Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Violence in American Culture

As Roger Ebert said in a recent NY Times op-ed about the recent Colorado mass murder, "We've seen this movie before."

I'm not exactly sure how much irony Ebert intended with the title of that article (if he wrote the headline at all). The column completely skirts a correlation between violent culture and violent actions, and instead is more about gun control and media hysteria than the movies we choose to attend. Personally I think Ebert was wrong to wave away even the possibility that culture and violence are intertwined.

Violence, especially in young adult literature, has been on my mind for some time, and I asked about it at the recent Comic-Con panel on what's hot in YA.

It's not a simple connection by any means, but with violent young adult novels arguably more popular than ever, shouldn't we be thinking more about what America's young people are reading and watching?

Shouldn't we think about what we're all reading and watching?

A collective shrug

I'm not in favor of censorship. I don't want to be the arbiter of what people should and shouldn't read. I don't believe books and movies create murderers by themselves, and I recognize that there is some evidence to suggest that, among other things, access to violent games reduces violence. I believe in the marketplace of ideas and stories.

But as an author and reader I am disturbed at how little discussion has accompanied the rise of very violent young adult literature in particular. It seems to me that there's been a collective shrug. 

At least the kids are reading books? Or something?

Many of these violent books get a pass because they have a veneer of anti-violence in their story lines. Well, people argue, at least these books (usually) show the consequences of violence. At least they (usually) have anti-war messages.

But this seems to me to be a very flimsy premise when the very violence these books purport to eschew is inherent to the appeal of the books. Teaching nonviolence with a book where the slickly entertaining violence is the main attraction is like using pornography to teach abstinence.

Again, I'm not in favor of pulling books from shelves or controlling what should be published, and I think some of these books are really good. I may even write a violent scene or two myself some day. And whatever is happening in books probably pales in comparison to what kids are seeing on TV and movies every day. I get it.

But still, the collective shrug that accompanied these books disturbs me.  I don't know if anyone even thought to shrug in the first place -- that would mean we recognized a potential problem.

In the wake of the Colorado shooting, journalist James Fallows bemoaned the fact that despite yet another mass murder nothing in our political rhetoric or actions or laws or anything was likely to change. We know it's going to happen again and we do nothing about it.

Why are Americans so uniquely immune to violence, even though, despite declining rates, Americans are twice as likely to die a violent death than any other first world country?

Why do we accept all of this? Why does everyone just shrug?

Justifying what we like

I don't have the answers, which is why this post is littered with questions. I don't know that lessening the violence in movies and books would reduce actual violence. I'm sure the kids will be alright. Heck, I don't even have kids whose media consumption it's my job to monitor.

But I do know that story lines about teens learning to become violent badasses bother me. Stories that glorify vigilantism bother me. Stories that use our natural, inherent fascination with violence to cheaply entertain us bother me.

I also understand the counterarguments. That we live in a violent world, and at least violent books usually show teens responsibly navigating them. That kids are going to seek them out no matter what we do to try and stop them. That violence in culture can channel and diffuse our naturally violent tendencies. That they're products of, not contributors to, a violent culture.

All I'm advocating is thought.

Let's think about why there were so many children in attendance at a midnight showing of a trilogy with a particularly nihilistically violent worldview.

Let's think about why we barely bat an eye at the level of violence in our culture but get up in arms about gay penguins.

Let's think about why we're more concerned about protecting the rights of chickens than we are about restricting the ability of someone to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition perfectly legally over the Internet.

I'm shaped on this issue by a formative experience in my childhood, a murder at my high school where I had known both the victim and the murderers all my life. It wasn't one of those mass murders you heard about in the news, just one of the 18,200 murders that happened in the US in 1997.

Violence isn't an abstraction. We storytellers can make it entertaining in fiction, but there's nothing about real life violence that is entertaining, unless you are a sadist or have managed to dehumanize its victims.

And yet somehow, despite our initial shock, we treat horrific violence as a fact of life instead of doing something tangible about it. And I fear that the constant exposure to entertaining violence in literature and movies, and the justifications that accompany them, teach us to do just that.

I might be wrong. I might be right.

Let's at least think about it.

Art: "First at Vicksburg" - artist unknown


Anna said...

Related to your post, I think it's also important to think about the language that constitutes some of the slang that's used in the gaming community, because I think the audience for YA and games overlap to some extent. Using the word "rape" to describe a "kill" surely does little to advance our intellectual understanding of the aesthetic/cultural value of gaming. I believe there is value in the storytelling techniques used in games, but not when it is accompanied by gamers' ignorant use of hate speech.

A.J. said...

Great post, Nathan! You bring up many great questions, some of which I'll probably discuss with my middle school students this fall.

Of course, I can't help but think of The Hunger Games and Divergent. When I first heard the premise of The Hunger Games, I wondered how Suzanne Collins could possibly make such a storyline palatable. Then I read it and saw how she made the main character sympathetic precisely because she did *not* want to kill and only wanted to survive for the sake of her sister and her mother.

I'm interested in seeing how the Divergent series ends. I'm hoping the main character comes to realize that selflessness (Abnegation) is really much more important in a leader than courage (Dauntless).

And this is why I think Harry Potter is still the greatest hero of modern literature. Even though Gryffindor is mostly about being courageous, Harry is actually quite selfless. His courageous acts are done to save his friends and their families, not for the "thrill." Furthermore, Harry doesn't kill, even when he has the chance (and the motive) to do so. In fact, as J.K. Rowling so perfectly points out, killing splits a soul into pieces.

