On Violence

Graffito from Pompei, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image is public domain.

I try to avoid comment on current events at PBS because it’s outside the blog’s mandate and the kind of opinion is the uninformed opinion. Honestly, the internet is dangerously overpopulated with uninformed opinion as it is. That is not to say that I don’t hold opinions, only that I think there is little value in airing them online unless I am prepared to spend the time and effort to provide an informed one. For the sake of personal development, and out if a vague feeling of obligation to the mysterious readers of this blog, I have made that effort in a rare break from the usual fare at PBS. What follows are some thoughts on the recent events in the US, and its relevance to my area of growing expertise, the history of violence.

A good tactic for new writers, particularly students working on non-fiction topics is to build up an argument or commentary from one small, easily understood detail. I recently read a letter in the Globe and Mail, the weekend after the shootings in Aurora Colorado.1 The writer argued that this act of violence was simply part of a larger societal insensitivity to cruelty and bloodshed. The shooting was itself a cinematic act, performed before packed audiences, an act largely indistinguishable from the real or simulated violence Americans (and most people in the Western world) see on a daily basis through the many lenses and screens of popular media. There is something powerfully symbolic—symbolic of what I can’t say—that this shooting occurred before a real audience, but also for a larger, more distant, audience, making an unpleasant Escher-like maze of interchangeable witnesses and victims. For this letter writer it was indistinguishable from the violence on the movie screen which played out behind the actual shooting, and was, from that perspective, simply a byproduct of America’s consumption of violent images. The claim was that we have grown hardened to violent acts through constant exposure.

Most discussions that follow in the wake of these sorts of crimes rarely deal directly with the concept of violence. At their core, most commentary deals with other issues that are satellites to it; the media, popular culture, gun laws, personal and state rights, morality, masculinity, social structures, institutions, and arguments about evil in its abstract sense. In the letter the focus is the media and the social ills associated with the commodity of violence, either as entertainment or as ‘news.’

The writer is unknowingly referencing the work of George Gerbner—at least the writer does not mention him by name. Gerbner studied the way that media, particularly television, depicted violence and he quantified the average viewers exposure to real or simulated acts of violence. One of the goals was to see if there was a correlation, and perhaps causation, between the depiction of violence and the performance of violence by viewers. Did TV make people more violent? Gerbner concluded no, TV does not make viewers more violent, but it does make viewers more fearful of it, and they tended to over estimate the frequency of violence and their own likelihood of victimization.2

This is the paradox of the modern West. North America has seen steady declines in violence (in all its forms) since the middle of the 1970s but the popular perception is that violence is on the rise, that it is worse than it has ever been, and that the rarest forms of violence—acts committed between complete strangers or in mass events like that in Aurora—are far more common, almost commonplace, than they really are.

In one way the letter writer is correct. We think about violence differently because of our exposure to it on a daily basis. However, it does not follow that we are, on average, becoming insensitive to it, and that we have grown inured to violence. If this was the case, and we have become hardened to violence because of our constant low-grade exposure to its images, you would expect a different kind of reaction to this latest commonplace than what you got. Each large shooting, no matter how rare, no matter how unlikely, receives massive public exposure, and although this re-enforces the impression that it is happening all the time, it is not done out of purely cynical drives for higher ratings or media exposure. You would not see the well publicized expressions of spontaneous sympathy, concern, shock and sorrow if we did not feel some genuine concern over it. They would be ignored, treated like car accidents or bad whether. What we do see does not look like the reaction of a culture grown indifferent to human suffering.

What this writer misses is that there is a difference between the media’s representations of violence and acts of violence that we witness as real and present bystanders or victims. Most people would have two different reactions to a news report of a shooting and seeing an actual shooting on their street. There is enough of a separation from reality between the one event, witnessed at a distance, and the other, witnessed first-hand to make the two appear different enough that they are no longer considered equal. If they were treated the same the viewer would experience profound shock and fear at every depiction of real, or fictional violence, or they would react to a shooting in their workplace with detached indifference or vague displeasure. Again, this isn’t what happens.

The whole argument about our relative sensitivity to violence, our willingness to accept it or to act against it, is a long standing part of the larger study of violence. William McNeill—a historian who should have known better than to perpetuate a comically simplistic explanation for European militarism—thought that it was all the animal slaughter, and all the blood—a familiar event for anyone raised in the agrarian world of medieval Europe—that made medieval knights insensitive to violence.3 Historians may disagree on the specific rates of violence in the medieval period, but they all agree in principle that it was more violent, in most respects, than it is now.4 There is far less agreement over the perceptions of violence. Writers like Huizinga and Elias thought medieval people were accepting of these levels of violence, almost fatalistic resigned to it, as a part of the natural order of the world.5 Other writers, like Sharp and Maddern, make the argument that such a simplistic assumption about violence contradicts all the contemporary literature that deplored violence and it ignores, or marginalizes, all the legal efforts over the centuries to control and regulate violent crime.6 If medieval people had no real problem with violence, you wouldn’t expect them to complain about it as often as they do.

Sometimes these arguments about popular conceptions of violence appear in the coverage of more mundane or demographically isolated forms of violence like gang shootings, or domestic assaults, and all the other forms of interpersonal violence that make up the majority of reported violence. But thoughtful discussion is rare, if it ever appears at all. Those sorts of violent crimes are easier to understand, at least in generalizations and cliches. They are easily blamed on more tangible variables like economics, long standing grudges, escalations of conflict amongst partners or co-workers, byproducts of criminal activity, the protection of personal pride or honour. It’s the ‘senseless’ acts of violence, such as the Aurora shooting, that draws the broad strokes of social commentary that also fail to go anywhere useful.

