Is Violence in the Media a Reflection of Our Own Social Anxieties?
The following is an excerpt from Eros Over Logos: A Revolt of the Instinctual Mind Amidst the Madness of Modern Life by Salvatore Folisi.
I am repeatedly struck by our country's incredible capacity for criminalization and incarceration, our unending fascination with criminal court proceedings—such as Judge Judy and the televised trials of famous persons like OJ—, and the rise of TV shows about criminal investigations and prison life, such as CSI Miami, Women Behind Bars, and weekend-long MSNBC â€•Lock-Up documentaries. We have become a culture completely obsessed with all aspects of crime and punishment, with law enforcement, the justice system, and violence as entertainment. Every night we look on with a mixture of horror, disbelief, and glee as the TV news features the latest crime, the latest high speed chase, the latest indictment, and the latest ruling or prison sentence.
The fact is, these kinds of news stories fascinate us. But why? Does life in a modern technological world breed individuals who are more criminally incited or inclined? Is it somehow more difficult for us to cope with our lives, with our basic instincts and needs, in societies which are cut off from nature? Through disconnecting and dividing us from our true instinctual inner nature, has modern technological society distorted and deformed our souls into criminal forms of madness? Or does our high level of sensationalizing interest in crime and punishment, in violence as entertainment, point to something else?
The list of television shows based on crime and criminal investigation which one can watch on any given night is too long to list. It is simply mind-blowing. In fact, these kinds of TV shows dominate the air waves, and it is sometimes difficult to find a program on a major channel that is not focused on criminal matters, that does not feature the lethal wielding of a gun or depict a bloody and cruel mortification of the body. Is this criminally obsessed state of the media a projection of our own guilty conscience, social anxieties, and mistrust of an expandingly impersonal, mechanized, and out-of-control world? If so, is it also a kind of reflection of the true state of the union in which we live, and thereby intended to help us adapt to the chaos of the real world?
Perhaps our interest in crime and prosecution is indicative of our interest in power and control, things we desperately need as a result of how powerless and out of control we actually feel in this society of surveillance and increasing impingement on our individual liberties and freedoms. Does our love of crime, prosecution, and violence as entertainment, both in reality—as in the news—and at the movies, reveal a secret wish we harbor for living the exciting and dangerous lives of criminals, police, or FBI agents?
Through vicariously experiencing their thoughts, motivations, feelings, and actions at the cinema are we relieved of our own pent up frustrations and feelings of vengeance at having been sharply instructed on what we can and cannot do, can or cannot feel or want, by our parents, teachers, bosses, government officials, and law enforcement—at having been socially repressed—our whole lives? Or are we simply taken by the archetypal dynamics of the pursuer and the pursued, the hunter and the hunted, the triangulation of criminal, victim, and prosecutor? What inner psychological need is met through our mass obsession with crime and prosecution?
We revel at the movies when the criminal gets away with the perfect crime, just as we revel at the news upon hearing of real life criminals—be they ex-football players, politicians, or just ordinary citizens—who are convicted of the crimes they committed and sentenced to years in prison. Either way, we love to see people roll the dice with their lives. In fact, we seem to rely on these people and their dramas to make us feel more alive, more pumped with adrenalin and filled with energy. Perhaps the dramas of their lives shake us from the numbing boredom of our own ...
When I first saw the television show COPS, I was working at a group home for troubled teens. They really got into this show and viewed it often as one of their favorites. They expressed vocal, guttural, and emotional reactions as the burglar was chased through back yards and eventually brought down by the COPS. I never liked this show. To me, it seemed ridiculous because it portrayed our society celebrating its own disgrace and demise, dressing up the tragedy of crime as a kind of entertainment.
But the teenagers loved it. I guess they placed themselves into the dramas, into the dynamics of cops and robbers, of police and criminals, of the persecuting authority figure nabbing the bad guy, who, like themselves, was a sort of outlaw living on the fringes of society. Perhaps they unconsciously identified with the criminal who, through his or her transgressions against the rules and norms of society, became a victim of the justice system, became condemned, labeled as a convict, and sentenced into a life of incarceration and surveillance that was akin to life in a group home as a teenager.
Many of these teenagers had been abused or abandoned by their parents and were, at various stages, working through their guilt, anger, and grief. They had been victimized as children, which in turn had driven many of them to become misfits and outcasts, maladjusted in schools and in society at large. Due to these factors, I could understand how these youth might more easily relate to the COPS show, but for the everyday, normal American this overwhelming interest in crime alludes me.
Perhaps the Freudians are right, and everything does boil down to our collective struggle with repressed aggression and sexuality. Freud talked about the enormity of these instincts; by the looks of our movies and our current rate of crime and incarceration, it appears as if he was correct.
More than crime alone, our society is completely engrossed by all kinds of expressions of aggression, from military maneuvers and wars, to movies, sports, angry talk show radio hosts, and heavy metal music. If aliens were to descend upon our planet and view humanity, including all the media we produce, they‘d no doubt be impressed by our propensity to beat, punch, slash, shoot, maim, and murder one another—as well as crash cars and blow shit up!