This is the message I want young readers to know: hurting others destroys our very souls.

Amy R Rivera said...

I am of the opinion that reading about violence and seeing it are two very different things. When you see it with your own eyes, whether in the news, movies, and most often in video games, it invades your mind in a different way.
Let me see if I can explain: IN the news, violence is often featured, as you said, glossed over as an accepted part of our lives. Creating an immunity to the horror. We hear it so often, the words begin to lose meaning.
In movies, I feel that most violence is gratuitous, some like it, but not me. If the violence is part of teh story, like say in Saving Private Ryan, I am okay with that.
In video games-which become more and more realistic looking each year-you have players of all ages parking their patooties in front of a TV for hours on end, getting lost in active participation of violence to score points. To me, this is the most dangerous.
In literature, it is the Authors voice and the violence is limited, to a point, by the readers imagination.
In all mediums, CONTEXT is important. Like the editing advice I have read in so many places: If you can get your point across without it, you don't need it.

stacy said...

I think a lot of the apathy comes from the fact that people outside of the entertainment business (I'm including publishing here) tend to have an agenda when they want to open a "discussion." Remember the Gores and their album warning labels? (politicians) Remember Ice-T and his song COP KILLER and the controversy that ensued? (media)

Can we ever really know how much violence in entertainment has on our society? Is there a way to measure that?

Millions of people get a steady diet of Batman/Spiderman/World of Warcraft etc. and never physically harm a human being. But maybe you're on to something in terms of the subtle effects violence in culture has on a society. Maybe it desensitizes us, much as the real violence is numbing us. I can say for myself that I no longer react with shock to these incidents.

Continental Marines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug said...

The lack of discussion probably comes under that same headline, "We've seen this movie before." American society has become increasingly polarized, and discussions merely turn to arguments.

Nobody's position has changed, nobody's position is going to change. Talking about it won't help; it'll just get the opposing forces riled up.

Before we can have civilized discussions about substantive issues, we need to learn to have civilized discussions.

Anonymous said...

I really, really love this article. And I think you're right, either way: American's need to be THINKING more, in general, about everything.

minawitteman said...

Good post, Nathan. I do agree that we should give careful thought to what we write and publish. At the same time I am wondering if painting worlds less violent than the one we live in, would actually help. It's a tough balance, wanting our kids to grow up safe and away from violence and preparing them for (the dangers of) real life at the same time.

Frankensteinbeck said...

The reason there's not more conversation about this is that there has been tons of conversation about this, and it never went anywhere. It consisted of people talking about their gut feelings, quoting a few studies that only sound like they're relevant, and that's it. This was a big topic in the 80s, and it went... nowhere, because there's nothing to say other than 'I feel uncomfortable with violent children's media' and 'I feel uncomfortable with censorship.'

I lean on the 'uncomfortable with censorship' side strongly. Sixty years ago, when our culture gave kids carefully scrubbed fairy tales and Leave It To Beaver, violent bullying was considered normal in GOOD schools. It may feel right to think that violent children's media leads to violent children, but there's no evidence of it. Violent crime rates have been going down, not up. The difference is that as violence becomes more rare, we're more shocked when it happens.

Kids are smarter than we think they are. If we try to simplify an issue by avoiding it, they will conclude we're trying to put one over on them. Tell your story, provide whatever moral you want, but don't dumb it down for fear kids can't handle it.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm not sure I agree that the debate went nowhere. There was meaningful gun control enacted in the early 1990s after all that talk. Now look where we are. I read a stat the other day that 80% favored tighter gun control in the US in 1990 and now it's 44% even though those laws have long expired.

Talking is important.

Frankensteinbeck said...


The conversation about young people's media went nowhere. The conversation about gun control has gone all over the place. I'm not addressing that issue!

Dayana Stockdale said...

Hi Nathan,

I do not know of this shrug you speak of. I have seen many many posts and discussions on blogs, especially around the time Mockingjay came out and the Hunger Games series became a house hold name. Outside of the blogosphere, I have discussed violence in young adult media with friends and family and have not even been the one to bring it up.

I have no answers either, and do believe this should lead to greater discussions.

Nathan Bransford said...


Ah okay I see what you mean.

abc said...

I like this so much! Personally, I feel there is a lot at play within our culture of violence. Poverty and our general apathy towards it, our Libertarian/Randian cultural bent, being best and being first and protecting what is ours vs. a community mind. I feel sick whenever someone proudly laments that they'd happily shoot a thief in their house.

I think we do glorify and celebrate violence--the vigilante, the man or woman out for revenge, etc. But I don't necessarily think that is the problem. It's indifference. It's poverty. It's apathy. It's lack of gun control. It's lack of funding and access for the mentally ill. It's because we don't educate our children to be critical thinkers. It's because we are too proud. It's because misogyny persists. It's because of a lot of things, obviously.

I say we start with gun control and taking care of each other. But I have big dreams.

Thanks for your thoughts, Nathan! Awesomsauce.

Jack Durish said...

It's fascinating that we respond to such a tragedy with the usual bromide, "There oughta be a law." Well, there are laws. Indeed, these tragedies occur most frequently in places where there are the most laws. Colorado has very restrictive gun laws. Look to Chicago with some of the most restrictive gun laws and we see 274 murders in the first six months of the year. New York City and Washington, D.C. have the most restrictive gun laws and are among the most dangerous places.

