June 13, 2002
Sensible Violence

I'm way overdue on this, but better late than never:

Two weeks ago, Eugene Volokh posted an interesting comment from reader Jimmy Wales, with his own remarks on it. One topic that came up in passing was violence, senseless and otherwise:

[Wales] suggests, quite plausibly (though what the sociological research says about this, I don't know), that portrayals of violence with a moral -- from High Noon to Saving Private Ryan to perhaps Dirty Harry, depending on what you think of that moral -- are OK, and it's just nihilistic, immoral, or amoral portrayals are bad.

That reminded me of something I read long ago, which I have since tracked down and recommend highly: James Bowman's article "The Use and Abuse of Violence" (The New Criterion 12.1, September 1993). Here are two paragraphs to give the flavor:

My own impression from the so-called violence that I see on television is that it is neither plentiful nor glamorous. Look at the top-rated programs in any given week: Apart from movies, which are expurgated, nearly everything on the list actually produced by the poor beleaguered television industry itself is either news and documentary like "60 Minutes" and "PrimeTime Live" (even Senator Simon doesn't want to censor the news) or situation comedies like "Roseanne" and "Murphy Brown." In fact, over a period of several days as I was writing this column, I couldn't find anything violent to watch. "Murder She Wrote" looked promising, but turned out to be an old-fashioned mystery of the wholly decorous, Agatha Christie sort. The latest cop show, called "Sirens," had not a drop of blood in it. Instead it was a sensitive portrayal of a poor salesman thrown out of work by the Reagan-Bush recession who is talked out of killing himself by an attractive young policewoman. She convinces him that he can win back the love of his daughter by hugging her and telling her that he loves her. And while she is doing her good deed she learns something about improving her own marriage.

Such moralism about "relationships" is far, far more common on television these days than violence is—and probably far more harmful to people from the viewpoint of the social engineer. Think of all the bewildered children whose emotional lives are being wrecked by overdemonstrative, TV-crazed parents hugging away at them. Children who listen to the moronic theme song of Barney the purple dinosaur on (where else?) PBS—the song which goes: "I love you, you love me / We're a happy family / With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you / Won't you say you love me too?"—are sure to grow up into the sorts of people who write their own wedding ceremonies and demonstrate against the wearing of fur. How one longs for the days of "Gunsmoke" or "Wyatt Earp" or, one of my personal favorites, the World War II series called "Combat!" They may not have been much as art, but without being cute or priggish they put violence into a moral context. Most of them you can't even see in re-runs anymore. The best I can do with my cable company is "Bonanza"—which is really, I think, the one that started all this beastly hugging business in the first place. Little Joe, I could tell even then, was secretly a hugger, as he went on to show he was in "Little House on the Prairie."

I probably don't have to tell anyone who has read this far, but I'll say it anyway: go read the whole thing.

I owe belated thanks to James Bowman for confirming my hunch about his authorship and to reader William Krebs for providing the URL. The latter points out that the direct link may not work on older browsers, though you may be able to find it by following the indices to the September 1993 issue. Or try this index link.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 13, 2002 11:02 PM