A friend recommended this article to me recently, as a fairly well articulated defense of violence in fiction. The first time I read it I disagreed vehemently. The second time my reaction was more measured. Consequently, I decided to respond.
The essence of Ellis’s argument seems to be that violence is an innate part of humanity, and must be explored and understood. The media doesn’t want you to understand violence, just predictably react to it with shock, horror…and a desire to tune in tomorrow. Therefore it is left to artists and writers to help people plumb the depths of the human psyche, recognize themselves in the minds of killers, and hopefully become more knowledgeable and more aware because of it.
“The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence,” says Ellis. “My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.”
I have to admit that Ellis is right. Fiction is about exploring perspectives, and creating empathy for difficult and misunderstood characters. Empathy leads to a willingness to understand; it erodes prejudice, and encourages a more intelligent response. Exploring violence through story, fiction, and research is essential to understanding why it occurs — I just don’t believe the issue is as clear-cut as Ellis assumes.
Perhaps because I have a greater respect for the spiritual and emotional power of fiction (or because I’ve done my research), I know that fiction and media aren’t only informational sources, they are also profound influences. I’ve read dozens of peer-reviewed, academic articles on the history of violence and warfare, but they never moved me the way the LOTR movie trilogy did. Fiction can be a teacher, a motivator, a persuader, and a philosopher, and it has far more power than Ellis (rather conveniently) attributes to it.
Every time a maladjusted, psychotic male walks into a public place and opens fire, someone asks about his history with violent media (movies, video games, the like). Just as predictably, creators and consumers of said media respond with a hail of ridicule and tired clichés. The NYT quotes Kick Ass exec. producer Mark Miller as responding to Jim Carrey’s boycott of his movie by saying he has “never quite bought the notion that violence in fiction leads to violence in real life any more than Harry Potter casting a spell creates more boy wizards in real life.” On a superficial level this makes sense, but anyone who remembers the excess of fake wands, spell-books, and wizard robes on shelves five years ago will realize that just because we don’t have more genuine boy wizards running around doesn’t mean we didn’t have a massive increase in imitators. James Holmes may not have been a real Bane, or Joker, or super-villain, but that didn’t stop his imitation ending in tragedy. Whoever said that life imitates art and art imitates life understood an important reality: people tend to imitate their vicarious experience through media, it exercises a pull on them that provides a darker consequence to Ellis’ “radical empathy.”
That is not to imply that fantasy violence inevitably begats real violence, although repetitive and extreme exposure probably would. I’m simply saying (and I’ve got significant support on this) that the exposure that Ellis proposes as necessary, useful, and rather harmless, carries significant consequences for the individual. Just as repetitive exposure to pornography doesn’t just allow for an appreciation of, and empathy for, sexual perversion but actually changes the way the brain processes arousal, exposure to gore porn also changes the brain’s perception of violence.
Art and media change us, for the better or for the worse. They are not just academic or superficial pursuits.
If we are (in a physical sense) what we eat, then we are (in a spiritual sense) what we do, what we glorify, what we watch, accept, and believe. It is possible, as Ellis suggests, to learn from the fantastical depictions of our Hannibals, just as it is possible to plumb one’s emotional depths with a video game about the Columbine massacre (although both experiences are defined as ‘entertainment’, something I find disturbing.). The problem is that “radical empathy” in this sense is like opening a door to the abyss.
The potential damage is directly tied to the potential gain.