Now we turn to violence in entertainment. Games, movies, and books are the usual suspects. We think there ought to be a correlation, but is there? What were the reading, viewing, and gaming habits of the perpetrator? Who cares? We can just assume what they are and assume a correlation.

Hysteria rules.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think you and I have a different definition of "very restrictive" if someone can buy two handguns, a shotgun, a semi-automatic assault rifle with a 100-round magazine, and 6,000 rounds of ammo on the Internet without it raising any alarms.

Nathan Bransford said...

To clarify, the guns were bought in stores, the ammo on the Internet, I'm aware of that distinction.

Robin said...

Ebert's op-ed was spot-on. We need to get rid of the guns and ammo. Had Ebert added words about culture he would have diminished his message.

Matthew MacNish said...

First of all, I don't think you're wrong for talking about it, but I do tend to disagree with the desensitization argument in general. Personally, I'm a pacifist IRL, but I do enjoy reading (or watching) stories in which characters must use violence to fight for what's right. I've been exposed to these kinds of stories all my life, and it has never made me more likely to do violence.

Now, I'm no psychologist, but I think that people who are going to do violence are going to do violence regardless of what books and movies they read and watch, and regardless of how violent the stories in them are.

In fact, I think the opposite is more likely. Repression in media is more likely to cause that kind of behavior in society. Look to a culture like Japan, where incredibly violent and sexually explicit media is considered completely acceptable, and is commonplace, and yet the rate of violent crime is incredibly low, relative to a country like our own.

That's only a single example, and I'm sure the issue is not that simple, but I think your main point, Nathan - that talking about it is better than not talking about it - is absolutely valid.

Amy R Rivera said...

The question of violence in the world is so tough because it involves indiviual choice. As another commenter said, two people can be exposed to the same circumstances/events and react any number of ways. Violence is a problem. Period. But it comes from an internal place. It is a choice to do wrong to harm yourself and others. You cant change that without taking the choice away. And no one should let fear make them want to remove choice. It is our fundemental, unalienable (sp?) right. Even removing the choice would not change the hearts desire for violence. Those who chase it will find it one way or another.

Anjali said...

You've put into words so eloquently something I've been thinking about for a while.

Great post. Am sharing.

Anonymous said...

I hate violence, and particularly its glorification in movies and on tv everynight. Every night there is somebody - usually umpteen bodies - that die a graphically violent death on tv. HUNDREDS of THOUSDANDS of our children have tvs in their bedrooms or accessible to them for many hours. And of course video games. An equal number - or maybe even more - children spend hours playing violent - often adult rated - video games. Shooting to kill, for entertainment, as graphic as the manufacturers can make it. And they are not made to realise there is a weeping family for everymore for each one - etc, etc. And we call it acceptable. Entertainment. Yet if a kid in real life does the one second act and pulls the trigger - as comes up in the news every now and then - everyone seems to want to throw the book at them, try them as an adult, call them inherently evil. Something wrong there. It guts me.

D.G. Hudson said...

You're right, Nathan, regarding 'we need to think' about the violence, but there also needs to be some action to fix the gaps.

That's where it gets sticky. No one wants to endanger their political career to try to address the problem. Can you guess why? Fear of retaliation.

Sorry to hear that you had to experience a violent crime in your school. Students shouldn't have to worry about going to school, or the movie, or the mall.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of things contribute to the violent nature we seem to be experiencing in the US, and not necessarily books. A lot comes from social issues, like divorce and lack of discipline in schools because everyone's so afraid to be called abusive. And we have minority issues in this country that have never been addressed that add to crime problems other countries don't have. And that needs to be addressed and changed. The people within the minority communities are now begging for help in cities like NY and Philadelphia.

I also think there's going to be a Charles Manson that comes along whether or not YA books have violence in them.

And, from what I've heard first hand from those in the military the violence in this country is nothing like the violence in middle eastern countries. Here's it's called "a problem." There's it's called "part of their culture." So it's really all relative.

Anonymous said...

"I think you and I have a different definition of "very restrictive" if someone can buy two handguns, a shotgun, a semi-automatic assault rifle with a 100-round magazine, and 6,000 rounds of ammo on the Internet without it raising any alarms."

Come to Newark, NJ and spend a week there. The guns are rampant, and none were purchased or are registered legally. The only thing gun control does is hurt those who are responsible enough to own them legally. The rest will get them anyway, and this only leads to more crime. Prohibiton proved that theory.

Fiammetta Rey said...

