Media Violence, Hollywood Narratives, and the Mentally Ill
I have been reluctant to say much about the relationship between entertainment violence and real violence, partly because of the research that I did on the subject when writing this paper long ago. There was evidence that children, at least, exposed to a steady diet of violence became somewhat more aggressive because of it, but there was contradictory evidence as well.
The experimental research that I found suggested that kids from healthy homes were not at any risk; indeed, violent entertainment might have a cathartic benefit for them. Kids from unhealthy homes, however, might be at increased risk, perhaps because what they watched reinforced violent behaviors already within the family structure. Perhaps the strongest argument against the claim that violent entertainment increases real violence, however, is what has happened to murder rates over the last 33 years: rates in 2011 were less than half of what they were in 1980.
Yet I had a sudden revelation while doing a radio talk show in the Midwest a few weeks back. A caller was trying to get me to talk about the supposed enormous problem of gun violence by white-supremacist hate groups. I was trying to find some way to diplomatically tell him that he was full of it; that as despicable as such groups are, all of the blacks murdered by white supremacist hate groups in the U.S. in a decade would not equal a typical week of black-on-black Chicago murders.
The FBI’s 2011 Hate Crime Statistics report shows a total of four murders committed for reasons of bias: only one of those was because the offender was “anti-black”; three murder victims were because the attacker was “anti-male homosexual.” In a country of more than 300 million people, that’s actually an astonishingly low number of murders.
(By the way, that table is worth reading just for the categories of bias crimes: anti-homosexual -- yes, there are people that hate homosexuals; anti-heterosexual -- yes, there are people who hate heterosexuals; but what kind of bias is “anti-bisexual”? What sort of person hates someone for being bisexual, instead of for being homosexual?)
What caused my sudden insight was this caller asking if filmmakers were using their films to incite crimes against blacks. I was briefly in shock that this caller was so paranoid that he thought Hollywood -- the essence of limousine liberalism -- was intentionally making movies to stir up hatred against black people. It has been a very long time since D.W. Griffith made The Birth of A Nation (1915), which celebrated the birth of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan, and helped to bring about its revival.
I turned it around, and suggested that if movies are doing anything to promote violence, it might be by reinforcing beliefs held by those who are severely mentally ill. You and I can watch a film about zombies, or read a well-written novel like Max Brooks’ World War Z, and recognize that it is fiction. We can buy Hornady’s Zombie Max ammunition and recognize that it is all a joke. But what about a person whose mental illness has reached the point that he thinks that zombies have taken over the U.S. government? (Something horrifying, destructive, and brainless has indeed taken over, but they aren’t zombies.) What about someone who thinks that aliens have taken over the Earth, so he beheads and eats the guy in the seat next to him on a Greyhound bus?
What about someone who watches a lousy movie like Inception (2010), where all the cool assault weapons are getting shot, and the only people that die don’t really die because it is all a dream? Back in the 1960s, when we hospitalized the severely mentally ill before they started killing people, the consequences of movies reinforcing delusions were not so terribly serious. Today? Films, even stupid films, have consequences to the extent that they encourage the mentally ill to think: “Well, maybe I am not imagining what I am seeing. There really are zombies out there!”
Let me emphasize that I am not arguing for movie or videogame censorship, or anything like it. I am pointing out that a free society recognizes that freedom of expression for filmmakers includes occasional bad consequences -- just like the right to keep and bear arms, along with the positive results, has some negative results as well. But I do want Hollywood to acknowledge that what it produces has consequences, instead of pretending that it has no part in this.
The CEO of Sony Pictures recently called for Hollywood to be socially responsible. “What we see in the media today affects everybody, whether it’s film, TV, radio, magazines or the internet. ... What we see teaches us about how to feel about ourselves and how to feel about each other.” But no, she wasn’t talking about violence. She was asking Hollywood to remove “gay slurs and stereotypes” from its movies. When was the last Hollywood film you saw with a gay slur in it? The only gay stereotypes I ever see in films are so profoundly positive that I expect to see halos above the character’s head.
Yet clearly, Hollywood believes that it influences our society, and recognizes a responsibility to do something about it. Except, of course, if it involves stylized gunfights where the consequences of suffering, loss, and grievous injuries are almost never realistic.