issue 187 - September 1988
Photo: Robert Penn / CAMERA PRESS
Zap! Splat! Give it impact!
Blood and guts and a death a minute. The mass media keeps pumping out
multi-million-dollar-making images of violence which it calls 'entertainment'.Some say
this makes us more brutal; others that it gets rid of our aggression.
Judy Gahagan thinks there is more to it than that...
We had reached the central room of the exhibition. It showed the medical experiments carried out on inmates: how the experiments were conducted; whether or not the inmates had survived. There were also photographs of inmates during the course of the experiments - that is close-ups of people in terrible agony - taken by the doctors and administrators as part of the programme.
Near me was a group of teenagers with their teacher. I heard a couple of' them asking if there was a cafe on the memorial site. And I looked at them curiously, wondering how they were reacting to these nightmares of the near past, so close to this charming and beautiful city. With stupefaction? Horror? Anger? But no. Most of them wore an expression which to me as a teacher of teenagers was very, very familiar ... they were bored.
How come? Partly because they had seen 'this kind of thing' before on television. But more because this documentary account of the Third Reich and the concentration camp of Dachau was not entertaining in the way they are used to. In this our electronic century they are used to being entertained - nearly all the time - and are bored when not.
In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman has pointed out that television has become the natural format for representing all experience - an entertainment format. Everything - history, social problems, politics, real life, fictional life, wild life, everything has to be re-packaged as entertainment. And it must have impact and be arousing.
The problem is that there are many subjects, like violence, which ought to do more than just have impact and be arousing. They ought to make us think and make connections. The Dachau photographs had an horrendous impact But the important part of the exhibition was the text. That made the connections between the horrors of the camp and the ordinariness of the procedures which had made the camp possible: the copies of laws for special 'provision' for gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally retarded; the sets of procedures laid down by doctors for the conduct of experiments; the orders for ovens in this pleasant suburb where 60,000 people were murdered. The words - and not the pictures - showed the true banality of evil.
Now many think that the big problem with television violence is to do with the explicitness of the images, and whether they make people more brutal of indifferent. Maybe. But there is a bigger problem - that television obscures the important aspects of real violence: its ordinary and apparently harmless causes. Dramatic effects are easy to film, causes are not. For example a film about a baby dying because of inadequate health provision is more 'entertaining' than an analysis of why the privatization of health care kills.
Sorry, reader, I know it is time for a break for a picture, but I must pursue this argument in words, I'm afraid, so bear with me... Important violence is the real violence out in the world, a violence which results from political decisions. So though the violence of The Texas Chain-saw Massacre is nasty and the making and sale of such videos tells you a lot about the kind of (I was about to say 'culture') barbarity we live in, it is not as important as the actual violence I have just been describing.
The trouble with television is that many kinds of violence are welded together into a single stream of consciousness, linked by the thought-absent watching of viewers and the bland behaviour of the presenters: Tom and Jerry, The 'A' Team, Beirut, some drama about a psychotic killer, a documentary about torture, Tom and Jerry again, a car chase, a commercial for a hairspray which seems to be showing its resilience under conditions of pitched battle - each image is erased by the presenter coming on with the next thing. The presenters - attractive, bland, reasonable - maintain the same demeanour whether they are introducing news from the Ethiopian famine or the mating of the giant panda in Beijing zoo.
But what about the effects of television violence on behaviour? Does watching it make people more brutal, more accustomed to brutality, more fearful and less inclined to intervene in real life situations? The answer is we don't really know - even though there are mountains of research on the subject. The problem is that violent behaviour is never caused by one factor, it is caused by an unknown number. The manner in which people commit violent acts or adopt a violent style of behaviour often shows similarity to popular media scenarios. But all this means is that media provide the costumes in which to clothe aggressive behaviour. Basically we don't know to what extent violent individuals choose to watch violent programmes or the extent to which television further amplifies their already violent tendencies. Researchers can't even agree on what actually counts as violence in the media to start with.