I agree with this sentiment. Even though books like The Hunger Games have that anti-violence message in the story, that's not what a lot of people get from it. I've never seen as many people talking about that aspect of it as I have seen people talking about what they would do if they were in the Hunger Games. It's the same with the prevalence of the zombie genre, and everyone making their plans for a "Zombie Apocalypse". I'm not too familiar with the zombie genre, but I don't think most of those works even have the facade of anti-violence.
I've also seen authors and creators from various media hauled as smarter, and generally superior, for "not being afraid," to kill off more of their characters than most writers. It's really the same "non-violence = cowardice" attitude that's at the core of this. That "self and property over community" attitude you mentioned is probably a big factor in why American society hasn't outgrown that attitude when so many other cultures have.
The second commenter, AJ, mentioned the theme of courage as a virtue, and how it contributes to violence. I don't think "Courage" = "Violence" as simply as is implied, though. Courage can be non-violent. The essence of courage is, really, standing up to what you're afraid of. It could be in the physical sense, (a hero fighting a monster, with a sword and such, for example), but it doesn't have to be. Standing up for something you believe in, with words and non-violent actions, also takes courage (as in things like the Civil Rights movement. Also, for people like Martin Luther King, Jr., maintaining non-violent methods towards those goals also takes courage).
Also, I don't think anyone here is advocating censorship of media (or, at least, I think those advocating censorship are in the minority here, and wrong, and the rest of the anti-violence people should not be aligned with them.) I really don't think censorship would fix anything; it would probably make the problem worse. I do think that people, both creators and consumers of all media, need to evaluate their own attitudes towards violence. The violent media doesn't create or advocate violent attitudes and acts in consumers, it just feeds and validates attitudes that are already there. Many times, the creators are no more aware of or knowledgeable about than the consumers, but when their job is releasing ideas out into the world, they should be.

Lisa Shafer said...

Very nicely written, Nathan. You are, of course, not the first person to wonder aloud why we get more upset about sex in movies/books/TV than we do about violence. And the violence isn't new. As a kid, I watched plenty of gratuitous violence on TV. Some would argue, "But no one BACK THEN ever went on a shooting rampage in a movie theatre!" That might be true, but we had other things. Here's an example for you: (Note: it's pretty gruesome.)

So, has much changed? Not really.

Isaiah Campbell said...

I'm going to leave the question of Gun Control laws to the politicians.

To me, censorship is dangerous and damaging when it is imposed from the outside. However, censorship is still very necessary, but it must be self-censorship. As writers, even if all the studies show that violence in media doesn't actually cause an increase in violent crimes, the fact that violent crimes are sometimes inspired by violence in media must play a factor in our writing. Just because we CAN craft a well written blood fest doesn't mean we should, and doing something even though we probably shouldn't do it is very irresponsible and unethical.

Now, I write kid's books and I've written violence in my books, so I would never condemn violence in literature as a blanket statement. I feel, though, that we should spend as much time channeling our ethics as we channel our muse. Citing "creative license" when people are killing each other inspired by creative medium is inhumane.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a false stereotype about the Middle East, the murder rate is lower in just about every country there than it is in the US. Source

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree with you that rampant guns are a problem. I really disagree that gun owners are the only ones who suffer with gun control.

Look at the restrictions we have in place for cars: you have to prove you can drive one, you have to take a test, you have to pay a yearly registration fee, you have to have insurance, you can have your right taken away, there are restrictions on the types of vehicles that are safe for the road.

A car owners "hurt" by these restrictions? Or do we accept that these requirements are what go along with driving a car?

Guns kill as many people as cars in the US. Why is it vastly easier to own a gun than a car?

Isaiah Campbell said...

"Look at the restrictions we have in place for cars: ... you have to have insurance..."

There's the answer! Let's create Gun Insurance! It'll be like a combination of Auto Liability insurance, Health insurance, and Life insurance. We'll make billions!

Who's with me?

Stephsco said...

I'm glad you opened up discussion, I think it's worth talking about.

Like A.J. said, what sets Hunger Games apart (as a book) is that the consequences of violence is explored in great detail; literally the book's theme. When the movie came out I saw (inevitable) facebook comments focusing solely on it being a movie about kids killing kids -- the larger point totally missed. Although I think the film handled the violence extremely well and managed to convey the book's overall stance AGAINST violence, the transition from book to film is noteworthy.

Having spent time in some rather conservative circles for a good chunk of time, I've always been bothered how sex and swearing in teen books are targeted but not violence. One of the biggest bestsellers in YA features a chaste teen who gets married to have sex, and never swears, but a monster baby tears through her womb. If there was an overall message about the violence maybe it would be more acceptable.

I don't know what to do about this either. Our country has violent roots. We demand to protect ourselves with weapons and our government fears opposing the NRA. I hate that the shooting in Colorado so predictably turned to gun control, as I agree that the larger issue is violence in our culture. So much energy is expended on gay couples who want to marry rather than outrage over say, the 200 hundred people killed in the largley minority neighborhoods in the city of Chicago in 2012 alone or the staggaring infant mortality rate in our country ... well it shows how serious of a problem we have in our nation. I also partly blame talking head media like 24 hour cable news and sensationalist radio and TV personalities who exploit the news that will garner the most attention. We can always count on them for bringing us a new kidnapped white baby story or a killer in the suburbs.

Wonderful children's books exist that deal with the effects of violence, but some of what is hyped by the Big 6 add to the glorification of it. You're right.

Andrew Leon said...

Trying to keep this short:
1. I don't support Hunger Games, because I can't support the subject matter. I'm not going to read them, and I'm not supporting my kids reading them. I'm not restricting them, per se, but I did explain to them how I feel about the books, and they have all elected to give those a pass. Their choice, not mine.

2. Some recent studies have shown that we make connections with the characters in the books we read; they become role models, of sorts. As such, I support responsible role models as main characters. Our kids, especially, want to be like the characters they read about, so I want them to read about characters that model responsible behavior. As such, any violence in the book can become secondary if the reader is making a connection with a character who is not, himself, violent (unlike Katniss, who just falls right in with killing people).

