Televised violence and how we react to seeing it

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Last year I studied Gandhi for history class, and something about him that stuck out to me was how deeply horrified he was at violence.

I realised that violence doesn't upset me nearly as much. I have accepted it as part of my life, part of what I will see in the media. The violence I see in the media is not all presented in a negative light, and I am rarely shocked or horrified.

There is a huge difference between Gandhi's view of violence, and the common attitude towards violence today. Gandhi was a Hindu, and he was born over a hundred years ago. He was raised as a Hindu Indian.

As New Zealanders in the 21st century, we have access to a whole lot more popular media than Gandhi did. The majority of us are not religious, and our society as a whole is not particularly spiritual.

These differences between our culture and the one Gandhi was raised in have caused profound changes in our attitudes towards violence. I find our differing attitudes towards violence intriguing, but ultimately often faulty. Too often, we focus on whitewashing violence, rather than thinking about it and the violent messages we get through the media.

Violence and gender

In my English class, we were watching a film. There was a scene when a man hit his wife. My class was almost unanimously horrified and disgusted.

This reaction was something I found intriguing. I realised that this was one of the few times I've seen people react with shock and horror at seeing violence on screen.

Why aren't we nearly as upset when we are presented with other violence? With the exception of violence from men towards women, our culture has been desensitised to violence. A man hitting a man is no big deal, a man hitting a woman provokes a strong negative reaction.

We really, really don't like seeing men beating up women. Fair enough. That is quite as it should be. But we don't seem to mind any other form of violence. There's no outrage, no horror, no disgust, no OMG!!!

Censoring violence is not the way to go
I am an adamant proponent of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That to me includes the freedom to show violence on television and in the media.

After all, if violence wasn't shown in the media, there would be no opportunity to us to see how it is presented and critically analyse the attitudes towards violence being communicated towards us through the media.

It is up to us, the viewers and consumers, to look at the portrayal of violence in the media with a critical eye. Unfortunately, the media, particularly the television, is designed to communicate to our emotional side, rather than the rational. It is therefore hard to analyse the messages in the media on an intellectual level. It takes work to take the messages you receive and challenge them, rather than swallow them whole.

But it's thanks to the exposure of violence in the media that we have an opportunity to explore these messages. We owe it to ourselves to take advantage of it.


It's okay to be desensitised

Sometimes, I'll read or listen to someone say something about violence in our culture. Condescendingly, they say, “we're all desensitised to it”. This has made me feel somewhat guilty and ashamed for being desensitised to a certain level violence.

I don't want to dictate to anyone what their response to violence should be. And I certainly don't want to shame anyone for the level of violence they are able to comfortably watch on television.

We can't help being desensitised. We can't undo a lifetime of exposure to violence. We can't re-sensitise ourselves. Innocence isn't something you can get back.

I don't think we should try to re-sensitise ourselves. For one thing, it just isn't possible. For another, it's misguided. Innocence is not a superior or desirable position from which to discuss mature issues.

We can't control our emotional reaction to violence. Whether we are horrified or entertained, it's not something we choose for ourselves. Trying to be horrified is an exercise in futility.

We can control our intellectual reaction to violence. We can ask ourselves, 'why do I feel this way?' We can question the validity of the message being given to us.


Shades of gray

There are no black-and-white solutions to the widespread exposure of violence in the media. It seems pointless to moan about our society being desensitised to violence, mainly because it carries the risk of judging someone for something beyond their control, and it is impossible to re-sensitise ourselves.

Rather than aiming for any one visceral reaction to violence, our best bet is to see everything in our media culture with a critical and analytical eye.





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