Anton Bloc wrote that even the most senseless act of violence, something that seemed entirely void of reason or purpose, still functioned as some form of “meaningful action.”7 The problem for the witnesses of that violence, usually those who see its aftermath through the media, is that whatever that meaning is, it will make little rational sense to them. Because we aren’t the perpetrator, our understanding of rational motivations for violence are completely different. We may understand, theoretically, the material drive to commit violent acts for personal gain, but what possible gain is there in a mass shooting? The conclusion is that there is no reason, per say. There can’t be a reason in any rational sense of the word. The perpetrator must have been acting out some fantasy, provided to him through the distorted and desensitizing media depiction of violence. Of course we struggle to understand why someone would do this, we aren’t the sort of people who would do this. We can’t rationalist it to our own values. The next step is to project blame on the most abstract source, in this case, the media and its market for violence.

The letter writer’s main concern, nested behind the statements about our collective indifference and tacit acceptance of violence, is a search for causality. The writer thinks the shooting happened because our constant exposure to violence normalized it, and made the unbalanced individual more likely to commit something on this scale, and without any other rational or constructive purpose. The public, according to the letter writer, shrugs and says ‘ah well, this sort of thing happens, no point in getting upset.’ But that isn’t the reaction we actually see, at least it isn’t the popular reaction.

What we usually get from the media, after an event like this, is a chorus of ‘why’ questions, which rarely find answers that are relevant or actionable. If there is a collective shrug amongst the remote witnesses to this violence it comes in the form of rhetorical questions and re-directed agendas of the moral, legal, political, social, cultural, or economic variety. Those questions are easier to pose, and they are easier to answer, at least along theoretical or ideological lines, in ways that have little to do with the actual causes and functions of violence.

Here, of course, sits the final obstacle for these sorts of blog posts; what is my point? I’ve devolved into abstractions. My point, if there was one, is left at a park bench with the an ice-cream a couple of paragraphs back. That point was that the letter writer was half right about the effect of the media on our conceptions of violence, but the conclusions are just a stand-in for a more complex, and even less satisfying, one.

And that is about as far as this ‘informed’ opinion can go, without spending even more time on something that won’t get me publication credit.


1- Michelle Nugyen, “Violence on and off the Screen,” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/letters/ july-21-violence-on-and-off-the-screen-and-other-letters-to-the-editor/article4431663/

2- A good summary of his work is in George Gerbner, Against the Mainstream: The Selected Works of George Gerbner, Edited by Michael Morgan (New York: P. Lang, 2002).

3- This statement is tucked in a footnote to a larger discussion of the European class system and the social place of the knight and other elite warriors which was distinct from Asian social structures. I doubt McNeill thought too hard about this particular line of argument, considering its relegation to small type at the bottom of the page, but for me it was a massive mote in the eye which makes it impossible for me to read anything else by McNeill without remembering it. William McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), , 64, n-2.

4- Although I cringe to write this, I recommend, for the statistics of late 20th century crime and violence, Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), cpt 6. Pinker’s stats for the 20th century, as they relate to violent crime in the West, is largely beyond rebuke. I do have serious problems with a great deal of his historical treatments of violence before 1900 and his handling of the pre-historic rates of homicide are, as far as I can see, largely useless. Pinker isn’t a historian and it really shows in those early parts. If anyone wants to read a review of the book by a historian, and wants to read the rather impolite response from Pinker, they can do so at History Review. Other relevant historical studies of medieval homicide in England, while now considered dated, are James Buchanan Given, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England (Stanford,  CA.: Stanford University Press, 1977), and Barbara Hanawalt, Crime and Conflict in English Communities: 1300-1348 (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard, 1979).

5- Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigation, Edited by Eric Dunning. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell. revised ed. (London: Blackwell, 2000), and Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, Translated by Frederick Jan Hopman (London: Penguin, 1965).

6- I’m referencing the English historical record, but this is applicable to the Western situation in broad terms. See J. A. Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750, 2nd ed. Themes in British Social History. (London: Longman, 1999), and Phillipa C. Maddern, Violence and Social Order: East Anglia, 1422-1442 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1992). If one wants a great introduction to the basic core of debate over the frequency and nature of medieval violence you could not do better than to read the exchange between Lawrence Stone and J. A. Sharpe in Past & Present. Sharpe’s paper, “The History of Crime in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: A Review of the Field.” Social History 7, no. 2 (1982): 187–203, prompted an article by Stone, “Interpersonal Violence in English Society 1300-1980.” Past & Present, no. 101 (1983): 22–33. Sharpe replied to this in “The History of Violence in England: Some Observations.” Past & Present, no. 108 (1985): 206–215. Stone’s reply appeared as “The History of Violence in England: Some Observations: A Rejoinder.” Past & Present, no. 108 (1985): 216–24.

7- Anton Blok, “The Meaning of ‘Senseless’ Violence,” in Anton Blok, Honour and Violence, 103-114 (New York: Polity, 2001), 104.
*nota bene: Because this blog is part training exercise, I will mention here that I failed to keep track of the time I spent on this. Writing was spread over three sittings; one basic draft outline, one careful edit that fixed structure, added a conclusion and basic references, and one final edit to add the details and clean everything up. Total time sent is probably 2.5-3 hours.


2 thoughts on “On Violence

  1. Pingback: Violently Digressive « What's up at Ravens March.

  2. Pingback: The rhetoric of murder | Pen, Book, Sword.

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