Isaiah Campbell said...

If you opt out of reading a book, you also opt out of critiquing the content that you've never read. Your statement, "unlike Katniss, who just falls right in with killing people," exposes an ignorance to the content of the book. Katniss doesn't "fall right in" to killing people at all. She avoids killing people at all costs, and does so begrudgingly when necessary.

Stephsco said...

Here is an article on the violence in Chicago:
Huffington Post Chicago

"The Daily pointed out in a Friday column that more Chicago residents -- 228 -- have been killed so far this year in the city than the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan - 144 -- over the same period."

A more recent article cited the homicide has increased to 250. The year is only half over.

My issue with Ebert's article is he mentioned a story of a friend he met up with who carried a gun for protection living in a rough area (in Chicago). Ebert told him maybe he should move.

Moving doesn't solve the problem. Thankfully, some area churches have been working police to stop violence in their neighborhoods. I think we need an act of God...

SAC said...

When a close friend of mine was murdered about a year and a half ago (not a mass murder victim or a victim or a serial killer, "just" her ex-husband) I suddenly became much more aware of how nonchalantly we talk about and think about violence. I agree especially that we don't need censorship, but we do need a conversation about this.

Anonymous said...

For the last 10 years, 14 to 18 year old kids have been sitting around their high schools discussing which seniors were going straight from high school into the military. These books are aimed at kids who have seen friends literally about to go into battle as soon as they leave school. Before 9/11 a few kids would go into the military from high school. After 9/11, that number really increased. High school kids who aren't aware of the kind of violence inherent in war don't exist right now. War has been a constant part of the teenage psyche since 9/11. If you suggested to these kids that they shouldn't read such violent material, it would be perceived as hypocrisy. Thought we might consider the teenagers point of view...

Leona said...

Gun control is a thorny issue, but there is already loads of it, some states more than others. However, the consequences are too minor. I think we need tougher laws regarding the MINIMUM punishment for gun related crimes. Someone mentioned cars and training earlier. Responsible people will take that gun safety course, the hunting courses (if they plan on shooting game) etc. Just like some people will continue to wear seatbelts, not run stoplights, etc. Some will do this because they are responsible. Some will do this cuz they can't afford the ticket. Others won't give a damn and will do what they want regardless. In the matter of guns, that's usually the criminal element. Gun control laws won't help that. The punishments are too minor as they are. If something like what happened in Colorado was gauranteed life in prison, then he won't be out to do it again. Too many violent crimes are done by repeat offenders. That being said, I think we do need to be more careful with our children's media. My kids have all fought against me and what I thought they should be watching/playing. Grand theft auto is like one of the worst games in history, yet my kids are ticked off because I won't let them play it when x 8 yo's mom lets him. Too bad. Once we're older, we can make our own choices and live with the consequences. As for vigilante, I have mixed feelings. I live in an area where police haven't responded when gunshots have been called in. Gangs are rampant, theft a daily thing of living with it. Slowly, we are trying to take our community back, but in the meantime, limited funds for police, means limited help for us.

Mademoiselle Michael said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. And, perhaps this seems trivial, but I almost feel like it's necessary to begin a conversation on redefining just what exactly violence is. I've been thinking a lot about "justifiable" violence as well.

At what point does violence begin? And, at what point does your responsibility for it begin? Where does that end (or does it even)?

...I wasn't even a philosophy major.

Thanks for beginning a conversation.

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

On topic, I loved Maggie Stiefvater's personal review of the Hunger Games movie.

I'm an awkward mix of libertarian and not-so-much-we-need-some-regulation, as well as of left and right, and I won't get too much into the idea of gun control. At first glance, though, I like the idea of treating it like a car license.

Also, I'll note that it's difficult to compare America to nearly any other country because of its sheer size, its diversity, and its legislative irregularity from state to state--not to say, of course, that we shouldn't look at other countries' successes and see if we can find some applicable ideas for cutting back our own horrors.

I have no ideas about whether violence in literature is directly proportional to violence in action. But I wholeheartedly agree that it's important to think. As authors, as readers, as reviewers and reporters, the matter of violent content should be discussed and considered--one book at a time, if nothing else. Let's do it.

JG said...

I, too, have been thinking about this lately. When The Hunger Games really caught the hype wave I was so disappointed because of what aftermath was surely to follow: a flood of books depicting children/teens fighting or competing to the death. Suzanne Collins wanted her books to be talked about, to raise awareness of the effects of war but I highly doubt authors publishing such similar books hoping to ride the success wave have that same motive in mind. And regardless of the motive, what a topic to flood our youth's shelves!

I'm against censorship but I don't agree with the idea of exposing our children to all of these things, through any type of media, just to "prepare them for the real world". Yes, let's not ignore it or pretend that bad things don't happen but you don't have to watch or commit cyber murder to understand that it happens. Or better yet, why don't we try to better our world so it's not supposedly best represented by violent video games and R-rated movies and books. Before anyone says anything, I DO believe that this particular topic is up to every individual parent and their own judgement for their own child. I just don't think it's a valid point for why violent literature/media is alright or why it's not potentially doing more harm than good.

I don't think you can argue whether or not such media creates murderers and bad people, but listen to the ways children talk and watch how they treat each other and's usually pretty clear what kind of entertainment is prevalent in their homes. There's no doubt these things influence, it's more a question of how much and how harmful an influence?
Great post, Nathan.

