Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Can Watching Movies Reduce Violence?

For centuries, our understanding of art has been influenced by the idea of mimesis, or representation. Plato, for instance, said we should distrust the poets and playwrights because they built images of the world that were not always based in the truth. Only philosophers could be trusted to tell us how the world really is and we should be wary of the way non-philosophers represent the world to us.

Aristotle was not so harsh to the artists. Great art, he thought, flourished through mimesis. The way a great piece of art works is by representing a world that is so lifelike that it draws the audience in. We come to identify with the characters, they seem so real, so much like us, that by the end of the experience of the art piece, we have come to the cathartic moment that teaches us about ourselves. Art should be like a mirror to our own lives (this metaphor of the mirror is a favorite of Aristotle's--he thinks that a real friend is like a mirror to us. In looking at our friend, we have an insight into what our own character is like).

This notion of the influence of art, and images in particular, informs political work, too. Indeed, Plato thought that the power of art to sway people's political decisions was so great, he wanted to prohibit artists from his Republic. Today, we are concerned with the power of all sorts of images. Some are concerned with the way pornography warps our sense of sexuallity, so that only by re-enacting the images and performances in porn are we thought to be really having sex. This is similar to Freud's argument against masturbation. He thought that someone who lived in a fantasy life of self-pleasuring would become overwhelmed with the images in their own head and this would handicap them from actually being able to have a normal sex life with another person. Fantasy could never live up to the reality of another person, and thus, masturbation had the capacity to render us unhappy. Similar arguments have been made about violent and gory movies. And there are movements to limit or prohibit these kinds of images from filtering around societies.

But a new study, done by some economists, tries to push us away from this framework of mimesis. It claims that violent movies may actually reduce the amount of violence there is in society! Why? Because the kind of people that would be doing violent things are instead spending their time watching these violent movies. Much of violent crime in this country is done by young men. They are also the demographic that tends to see violent action films. So, if they are spending time going to the cinema, there is less time to go about causing mayhem in the streets.

The authors of the study say they don't know whether violent images induce violent behavior. And they don't condone those kinds of films, either. What's interesting is that they say that instead of trying to prohibit violent films, we should just produce films that young men also like to see in order to keep them occupied. In other world, more Adam Sandler films will do the same trick to keep violence down.

I'm curious what people make of this study and its "distraction" theory. It reminds me of arguments made in favor of keeping prostitiution, or, of pornography. The idea being that if men are allowed to visit brothels, or to watch porn, then they will have an outlet that will keep them from raping women, or feeling dissatisfied in their "normal" lives. Should we abandon our worries about the power of images to represent violence and concentrate on how to fill up people's lives so that they won't have time to hurt others?

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At 12:53 PM , Blogger Jake said...

If violent movies distract people from committing violent crimes what else do they have the power of preventing? Is there an inherent difference from distracting a male in his 20’s who is prone to violence by watching a Tarantino film from say distracting anyone who has a drive to work for social justice by watching a Michael Moore film and feeling content that they have done their part?

At 8:18 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

I'm going to be as charitable as possible and suggest that the proposed strategy will ultimately be ineffective because it relies on the assumption that nothing can be done to change the violent urges present in people.

That's a bit pessimistic for me.

Instead, why not try to understand and change the urge to hate, to do violence?

Why not get to the root cause?

At 12:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Theresa.
William Saletan on Slate makes some good points about this study. He argues that the study doesn't address long-term net effects of violent movies, that non-violent movies reduce crime more effectively than violent movies do, and that providing any activity that kept this demographic off the street would be as or more effective. He also pointed out that the person who did the study doesn't let his own kids watch violent movies.
I'd agree with Dennis that it's more important to look at what creates the need and desire for violence, either real or imagined, rather than cranking out violent films just to keep potential offenders distracted.


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