Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Self-fulfilling prophecy

An interesting and thought-provoking post over at Sandra's place today put me in mind of something I've thought about on and off since I was a Psychology undergraduate back in the oh whenever: does watching violence on telly make us more violent in real life?

It's a sign of the times that you can now add games to that - back when I was first considering the whole idea, the most sophisticated computer violence was being eaten by a ghost in pacman. Nevertheless, it is true that we are bombarded with ever more graphic violence, and more of it. Real on the news (and there are far more dead bodies on screen than ever), and fake in the movies and dramas. Whilst it's difficult to separate cause from effect - does this stuff make us more violent, or do we seek it out because we have become more violent - there's no denying that most people are habituated to, and tolerant of far higher levels of anger, hatred and violence than when I was growing up.

Mild-mannered fellow that I am, I can't help noticing that people are often very intolerant of each other. Road rage, trolley rage, air rage, are all blamed on the high-pressure lives that we are supposed to be living now. But is that really the cause? Sure, most people are under a great deal of pressure - we're bombarded with images of things we should aspire to, pictures of the rich and beautiful leading their rich and beautiful lives, and yet we know that however hard we graft, we'll never be able to have that lifestyle, never afford those shiny, shiny things. So our consumerist society breeds discontent.

Then we see the images on the television. Not the obvious, nasty violence of the movies - most people know that's not real - but the routine, everyday surliness, the fists as a first resort, the unhappiness and hatred and casual violence of everyday programmes. I'm not a great watcher of television these days, and I have avoided soap operas ever since, as a child, the babysitter would make me sit and watch Coronation Street when I would much rather be reading a book. But I have seen these programmes, and I've seen one-off contemporary dramas, police procedurals and implausible crime programs. And all of them, in the UK at least, seem to have this undercurrent of discontent, of struggling against impossible odds, of just barely managing to survive. It's called gritty realism in some quarters, but to me it's just unmitigated misery. And this is the template with which people shape their lives.

Now consider that television is the universal nanny, the surrogate parent. I don't have children, so I'm on thin ice here, but even the most well-intentioned of parents I know will let their children absorb hours of cultural information from the flickering tube. Where the will to do the best has been all but extinguished (or was never there in the first place), children are left to learn the lessons of life from Eastenders and Brookside. Is it any wonder they're fucked in the head?

Then they go to school, lacking any self-discipline, sure that answering back is acceptable behaviour and with no automatic respect for anyone, let alone adults. Teachers should not have to teach children how to become adults, and they are prevented by well-intentioned but misguided legislation from doing anything about bad behaviour until it is too late.

What is miraculous, given this dire situation, is how sane and well-adjusted most children grow up to be. But they grow up more accepting of the image of the world depicted on television as the true one; the behaviour of fictional characters as normal and acceptable. And fiction is built around conflict - it is the driving force of all narrative. So instead of living in amicable harmony with their neighbours, their colleagues at work, the people they share their daily commute with, they instead begin to see everything in hostile terms. Life is rendered down to competition in every aspect. Violence and anger become the easiest responses. And hey, that's all right. They do it on the telly, after all.

So the answer to the question, to my mind at least, is no, exposure to violence on television, in movies and in computer games doesn't make us more violent; it makes us more tolerant of violence. What makes people more violent is the lack of social programming that builds the fabric of a decent society.

So why are parents failing their children so? When did they stop teaching right from wrong, respect, honesty? I suspect that's a topic for another rant entirely.


Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Just to be a right little shit on the subject, I'd like to point out that the Bible is one of the most violent books around, killing philistines just to cut off their foreskins, etc.

Fascinating topic, though.

June 01, 2006 8:12 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Don't get me started on religion, Sandra. I'd lose too many friends...

June 02, 2006 8:47 am  

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