Two Flights Down said...

Many are bringing up the violence in the Hunger Games, so I think I'd like to add my two cents on the subject.

I've had some family members posting comments on FB about how the HG was just kids killing each other and how that isn't a good message for young people (most often from people who hadn't read the books, or refuse to read them). This is the danger of critiquing something you haven't read--it results in oversimplification errors in one's arguments.

While it's easy to say violence in a book gets young people thinking about violence, I wonder if this is always a bad thing. While I do believe submerging yourself with violent media can play with the way you perceive violence (and for this reason, I tend to avoid violence in literature), the Hunger Games got a different reaction from me.

For me, Katniss raises the question, "How do we keep our humanity when placed in the most inhumane situations?"

With all the violent acts happening around us, wars on the news, and kids growing up in violent neighborhoods -- how do we stop just accepting this as survival and seek out the humanity within us?

This seems like an important discussion that we should be having with young people. How do we stop the circle of violence? How do we keep our humanity when violence is all around us? Is violence the only way to stop violence?

Anonymous said...

I never understood the issue on violence and media. People can make their own choice, and when we say it was the book, game, or movie, all we're really doing is looking for something else to blame but ourselves. Plus if we're looking at writen works the don't have violence, then no one can ever read the Bible. That book has more blood and violence than most combined.

Two Flights Down said... cut off:

I think we will get a lot further if we teach young people to critique for themselves the media they are consuming. It's all around them, and there's not much we can do to stop it. In the end, taking an interest in what they are reading and having discussions with them about it will help teens to grow up to be independent thinkers. There's not much we can do to keep them from being exposed to violent media. We can, however, discuss these issues with young people and teach them not to lose their ability to empathize with others.

Ellen Shriner said...

Thank you for tackiling this topic and asking the questions. As a nation, we DO need to do more than collectively shrug and say "It's a tragedy, but there's nothing we can do to fix it." I'm not sure what the "more" is, but talking how and why and what needs to change is a start.

Attie Straight said...

I appreciate your thoughts. Using the Vicksburg art was appropriate. I've been reading Susan Cheever's book on Louisa May Alcott, whose Hospital Sketches is a response to her experience with the aftermath of the Civil War Fredericksburg battle in which 12.700 Americans died in a single day. I would only add that the culture of celebrity and the culture of death (which includes all our vampire/sex stuff is just as much up for examination as a result of the event at Aurora. A death culture is one that denies death and is obsessed by it at the same time. IE. live forever exercising, plastic surgery and Botox, Viagra.. things that no one questions. I would hazard a guess that the shooter did NOT expect to survive.

Anne R. Allen said...

You've made a powerful point here "Teaching nonviolence with a book where the slickly entertaining violence is the main attraction is like using pornography to teach abstinence."

I do think that violent words can lead to physical violence. I blogged about that this week (along with apologizing to you for adding to a negative comment thread that came across as unkind a while back.) All we can really do is control ourselves, and we can agree not to escalate the verbal violence, whether it's in a book or a blog thread.

I think a good writer can create intense narrative tension without using violence. It's unfortunate we've started equating one with the other.

Andrew Leon said...

@Isaiah: Not really. That's like saying that I can't say drugs are bad because I haven't tried them. It's a stupid thing to say that I can't form an opinion about something from looking at the experience of other people.
And I did see the movie, so I have plenty to base my opinion on. I don't want to support the kind of characterizations in Hunger Games, so it would be rather inane to support it in order to not support it.
I mean, you saying that is like telling me that I have to read 50 Shades of Stupidity to know that it's stupid.

Give me a break.

And just to point out, I didn't critique it; I said I wouldn't support it.
Huge difference.

Andrew Leon said...

And just to say it: she does not avoid it "at all costs." Her option there would have been to refuse to play the game. She did not refuse. When put to it, she chose to kill.

Terra Mar said...

Not that I think you're wrong to raise the issue, but as long as we have easy and legal access to guns, ammo, massive cartridges and assault-style weapons, the issue of violence in the written/visual non-material world dwarfs.Kids have always read or been told violent stories since the age of myths told around campfires. Access and the US love affair with firearms is what sets us apart. Sorry, I just can't escape the idea that kids growing up in a country with 300 million firearms in households matters a lot more than the Hunger Games.

Nathan Bransford said...

Hey, I err on the side of leaving comments up when people are commenting under their own name, but please let's stay polite to each other even if we disagree.

Andrew Leon said...

That was polite.
Harsh polite.

Shannon said...

As the mother of a six-year-old, I, too, wondered what little kids were doing in that theatre at midnight. My daughter is a super-hero fan - we've been letting her watch DVDs of the '67 spiderman cartoons, 1950s superman programs and the 1980s Incredible Hulk series, but I won't take her to see that movie, just as I didn't take her to The Avengers or let her watch the latest Spiderman movie. We are very careful with what we let her watch, and the superhero shows she watches are mild by today's standards, and yet weapons, and "being a warrior" still feature in so much of her play. When I was a kid people were talking about the violence in Saturday morning cartoons. But then, when I was kid, people weren't gunning strangers down in public places for no apparent reason. It's a scary, scary world we live in today.

Diane said...


Thank you for the post and for beginning to have people discuss difficult issues that we disagree on for a variety of reasons.

Shannon said...

