Violence and the Mind's Climate

Monday May 14, 2007


The other night, I watched Casino Royale. Usually, I tend to be careful about the films that I watch, as I don’t have much of a stomach for on-screen brutality, but the film was classified as a 12A – which means that nobody younger than twelve can watch it without their parents’ or guardians’ consent – and so, given that my twelfth birthday was quite a long time ago now, I thought I was probably safe. Not so, however. On the one hand, the film was certainly stylish and well-made, but on the other hand, the violence was visceral and shocking, and I would have hesitated twice before giving consent to any eleven year-old to see the film.

The experience of the film was not what was most striking, however. Whilst decidedly ugly in parts – mass killings, torture, successive acts of cruelty – it wasn’t until later that I felt the effects of the film. That night, long after the final credits had rolled, I had a long succession of grim, bloody and brutal dreams all of them related, in one strange way or another, to the film. The film, it seemed, had got into my head; and it did not look like it was doing me any good.

Recently, the New Scientist published an article by Helen Phillips on the links between on-screen violence and aggression, arguing that the evidence for the link between violence on-screen and aggression off-screen is so well attested that there is scarcely any doubt that exposure to violent imagery leads to increased behavioural aggression. The article has been reprinted on the MindScience website, and can be found by clicking the link here.

Although the link is well attested, denial of the unsurprising idea that consuming images of violent acts might have a detrimental effect is everywhere. Very often, we claim that we are sophisticated enough to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ violence. As John Carpenter, director of Halloween, said recently, “Real life causes this [violence], fake life does not cause it.” But putting it this way is disingenuous. It is not a matter of of distinguishing between real and fake violence, nor is it a matter of straightforward one-to-one causality in which exposure to x leads to behaviour y; it is more a question of the kind of climate of experience that is cultivated by such exposure. To be sure, exposure to violent images doesn’t make us all go out on the rampage, but at the same time it may well have effects upon the mind that are less than desirable. As the editorial in the New Scientist puts it,

Each time you bawl out a stranger over the phone, or lose it with another driver from the safety of your car, consider that these too are aggressive acts which studies have shown are more likely after repeated exposure to on-screen violence; the impact is not limited to assault and murder.

It is, I think, question of the kind of climate that we want to foster – either within our own experience or else within the relationships we have with the wider world. And if we are going to take this seriously, then perhaps we need to also look more deeply at the media we consume as a whole, considering not only the violence we see TV and in the cinema, but also that which we encounter in our addiction to the constant drip-feeding of twenty-four hour news bulletins, in novels, in music, in the books that we read and that we revere.

# · Mathias

I agree with you. A very interesting and clear post. Besides that I also found Casino Royale to be so boring I only watched half of it…
Is conflict and meaningless entertainment violence really so captivating?

# · Kendall

Whether or not violence affects a person is a very individualized. I myself have played the most violent of games and seen very violent movies. These don’t impact my dreams in adverse ways nor my waking life. Most people who know me would say I’m one of the most gentle and easy going people they know. I’ve always had a clear distinction between my entertainment and my real life. Not everyone has this ability though. I find nothing wrong with violent movies and other entertainment, but do agree with the ratings given to them. The evening news is something that I find more disturbing.

One thing I found that is helpful in dealing with violent movies is watching the “extras” where it has the behind the scenes shots and shows how the created effects and the gore and what not. When I watch the gore I often find myself seeing how they set up the scene and in effect I see it as the art it is.

If you had trouble with Casino Royale I’d recommend you stay away from Pan’s Labyrinth. I thought it was a great movie, but it does make you cringe a bit at times, especially at a theatre with it’s loud audio.

Perhaps you should meditate (or think about) why the movies’ violence followed you into your dreams. It could be interesting for you to find out. The more we know, the better we understand.

# · Elee

Kendall, you’re obviously lucky that you find it so easy to distinguish between the violence of real life and that of film and video games. However, it is clear from the New Scientist article and the research it is based on that your experience is not necessarily that of everyone.
I don’t think we can depend on people to censor their own viewing depending on how much it affects them, and often I imagine people with more violent personalities are actually drawn to these violently themed forms of entertainment.
The question is, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the violence from film and video games doesn’t impact too much on society? The viewers? the film makers? the censors? government?
All interesting, and very difficult to resolve!

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