23.12.1990

The cult of violence in the home

The cult of violence in the home
by Lynette Burrows
 
BY THE TIME he is 12 the average child will have seen 10,000 simulated deaths on television, many of them during the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It's all part of Christmas fun, of course, along with vomiting junior office workers and tantrums in the toy­shops. These days we tend to accept those 10,000 deaths (and the many thousands more seen by the aver­age adult) with a resigned shrug. The fact is that most of us are regu­lar television viewers, and we pre­fer not to trouble our consciences by considering too deeply the impli­cations of television violence.
 
Now the Broadcasting Standards Council is conducting its first detailed study of the effects of tele­vision violence on aggressive or criminal behaviour. Researchers will question sex offenders and vio­lent criminals in order to discover if there is a connection between what they watch on TV and their own aberrant activities.
 
On the surface this might seem to be a welcome move. But it is diffi­cult to see how the exercise can produce anything useful. The charge against televisual violence is not that it alone makes men into violent criminals but the rather more subtle one that it plays a part in educating children to accept and even to want violence as part of their daily entertainment. It is the creation and development of this formative appetite that is of con­cern here just, just as people would be concerned about the long-term effect if alcohol-flavoured sweets were produced for children.
 
Many murderers and rapists have described the process by which they were transmogrified into their des­perate state and it very often involves books, magazines and vid­eos containing material of mind-bending violence and crudity which only the very unimaginative could possibly think harmless. This kind of material is not, and is never likely to be, permitted on our tele­vision screens because, in its vio­lence and cruelty, it would be far too strong for the stomachs of most people. Nevertheless, we are pre­pared to allow its dissemination by the pornography industry to the very people who are the least able to withstand its influence — the ignorant and the unstable.
 
ut those corrupted by hard-core sado-pornography do not come to it cold. They often graduate through what is considered acceptable vio­lence on TV. Initially, therefore, any research project should ask whether it is wise to create in chil­dren, or indeed in anyone else, an appetite for watching violence, pain and suffering for pleasure and entertainment. The "give them bread and circuses" policy with which the Romans kept their plebe­ians happy was found to be a slip­pery slope, and commentators at the time observed how quickly the populace moved from objecting when a gladiator was injured to protesting loudly if no-one was killed in the bloodiest way possible.
 
It was a dark progression, which Aristotle had anticipated, and, in setting out the ideal rules to govern Greek drama, he said that violence and death should happen off-stage, where it could provoke an imagina­tive response but not inflame the audience contrary to the moral pur­pose of the play. He knew that the most effective weapon a society has against crime is its own genuine sense of shock and horror at it, which nothing should be allowed to dull or brutalise.
 
In our culture the children who see thousands of simulated deaths on television do so in the home and against a background of normality and adult unconcern that must leave them ambivalent in their atti­tude towards it.
 
Sex and violence are nearly always bracketed together in the public mind, although the connec­tion is not immediately apparent and is sometimes disputed. How­ever, the element of voyeurism involved is similar, and we are entitled to ask whether its effect may be also similar in that, as Ches­terton remarked, "there is a fury in sex we cannot afford to arouse".
 
This voyeurism is felt at a deeply instinctive level to be unsound and even dangerous, particularly for children. It is a feeling which finds confirmation in Freud, who noted that voyeurism in children was con­nected to premature sexuality and with cruelty; though he was frank enough to admit that he did not know why this should be so. He noted in Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory (1905) that, "Cruelty is especially near the childish char­acter, since the capacity for sympa­thy, which restrains it, develops comparatively late." He went on to say that "the absence of the barrier of sympathy carries with it the dan­ger that the connection between cruelty and the erogenous impulses formed in childhood cannot be bro­ken in later life".
 
We seem to be no nearer to dis­covering a scientific explanation for this link between sex and violence, though it undoubtedly exists, and almost every film which is described as "explicit" includes blood and cruelty, as well as sex, to a marked degree.
 
The question any proposed research into this subject should ad­dress is whether there is any evi­dence that children become inured to the "soft" sex and violence on television and, if so, what effect this might have on their subsequent behaviour as potential customers of the vastly stronger sadism on offer in our pornographic sub-culture.
 
What we should all like to know is the extent to which television con­tributes to a certain toleration of violence for its own sake in most children and to a complete moral breakdown in a significant minority of others. Only then shall we be able to decide if the transient pleasure of the one is worth the permanent damage of the other.