Oh, and one more thing...what really got me about it was the people saying that at first they thought the smoke and gunfire was just "part of the show". I think that really brings home how desensitized some people are to violence and the extent to which it is embraced as entertainment in our culture.

Anjali Amit said...

I guess this is a discussion we are having right here, thanks for starting it.

Does anyone remember a time when fairy tales were frowned upon because they would scare young readers? Is the violence depicted in today's world not scary?

When you talk about "....the possibility that culture and violence are intertwined" you hit the nail on the head. If it is a peaceful culture then violence will be an alien concept -- kind of like the bottle of Coke falling in a village in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. Media (books, digital) depicts the world as it is.

But oftentimes it is a gratuitous depiction of violence and in doing so we cater to the lowest common denominator. The writer's responsibility lies not in the choice of topic but in the depiction of it.

abc said...

You know, I'm not certain we are desensitized to it. I remember watching the towers fall on 9/11. I remember how horrified everyone was by the violence, the tragedy. I remember Columbine. And Virginia Tech. So many of us were and are deeply troubled.

And yet, violence is most certainly part of our history, our humanity, our nature.

And there is no doubt that it can be thrilling to watch or read about as an entertainment device. Our past is full of violent theatrics. I don't think we can get away from it. And I'm as guilty as anyone of reading and watching it, from Michael Connelly to Game of Thrones.

So, I'm rambling. But I do think this is just an interesting and important conversation. Personally, I throw my weight behind more gun control (bigger punishments never stopped anyone. People committing crimes don't often consider the aftermath). I don't like the argument that criminals find ways to be criminals because they are criminals. It sounds so trite and bigoted. Who is a criminal? It could be your brother. It could be your neighbor. These are people. These are people who belong to others, who live among us. This is not a cartoon world nor is it so black and white. James Holmes, I gather, is mentally ill. Not some "lowlife". He is a troubled individual who unfortunately found it way too easy to get guns and ammo. Extra precautions and barriers would probably have made the difference in preventing 12 lives lost.

My overriding question about violence and culture is this: why are we such a gun culture? Why is it ok to have that bumper sticker that says "Gun Control means using both hands". Or "Kill em all and let Allah sort them out." I've seen both. It is one thing to have a gun it is another to flaunt it, preach it, want everyone armed at all times. That's my big worry. That kind of us vs. them and ready for war and fear and hatred.

ARgh! Sorry! Sometimes the soapbox comes out and I can't help myself.

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

Anjali Amit said "Media (books, digital) depicts the world as it is."

This is usually the first argument I hear about any sort of morally questionable content in YA lit, and actually I don't quite agree--though I think I get what you mean.

I'd posit that books and movies depict the world as the creator imagines will be a) most entertaining, b) most likely to sell, c) most likely to make some cared-about point, and/or d) fascinate others the way it fascinated its creator. None of that tends to work out to life as it actually is. Even carefully artistic contemporary tales nearly always streamline life down to the events which, for whatever reason, are expected to be of most interest.

On account of which, I think there's a very real danger of artistic irresponsibility, of playing off the human tendency to gawk--or the tendency to gather round the town square for the week's hangings. Modern marketing departments are often quite shameless about this. And I suspect that it's very possible for well-meaning writers to try to "speak to" some issue and just wind up selling popcorn to the gawkers.

If I'm right, then it's particularly a problem in YA lit, where the goal always seems to be to speak to some issue or another.

Anjali, I'm challenging that particular phrase because the way it's normally used, I believe it's a major flaw in the arguments for morally questionable content in books. I don't necessarily disagree with you overall. Your last paragraph is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly and am so happy to see someone with your platform speak out against pervasive, desensitizing violence in entertainment media. Or maybe you wouldn't consider that you're speaking out against it so much as opening up a discussion and asking us all to Think About It.

I know I've personally copied--somewhat mindlessly--violent actions I've seen in movies...things that were portrayed as "funny." It's just what we do. We're mimics.

If we just keep this in mind, that we WILL copy what we see, at least to some extent, then we can feed our senses accordingly.

Don't we strive to do that for our children? Show them Good Examples? The way we Want them to behave, not the way we Don't Want them to behave? It applies to everything.

And it applies to us.

Here's something stupid: I'd kept violent images out of my home, apparently I'd done a good job. A couple of years ago, I messed up and let my five-year-old see one person punch another onscreen. My son's head snapped back. He was obviously distraught. (And no, I don't care to hear from anyone about how the child needs to be toughened up...I've heard it and disagree. 'nuf said on that.) He Knew: You Don't Hit. It hurts.

If I would remove my child from a violent father or sibling--a violent influence/example--why would I sit him down in front of a tv and tell him to watch the same thing or give him a book and tell him to read it? The barrier that that one step of emotional and physical removal it good, bad, neither because it depends?

I'm thinking I'll just protect my children from the idea that harming others is fun, funny, a rush, entertaining or in any other way acceptable.

I think I don't do the kind of job at that that I would like...especially as they grow older and have other influences in their lives: spouse, grandparents, friends...

Thanks for making me think about it a little more today, Nathan.

Sam Mills said...

I just wanted to add something on the topic of books/tv/movies with a message. Many have already debated whether Hunger Games glorifies violence or condemns it through the protagonist. Unfortunately, I don't think it matters whether the book was *supposed* to have an anti-violence message.

Those who agree with that message will connect with it. Those who don't care about that message will ignore it and enjoy the violence.