Murder and brutality as entertainment betray a deep inner collective shadow of rage that we hide from one another beneath our social niceties, politenesses, and deceptive personas. It is, in fact, overwhelmingly difficult for us to be honest with one another about what we‘re really feeling, what we‘re really thinking, fantasizing, desiring, or fearing.
Ironically, people who fantasize or daydream are often deprecated for wasting their time by being lazy, not accomplishing anything, or simply engaging in an escape from reality. Yet those who watch TV all night are not. Perhaps, this is because in our culture we are conditioned from birth to become someone we are not, to feel what we don‘t feel and not feel what we do, to think what others want us to think, to stop daydreaming and to want only that which is socially sanctioned. No wonder we‘re so drawn to displays of aggression; we‘re fed up with being oppressed! Acts of violence enable us to feel vicariously freed from the invisible cage of our lives, if only for a moment.
It seems as though we‘ve grown numb by means of our dull lives of classroom education, offices, suburban living, and a way of life that focuses on the head, the brain, the concept, the idea, the intellect and the ego; alongside a sly refusal of our instincts, our human heart, the knowledge in our guts, our intuition, and the natural inner animal, the bodily senses, inner impulses and drives, the creative and spontaneous mystery that we are. Even this process of communication through the written word is a form of abstraction, of symbolic expression that has been assigned meaning, almost arbitrarily, by humankind.
Words refer to real things, to ideas, feelings, objects, and interactions. However, as the old Zen masters say, words are fingers pointing to the moon, which is to say that talking about a steak will not fill our bellies. Words cannot replace experience or who we are, just as reading about geography is not the same as walking around and actually exploring physical terrain. Ultimately, the body and its life cannot be replaced by concepts.
Although some would say that it is only through applying the mandates of the mind upon the impulses of the body that any kind of social order or cultural harmony can be attained whatsoever, it appears that disembodied cultures such as our own, whose inherent impulses tend to be more repressed, are more apt to orient towards crime and punishment, as well as violence as entertainment.
In this sense, an interest in crime would indicate an unconscious attempt to resolve the intolerable situation of our collective societal repressions, which include a displacement of the body from its central role as mediator between self and world to a third party position of objectification, in which it is mainly viewed as a nuisance, or as something which we must merely keep in good repair and maintain— like a house or a car.
The essence of crime, in theory, is the presence of something devious or deviant to the normal functioning of the individual or the society. A crime is defined as an aberrant act of rebellion, a going against the grain, a transgression of laws that we hold to be essential to the sanity or sanctity of society. Therefore a crime is an attack on the principle of Logos, which signifies order, logic, and reason.
Perhaps this is another way of understanding our obsession with crime and violence. Because Logosâ€•the rational principle—has become so ubiquitous in its rule over our lives, crime and violence as entertainment have arisen as a compensatory function in our attempts to cope with the utter obliteration of our instincts, or the principle of Eros, which I take to refer moreover to love and the passions of the heart, the soul, and the body than to only sexual desire.
When the body, the instincts, the passions, and our innate spiritual desires for a deeper and more fulfilling kind of communion with life and the world of others is denied us by our culture, crime and violence become attractive alternatives.
Through acts of crime and violence, the impenetrable walls of restriction—by which we are sequestered from our true wholeness—are violated, are temporarily destroyed, thereby allowing us to make connection with portions of ourselves and the world with which we are normally disallowed. Just as drugs and alcohol can also give us glimpses into areas of our personality and dimensions of the world beyond our normal and socially regulated purview, crime and violence—when they are committed as ritual acts against the arbitrary rule of order—provide us with a momentary sense of freedom.
Upon more extensive analysis, it can be seen that our societal fascination with crime as entertainment is really a calling to address a deeper need of the human spirit. Although we may be perpetually drawn to that which is taboo, the way we drink from the fountain of bloodshed and violence—whether at the movies or news of the latest war—is rather morbid, and should alert us to wondering why we have become so numb as to have to continually shock ourselves into feeling anything at all.
Asking ourselves what it is that we truly need, I think we will find that we need to feel. We need to feel alive. And we need to feel connected to ourselves and to the world. We need to feel the healing presence of the earth, of nature, and the magic of being alive. We need to live in some kind of harmony with our instincts and find meaningful ways of expressing who we are. Lastly, we need to live in an authentic and nourishing interrelationship with the social world around us.
Violence as entertainment is truly a form of diversion, both a cleverly symbolic reflection of, and a distraction from, the state of our own tormented souls. Although violence as entertainment appears to be a good way to wake us up, it is truly a meager way of living. Violations of any kind are really desperate attempts at connection, just as drunk guys fighting in a bar are secretly striving to have some kind of fulfilling camaraderie.
But living vicariously through actors who shoot one another, or through criminals who break the law, is just another way of avoiding your life, of refusing to take responsibility for your own desires or to live in accord with your own true nature.
Copyright © 2012 by Salvatore Folisi. Reprinted with permission of Xander Stone Ink.