Too much of a bad thing

My freshman composition students often express contradictory attitudes about violence in our culture.

On one hand, they’re attracted to violence as the subject of essays for our course. In general, they deplore its proliferation throughout society, in video games and movies, on television and the Internet. Sometimes they connect violence in the media to higher crime rates, school shootings and the general decline of Western Civilization.

On the other hand, they’re fond of the “Saw” series, the films that reputedly have raised the bar for movie gore with graphic depictions of torture, mutilation and sadistic dismemberment. When I asked my classes recently how many had seen any or all of the “Saw” movies, close to 100 percent raised their hands. “Saw IV” has just come out and they can’t wait to see it.

Our movies, of course, are packed with violence, often modulated in interesting ways. A set of “Cinema Capsules” published recently in the San Antonio Express-News estimates movie violence according to the following scale, starting with “violence” (for the animated version of “The Ten Commandments”!) and moving through brief action violence, mild action violence, fantasy action violence, action violence, gory violence, extreme violence, and extreme bloody violence.

Nevertheless, I tend to be skeptical about easy connections between violence in the media and its real-life manifestations. I had never seen any of the “Saw” films, but like any normal American who pays attention to our culture’s artistic and media expressions, I’ve seen my share of realistic depictions of murders, assaults, rapes, suicides, dismemberments and torture. For that matter, I’ve read Shakespeare. But, like most normal Americans, I’ve enjoyed these guilty pleasures without feeling much of an inclination to commit them myself.

Furthermore, some the world’s worst episodes of murder, torture and brutality occurred long before electronic media made possible our current cultural saturation in gruesomely realistic depictions of these acts. Consider the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanking. Or the Inquisition.

Still, you have to wonder about the cumulative impact of extended exposure to increasingly realistic and brutally violent images.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is unambiguous on this. In a statement issued in 2000 (http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/jstmtevc.htm) citing 1,000 studies, the Academy connects prolonged exposure to depictions of violence in media to violent and aggressive behavior and emotional desensitization toward violence in real life, as well as other negative impacts like anti-social attitudes. The Academy asserts that the effects of over-exposure to depictions of violence are measurable and persistent.

Nevertheless, “Saw IV” was the No. 1 box-office draw during its opening weekend, selling $32.1 million in tickets. Sixty-eight percent of the audience was under 25.

My students told me that I couldn’t write about “Saw IV” without seeing it, so in the middle of the afternoon last week, feeling as if I were sneaking off to a porn movie, I became one of the 32 percent of Americans who have seen “Saw IV” who are 25 or older. The theater was virtually deserted; two young girls came in during the previews, but, understandably, they were careful to sit many rows away from me.

In most respects the film is unexceptional; it retains the ability to startle — largely by means of an extremely loud soundtrack — without particularly horrifying or even disgusting its audience in any unique way. Nearly all of us have seen this level of blood and gore many times before.

In fact, the movie reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s characterization of the evil of the Nazis: She called it banal, a word that refers to that which has been rendered stale, trite or commonplace because of overuse or overexposure. It’s a useful word in a culture like ours, which is generally saturated with violence, sex, consumption, celebrity and materialism.

I don’t know how worried we should be about the banalization of violence, suffering and torture among the young. But, at the least, I hope that most of us still retain the capacity to be astonished that currently (here in America!) we have leaders without any particular qualms about sending human beings to other countries to be tortured or about strapping them to boards and putting them through the agonies of near-drowning.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)

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