Sides of the same coin: affection/aggression

Are media depictions of violence obstacles to peace, or can they help end war?

By Peter Nicholls | 1994-09-01 12:00:00

In 1770 (f.1) my fellow English westcountryman Samuel Hearne persuaded the Indian Matonabbee and his Yellowknife band to accompany him to the Northern Ocean [now part of the seas in the high Arctic], and provide some public relations exploration activity for the Hudson's Bay Company. At a place now known as Bloody Falls near the mouth of the Coppermine River, they found some sleeping Inuit, whom they proceeded to slaughter. The young Hearne dressed himself Indian-style and took part in the assault (the much older story-telling Hearne justifies this on practical grounds), but this deception was seen through by an Inuit girl who threw herself naked at his feet to plead for her life. As they speared her to the ground, the Indians mockingly pointed out that she was not a suitable wife for Hearne because her genitals were formed differently from those of non-Inuit women. And so she died. As he says, he could not see that there were any biological differences, although the circumstances were not suited to clinical observation. Certainly an awkward theme to introduce during the children's hour within a politically correct account of the founding of our nation, but should its re-enactment be forbidden? Think of the resonances involved in the interactions between white, Indian and Inuit cultures. Might it not help young people understand this country? Despite Farley Mowat's retelling of the tale, it has never been shown on TV, film or video. When it is, I shall recommend a "family"' rating.

Two recent Peace articles attacked simulated violence in TV and film as precipitating causes of real violence (f.2,3) and by implication as contributing to the lack of world peace. The argument is of some antiquity. The efforts of creative artists, good or bad, were seen by Plato as a threat to the ideal state, and the Republic banned all works of the imagination. Aristotle, by contrast, was an early advocate of "catharsis" - that acting out in play deflects a real life temptation to do evil. Bruno Bettelheim (f.4) pointed out that children harbour violent and destructive fantasies and may need aggressive daydreams in which they can act out their feelings without hurting their families. TV provides what was traditionally provided by fairy stories, some of them much more grisly than any children's screen fare. The late Raymond Williams in the U.K. (f.5) and Joyce Nelson in Canada (f.6,7) unite in defending the medium while criticizing the society around it, whose values it commonly espouses.

The Wrath Of Achilles

Ml great art contemplates violence. Consider Shakespeare's "anti-war" play, Troilus and Cressida, and the violence in its penultimate scene. This, properly done, should be more horrible than anything on Miami Vice. Hector kills a man for his fine armour, is nauseated by the entrails that gush out when he attempts to remove the body ("Most putrefied core, so fair without"), and strips himself, perhaps naked, with the intent of withdrawal from the battle. Then, ironically but justly, (and the audience should jump when it happens) this instant of temporary human "weakness" becomes the terrifying moment in which Achilles, the nearly inhuman warrior, appears and kills Hector in his turn. How else can this be shown except as a cascade of blood, guts and vomit followed by a brief moment of remorse in growing darkness, too late? The most desirable role in the play is that of Ulysses, academic and intellectual, who eggs Achilles on as part of Greek political strategy. Can guilt be appreciated without a view of its consequences? We should be much poorer if such acts and threats of violence were to be expunged (or even taxed, pace Derek Paul). The cut flesh must be seen, not taxed, expunged or sanitized.

The problem is trash. All trash, not only the violent sort, is morally repugnant. Alas, we cannot draw a line between creative art and the rest, anymore than the great scientific paper can initially be distinguished from the run-of-the-mill effort. To foster art and science means letting trash continue. As a contrast to Triolus, consider the film Beethoven's 2nd. For the benefit of those who do not linger in the sleazier reaches of the cinematic world, or do not have the bad luck to be on the wrong transatlantic aircraft, I should explain that this film portrays the supposed life of a domestic dog, who falls in love with another dog (along the lines expected of young Middle American humans in a Norman Rockwell picture) and wants to have puppies.

