by Kevin Fahy
When I was in college, an English professor of mine once told my class a story from his own college days as a young man in New York City. He was sitting on a park bench one day when he was astonished to realize that the older gentleman sitting next to him was the great novelist William Faulkner.
They sat in companionable silence for several minutes, until a kid came flying down the sidewalk on roller skates, hit a crack and tumbled head over heals on the pavement. The famous writer seemed at first not even to notice the incident, but a few moments later he uttered a single word, “violence,” then rose and walked away.
For the rest of his life, my professor would wonder what precisely Faulkner had meant. Was it a comment on the skater, the accident, the onlookers, or society in general? Perhaps it was part of some inner dialogue that had nothing to do with the scene in front of them.
It’s a word I wonder about a lot myself, especially in terms of the ways we see ourselves and the stories we tell. I was reminded of those questions by the death in June of Muhammad Ali, who was a hero to me from the time I was 10 years old (and smuggled a transistor radio into bed to listen to the Sonny Liston fight).
Had it not been for the Vietnam war, Ali might have remained primarily a sports icon, albeit an outsized one, like Joe Namath or Mickey Mantle. His refusal to be drafted into the army changed all that by presenting our culture with the unique paradox of a fighter who chose not to fight on moral grounds. In applying for “conscientious objector” status, Ali made it clear that he was not opposed to fighting a war he considered to be righteous, just this particular one. That notion was entirely new to a generation of teenage boys who had been raised by the survivors or World War II, and were approaching draft age themselves.
When we were kids there were two primary settings for the dramas we saw on TV and in movies, the war our fathers had fought and a mythical version of the American West. The former was a backdrop of organized violence like the world had never seen, while the latter was a place that was perhaps even more dangerous, where the violence was random, personal and pervasive.
Our toys were a clear reflection of those stories. With the exception of matchbox cars and some medieval paraphernalia, nearly every toy of my childhood was related to those two genres, and we acted out our gun-toting morality plays on a daily basis. Avoiding violence was never part of the plot.
As adults, the media we consume probably rely upon violent action to about the same extent, but it has become far more graphic. Lately, for example, I’ve been watching the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” on HBO. (I did not watch the previous five seasons because I had read the books from which they were drawn.) Whenever a sword lops off someone’s head, it is depicted in such a visceral manner that you feel as though you got spattered with the blood yourself.
On that account my wife has chosen not to watch the series with me, though she understands as well as I how integral violence has been to Western literature. Whether you pick it up at Homer or Hamlet or Hemingway, you need a calculator to keep track of the body count.
Brutality on screen can make me cringe, particularly when it is directed at children or animals, but if it’s part of a worthwhile story I don’t look away. Does that mean I’m more likely to commit violence myself? What if I were 10 years old?
At my age I seriously doubt that watching “Game of Thrones” will inspire me to go after anyone with a battle-axe, but in the case of children, the answer may be a qualified “yes.” In 2013, psychologists George Comstock and Haejing Paik conducted a meta-analysis of 217 published studies on the effect of exposure to media violence on people of all ages.
In the short term, they found a “moderate positive” relationship between watching media violence and actual violence against another person. Other studies have shown a smaller, but still significant correlation between watching media violence and committing violent acts later in life. It’s important to remember that correlation is not causation, but there is a great volume of research which suggests that exposure to TV, movies and video games can desensitize children to violence.
I know that many of you struggle with this issue on a daily basis. You don’t want to sell toys that exemplify or glorify violence, but in many cases it is difficult to draw lines, and ultimately it is up to parents to decide what toys are appropriate for their children. Much of children’s literature is even more gruesome than stories that are aimed at adults.
I don’t think we can eliminate the concept of violence from children’s stories, nor should we, but the context within which it occurs is critically important. We must see where violence comes from and where it leads, under what circumstances it might be justified or even necessary. Perhaps most important, we need to see what happens to those characters who commit acts of unjustified violence.
Back in the 1920s, the American public became very concerned about the depiction of sex and violence on the stage and in movies. In the early 1930s, Hollywood adopted a set of rules, known as the Production Code, which spelled out what could be shown and under what conditions. If someone committed a murder, for example, that person had to end up dead or in prison.
I’m not suggesting that we resurrect the code. I’m opposed to censorship, and much of the thing was totally ridiculous. There was a point in there somewhere though, that there needs to be a moral center to any drama, or else it becomes meaningless.
Storytelling and playacting have always been an attempt to make sense out of life. Through stories we teach and reinforce life lessons. Violence has causes and consequences. Character is destiny.
If there was ever a time that needed to be made sense of, this is it. How can there be any sense to a person walking into a nightclub and murdering 50 innocent people? What is the point of terrorism in general, which is yet to win a war or an argument?
In children’s literature, the role of pure evil is often assigned to an animal, such as a wolf. In real life animals aren’t evil, and terrorist acts are not committed by “lone wolves,” but by sick people.
I don’t know what William Faulkner meant by the word “violence,” but whatever it was, I think he was right.