After Aurora: the role of media violence

The connection between violent images and violent acts is an age-old debate. Recent research appears to show the connection is real. So what's to be done? There's an age-old antidote.

Barry Gutierrez/AP
Terry Willey lights a candle during an Aurora, Colo., church service in support of shooting victims and others.

Some of the most celebrated TV shows of this era are also some of the most violent: “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos.” It’s the same with movies – from “Pulp Fiction” to “Batman.” And video games. And books. Violence has a long and rich tradition in the arts as a plot accelerant and drama intensifier. Shakespeare employed it liberally. Homer, too.

But for as long as there have been arts, people have wondered what effect violent content has on behavior. Plato wanted to keep young people away from intense plays, which he felt skewed proper character development. His student Aristotle disagreed, arguing that drama had a cathartic effect, channeling off anger and aggression.

We’re a little closer today to settling the issue, which often arises after an act of mass violence such as the one in Aurora, Colo. 

Common sense says make-believe images must have an effect. If the media were unable to sway thought, a hole the size of Gotham City would be blown in the advertising industry. There would be no reason to saturate the airwaves with political ads, sponsor sports spectacles, or launch big marketing campaigns.

A mountain of behavioral studies has been amassed in recent years showing that media messages are, indeed, persuasive. That goes not just for consumer choice. A 2006 review by L. Rowell Huesmann and Laramie D. Taylor for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research pulled together dozens of careful studies. Conclusion: “Media violence poses a threat to public health inasmuch as it leads to an increase in real-world violence and aggression.” Every category of violent imagery had an effect: fictional TV and film, TV news, video games.

At the same time, recent neuroscience experiments appear to indicate that prolonged exposure to violent and aggressive imagery decreases inhibitions about actual violence and aggression. While all such research remains provisional, the preponderance of evidence does seem to side with Plato, not Aristotle.

Prof. James Klagge, who teaches philosophy at Virginia Tech, has thought a lot about this age-old debate. Even Plato, in his desire to edit and censor, he notes, couldn’t come up with a mild alternative for young people to experience. He endorsed “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey,” which are every bit as bloody and intense as anything Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino would produce today (e.g., the grim story of Polyphemus, the cyclops).

There’s little, it seems, we can do to rid our lives of violent themes. Professor Klagge points out that anyone who has tried to raise boys in an environment free from war toys or playtime shootouts almost always sees these influences assert themselves anyway. And if you recall the Bible story of Cain and Abel, the first two boys on earth, you know that Cain didn’t go to the
 movies or play Mortal Kombat to learn how to slay his brother.

So while a constant diet of violent images can’t be good for you, censorship doesn’t seem to work either. Which leaves – what?

How about moral education? The study and practice of doing what is right is not a silver bullet in a bullet-riddled age of entertainment. It is a long-term defense project – as old as religion and philosophy – designed to counter dark thoughts of violence and aggression and build a culture of character, honor, and respect.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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