It is not a cartoon, which might be marginally more acceptable. Cartoon animals are humans in animal disguise. They have their own pathology - outlined by Nelson in her essay on Mickey Mouse and the Great Wall of China, (f.6) inhabiting a world "without biological roots, reproduction, aging or change." ButBeethoven's 2nd contains real dogs and real human beings. It is pernicious rubbish because it falsifies animal life, making it the same as an untrue yet cosy picture of human life, and fails to acknowledge any dignity in the difference between a dog's world and our own. Conversely, it prevents any glimpse of our own biology, which is needed if we are to overcome violent and irrational impulses. Yet children will doubtless be encouraged to see this film, and prevented from seeing David Cronenberg's films - although Cronenberg (pace Rose Dyson) has a characteristic and highly moral vision of the world, the media, weaponry, and the relationship between thought and violence - developed in artistic creations like Scanners and Videodrome.

The Banality Of Violence per se

Is violence such a unique evil that its depiction alone ought to be prohibited? Or should TV and film plots also eschew thievery, cowardice, treachery, and lying? I have never seen a screen murder that seemed worth emulating but I have seen numerous ingenious bank robberies that could give me ideas. Violence does have fashions. In Malaysia frustrated young men may run amok." A few years ago one amok Malay threw a grenade into a crowd, an unpleasant form of anomic self-expression that was promptly imitated by several others. When a world prize fight is televised in the U.S., violent acts follow - committed both by ordinary folk and by police officers. But prize fighting, though ritualized, is real," as are the other two examples cited by Paul (f.3) -- the Gulf War and American football. By all means let us ban real violence, whether boxing, war, or possibly even football, but let artists continue to show us symbolically what violence means-by depicting boxing matches, wars, and football games with all their bloody consequences.

There is no evidence that the level of violence in society correlates with the level of media violence. Past societies have endured levels of great violence coexistent with severe censorship. Until recently TV censorship in South Africa was the strictest in the world. In addition to sex, violence, and politics, the one key image that was forbidden to appear was that of current President Nelson Mandela. Yet 1980's South Africa was rife with official violence, on the streets and in the execution chamber, as well as with all kinds of unofficial violence and crime. Censorship, direct and indirect, the banning of writing, images and ideas, is always the instrument of the oppressor and never of the oppressed.

Biology Of Aggression

There is a more difficult problem. Consider the evidence in the figure. First, murders occur with closely similar qualitative patterns in different societies. In both Canada and Detroit it is largely a phenomenon associated with young men. Anatomy is destiny. Second, although the patterns are almost identical, the level of violence is quite different, for both sexes, in the two societies. Murder rates by Detroit females exceed even those by Canadian males. For Britain the shapes of the curves are again the same, the magnitudes much lower than for Canada. In Iceland the number of murders is so small that the statistics for offenders are uncertain. With what are these differences correlated? Certainly not with media violence. Nor with the obvious military histories of the several societies. The high U.S. levels may have something to do with the fact that of major Western nations the U.S. alone was created in violence against its indigenous peoples, then practiced slavery until modern times, the corrosive consequences of which go on and on.

The age and gender pattern seems due to "nature" rather than "nurture." To be a male, biologically, is to be an evolutionary gambler. Males can leave very few or very many offspring; females are constrained to a relatively standard number by their physiology. Such insights into both animal and human conditions have developed over the past 20 years out of the subdiscipline of sociobiology, created by E. O. Wilson.(f.8) Young males fight. Young males, not females or old males, fill our prisons. To understand ourselves we need to look at, and not hide from, our biological natures, and to understand violence we need more careful and analytical portrayals of different sorts of violence by the media.

Our emotions are of ancient origin. Aggression is involved in discriminating between self and other, family and stranger, mate, rival or collaborator. The rapid increase in size of the human brain over the last five million years can at least be partially attributed to the immense selective advantage for small cooperative groups in recognizing and responding to kin, friends, and enemies. Aggression and affection are two sides of a coin-it may not be possible to have one without the other. Whatmay be needed are aggressive impulses without real violence-and to draw that boundary we need to see and know what real violence is.