One thing is clear, however: in the last 20 years the frequency, scales and explicitness of violence (and sexuality) on film has increased. For the law of diminishing returns applies, and to continue to have impact (and therefore be profitable) new ground must continually be broken. The moral panics over Straw Dogs, say, or Clockwork Orange are soon resolved and we break through the acceptability barrier again and again to new levels of close-up brutality. Meanwhile the assumption that violence is entertaining at all goes unquestioned. Even films which supposedly condemn war and violence, like 'The Killing Fields', nevertheless are a box office hit by their concentration on it. They do not challenge the assumption that though violence may be wrong, it is entertaining. And in the latter case the audience can enjoy a sense of moral indignation without foregoing the 'excitement' of the action. Why is violence entertaining?
Well, for a great many of us it isn't, but we are not consulted. The promoters and producers of public entertainment can largely dictate what is entertaining by their own promotional techniques, so what is entertaining will largely be what they decide is entertaining. So why violence? Probably because nearly all the people working in media production and promotion business are men. And to be male in our barbarity is to have a thirst for violence... often referred to as 'action'. What we are seeing reflects the tastes of the sample of people who control what we see. And at the moment these diets confirm to the public, the idea that violence is both inevitable and, more importantly, entertaining.
The political advantages of a public narcotized against argument, fed on undigested violence, fictional and real, and uninterested in thinking about its real causes, are immense. The censorship and repression to which the media of totalitarian societies are subjected is not necessary in the capitalist democracies. We watch voluntarily - if you can call addiction voluntary - and we can see anything we like... as long as we don't take it seriously or make any connections. And the dominance of the fun entertainment mode guarantees that we will not.
And now dear reader, it is time for a break, for a commercial, or at least a picture!
Judy Gahagan is a freelance writer and former psychology lecturer living in London.
ANDREW SCHAUSS, a US expert on nutritional medicine, sits talking to Dick Jones, a 23-year-old violent offender imprisoned in Lewis County Jail.
'What did the other doctors you've seen make of you?' asks Schauss.
'They were always coming up with something different,' says Jones. 'Brain dysfunction, behaviour disorder, antisocial, hyperactive, sexual masochist. But what I was looking for was the answer to my problems.'
The process of dietary detective work eventually leads to Jones' mother who smoked heavily during her pregnancy and regularly overdosed on sugary coffee. This, Schauss believes, is a major cause of hyperactivity in children.
'Was he very active in the womb?' asks Schauss.
'Sure!' she answers. 'He beat the hell out of me!'
Schauss prescribes a new diet for Jones, on the strength of which he is released into the community and succeeds in holding down a job.
This is just one of the many recent success stories that suggest our diets may cause - or cure - violent or antisocial behaviour.
However, the idea that human aggression may at least in part have a nutritional basis is still controversial - and far from being universally accepted.
Nevertheless, certain basic facts are indisputable. It is quite clear from research that poor people generally eat an inferior diet compared to those better off and that children from families on welfare have the lowest nutrient intake of all.
It is also clear that in Western countries children eat more crisps, french fries and other potato products than any other single food. Cookies and cakes come a close second - with more eaten by weight than vegetables. This junk food diet delivers too little protein, calcium and vitamins and too much sugar and fat.
Now, not only is this food unhealthy, it also helps provoke violent behaviour. When the diets of chronic juvenile offenders have been analyzed, it has been found that they were exceptionally high in sugar and low in nutrients. And when these dietary deficiencies were corrected, behaviour improved.
A two-year study of 3,000 young offenders tried replacing junk food in their diets with more nutritious food and found that assaults and fights declined by 25 per cent. Another American study reduced the sugar intake of young offenders. The results here were even more convincing. Assaults dropped by 82 per cent and thefts by 77 per cent compared to the preceding 12 months.
The evidence is growing all the time. For example many people now know that the food additive tartrazine (E120, found in yellow-coloured foods) can cause violent bouts of hyperactivity in children. But to eat a good diet we not only need to avoid suspect foods, we also need the cash to buy good food and be kept better informed by our governments about what is in our food. This is not always possible. Expert-committees' findings and reports on food, health and nutrition in Britain for example, are all covered by the Official Secrets Act. This makes it a criminal offence to disclose, say, the proposed fat content of a sausage. Now that's unhealthy.