for instance, my wife's 90-something grandparents not only don't go outside after dark, but also refuse to answer the phone. (Apparently the depraved criminals roaming the suburban streets can teleport themselves through the phone lines.) Our obsession with violent crime may indeed be at an all-time high, even as crime itself keeps becoming rarer. Perhaps TV has made us so frightened that we've mostly stopped killing each other.

There's far more that one could and perhaps should say about the essentially adolescent character of our civilization, fatally torn between the impulses of Eros and Thanatos. But the point I'm struggling toward is that while you can't prove that media violence doesn't lead to real violence -- and only an idiot would assert that no one has ever been inspired to commit a crime by a book or movie or video game -- our definitions of "media" and "violence" may need some rethinking. And as a general proposition, the simplistic consensus of a few years ago stands on exceedingly shaky ground. "This whole episode of studying television violence," as Fowles told Rhodes in 2000, "is going to be seen by history as a travesty. It's going to be used in classes as an example of how social science can just go totally awry."

Most likely it will be seen in the same way that we now see psychologist Frederic Wertham's infamous '50s campaign against horror comics -- as an understandable, if in retrospect laughable, response to the unknown. Wertham interviewed juvenile offenders and found that most of them read comic books; ergo, comics led to juvenile crime. There was widespread panic about juvenile delinquency in that decade (which actually saw record lows in crime of all kinds), and he had found an appropriately disreputable scapegoat. While Wertham focused his ire on the gore-drenched horror comics, with their rotting zombies and sadistic scientists, he also wrote that Wonder Woman was a lesbian, Batman and Robin were a man-boy couple and Superman was a fascist. (So he got those right, at least.)

Attorney and author Marjorie Heins has pointed out that the conflict between pop culture and its critics is literally as old as Western civilization: Plato thought that unsavory art should be censored, while Aristotle argued that violent and upsetting drama had a cathartic effect, and helped purge the undesirable emotions of spectators. Jib Fowles suggests that these periodic culture wars are mostly a way of displacing anxieties about class, race and gender, as well as, most obviously, a proxy war between middle-aged adults and the succeeding generations whose culture they can't quite understand.

Perhaps the most sensible words on this subject that I've discovered come from comics author Gerard Jones, in a 2000 Mother Jones article that became, in part, the basis for his book "Killing Monsters." "I'm not going to argue that violent entertainment is harmless," he wrote. "I am going to argue that it's helped hundreds of people for every one it's hurt, and that it can help far more if we learn to use it well. I am going to argue that our fear of 'youth violence' isn't well-founded on reality, and that the fear can do more harm than the reality. We act as though our highest priority is to prevent our children from growing up into murderous thugs -- but modern kids are far more likely to grow up too passive, too distrustful of themselves, too easily manipulated."

That expresses, I suspect, exactly what many parents of more or less my generation feel about their kids and the media. To be fair, I also think it's a more honest, less red-state-coded version of what Hillary Clinton was trying to say. We know that the media stew most of us marinate in is tremendously powerful, but we don't understand its power, so we fear it. Furthermore, even if violent entertainment has always been with us, as Harold Schechter argues, it's supposed to scare us, because it calls up emotions and impulses we don't usually want to think about, because it summons demons from below our conscious minds and before our approved history. That's its job.

Ultimately, we can't protect our kids from being frightened or unsettled by things they will inevitably encounter, whether while reading Dostoevsky or playing the latest zombie-splattering incarnation of "Resident Evil." We can't stop them from forging their own culture out of fragments and shards they collect along the way, a culture specifically intended to confuse and alienate us. But I think Jones is right: Most of us don't have to worry about breeding little homicidal maniacs. What's far more plausible, and more dangerous, is that we'll raise a pack of sedentary, cynical little button-pushing consumption monsters who never go outside. Now that's scary.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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