Homicide patterns are not arbitrary, but socially and biologically based.(f.9) This does not mean that individual murders cannot be prevented, or that homicide levels cannot be modulated. War too has patterns, reflecting human aggression since antiquity, and this does not mean that individual wars cannot be avoided, or that the likelihood of war cannot be changed. But it does mean that abolition of murder and war will be exceptionally difficult, perhaps globally impossible. The determining factors are deep and not readily modified-certainly not by anything as morally trivial as TV, whether the latter is showing mindless carnage or "feel good" social programming. As Isaiah Berlin says,(f.10) quoting Kant, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing quite straight can ever be made." Attempts must continue. In science, most experiments fail. Yet we go on doing them because there is nothing else worth doing.

What's Wrong With TV?

I have never owned a TV set. There must be something unpleasant about it. It induces passivity, stunts the imagination, and can readily create a false image of the real world. One danger of TV violence, in police thrillers such as Prime Suspect, is that it can induce real life fear, especially among women, who are commonly portrayed as victims.(f.5,6,7) I have lived for 59 years, in the U.K., the U.S., Denmark, and Canada, but I have never seen anyone die, nor seen a dead body since my grandmother's in 1957, nor have I ever been involved in a serious act of violence, nor been threatened with a weapon-all commonplaces of film and TV. In Canada violence is rare, perhaps rarer than in any animal society, yet its abstract presence is almost tangible. Would we be able truly to love one another if that dark shadow went away? TV watchers must learn to distinguish violence's low real-life probability from its importance as symbol.

Nelson points out the relationship between the technology that brings TV and that which brings nuclear weapons.(f.5) We are invited to admire the glittering results of a technology that we do not understand but which we are assured is provided with our own best interests in mind. Computers, modems, and videos give us control over our world. Weapons are hardly needed, will perhaps never be used, but stand in the background, blurred icons. Most cannot take full part but all can watch the screens. TVhas a passive content, and is a passive medium. The medium as well as the messages should concern us. We need not condemn special elements-that will just make things worse.

The film version of Thackeray's novel Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick, begins and ends with a duel. In the final duel Lyndon, played by Robert Redford, is wounded and loses a leg to gangrene. We see him lying in bed minus the leg. We become aware of the deceptive nature of film-of course Redford must still have both his legs. Surely the leg must be hanging down through a hole-as Barry Lyndon would have liked to believe, "just joking." At that moment Kubrick makes the Lyndon character drag his stump along the mattress. Aagh! There "really" is no leg there. A man who has always tried to evade responsibility for his actions will have to live with this consequence of the duel for the rest of his life. Through violence he and we have learned the same lesson-he, in fiction, brutally, but we, in life, lightly and metaphorically. Such is the power of art.


(f.1) Hearne, S. (1795, 1958) A Journey from Prince of Wales Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean (reprint, ed. R. Glover, MacMillan, Toronto).
(f.2) Dyson, R. (1994) Peace (Jan/Feb), pp. 14-15.
(f.3) Paul, D. (1994) Peace (March/April), p. 24.
(f.4) Bettelheim, B. (1989) Children and Television, in Freud's Vienna and other essays (Vintage Books, N.Y.)
(f.5) Nelson, J. (1987) The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (Between the Lines, Toronto).
(f.6) Nelson, J. (1992) Sign Crimes/Road Kill (Between the Lines, Toronto).
(f.7) Williams, R. (1989) On Television (ed. A. O'Connor, Between the Lines, Toronto).
(f.8) Horgan, J. (1994) "A profile of E. O. Wilson," Scientific American, April, pp. 36-41.
(f.9) Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1988) Homicide (Aldine de Gruyter, N.Y.).
(f.10) Berlin, I. (1992) The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Vintage Books, N.Y.).

G. Peter Nicholls is Professor of Biological Sciences at Brock University, Vice-President nominate of the Canadian Biophysical Society, and a Science for Peace board member.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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