Zequeatta Jaques said...

I've thought about the violence shown in our current world and discussed it with others. Do we really have more violence today than in days gone by or are we just more aware of it because of the ability for instant news world-wide now?

There has always been violence throughout history. Horrifying violence. And yes, we have to have laws in place that protect others from predators but I don't believe a knee-jerk reaction is the answer.

We need to talk about the issue and discuss what can be done to lower the violence being displayed. We need to dig deeper into its causes and then act. Arbitrarily enacting laws and censoring just because someone says it's the fault of not enough gun-control laws or the fault of violence shown in movies and books is not the end-all cure.

Andrea said...

Thanks for the post, Nathan, and for starting a discussion. Last night I watched a show on Ancient Rome and the Colosseum. Our society today would never go to an arena just to watch the violent deaths of innocent people for pure entertainment, yet back then that was their version of a Super Bowl or blockbuster movie. It sends a chill to my core when I think what human beings are capable of. Somewhere along the way we found our humanity. Let's never lose it.

Other Lisa said...

Can anyone come up with a really good argument about why we should not ban military assault weapons, clips holding over 10 rounds? Or why there shouldn't be some sort of system in place that tracks the sales of 6000 rounds of ammunition? Or why we shouldn't close gun show loopholes that allow people to buy guns without waiting periods?

I don't have a problem with people owning guns, but I really can't understand the reflexive response that gun control somehow threatens our freedom. I don't understand the argument that because criminals obtain guns illegally, we shouldn't have gun control for law abiding citizens.

I mean, argue about the meaning of the 2nd Amendment, but even if you believe it refers to the right of individuals to own guns, there's that "well-regulated" reference in there...

Others here have made far more eloquent arguments about the larger issue of why our society is so violent, so I'll just second those who said that our worship of violence to solve problems and the overall militarization of our culture and economy has something to do with it.

Selene said...

Great post, Nathan. You've picked one of the topics I as a foreigner find most strange about the US, which is

a), the massive glorification of violence, and how it's perfectly fine for children to watch extremely violent movies etc, but voe to you if they happen to see something related to sex. Because love and such will forever corrupt their little minds, but violence will make them grow up to be Real American Men...?

And b), the strong movement for the Right to Bear Arms. Why should that be a right? Who'd actually want the kind of society where private people need guns to defend themselves?

Of course, now that everyone and their uncle owns a gun, it'd be kind of hard to change strategy.

wendy said...

Great posts, Nathan and A.J. Fully concur with both.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Hear, hear! I was recently asked to review an MG novel and honestly, I couldn't recommend it because it was too violent. MG! Heads were getting cut off, characters were being killed left and right.
At home we've even started to watch the Hallmark channel (uck!) because so many of the other options are just so violent anymore. Who needs it? Not us.

janet said...

Gah, I am sooooo glad you wrote this post. Such an important topic. And one I struggle with. I sometimes think the "shrug" comes from people not knowing what to do about it. At least you are stirring debate.

I don't have the answer either. I was shocked when I heard the age of some of the kids at the movie, but then, my 4 year old loves the Avengers and Spider-Man, so who am I to judge? Am I screwing him up? Did Wile-E-Coyote and the incredible amounts of violence in Warners Bros cartoons mess me up? I dunno. I know that I detest the words "stupid" and "idiot" in my house and I hear them constantly on Disney Jr. and Nick Jr. shows. Drives me batty.

I guess we have to keep talking about it. Challenging ourselves to come up with the best answer for our families, for ourselves, and hope that we can lead by example???

Backfence said...

Possibly your best blog ever, Nathan. And certainly, there are no easy solutions -- only controversial ones. I personally like the movement that seems to be gaining momentum to deprive the offender (read: scumbag, unconscionable beast, Evil incarnate) of the attention and publicity he craves. It may not be a total solution to the problem, but a step in the right direction perhaps? Admittedly, I too am curious about what makes such a creature tick, his motives, etc., but I'm happy to remain in ignorance of that knowledge if such ignorance will discourage even one future offender!

Scott said...

I may have missed any comments about it, but I think there is a difference between watching and/or reading about violence and doing it yourself. The trouble with some of the video games is they are really close to "doing it yourself".

Also there are sensible lines to draw with gun regulation. I tend to think that if a weapon's only purpose is to kill as many people as possible, perhaps it should be WAY more heavily regulated nationally. I'm not for eliminating weapons, but I am for limiting access to certain weapons...

Maci Walker said...

We're all clear on the idea that literature is a reflection of our culture. That said, kids choose literature to make sense of their worlds, to identify who they are and what it important to them.

Thank you, Nathan, for posting this important discussion. You're right: This isn't about more laws, however. I think this is the JFK moment: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what YOU can do for your country. It's time that we stood up for our culture and became active instead of passive.

I'll get off my soapbox now. :)

Ann Marie Gamble said...

Here's a great piece on questions to ask/ways to analyze violent representations in art:

One point he makes is that the cultural frame has changed: rather than assuming that readers would be copycats, it used to be assumed that the violent acts would impress the moral point--in those works, though, we were meant to empathize with the victims, not the perpetrators (however ninja badass protagonist they might be).

Peter Dudley said...

Wow, I wish I had time to read the bazillion comments. I scanned some of them, and there's a lot of good discussion.

Anyway, I'm not sure this is such a new thing. Maybe in literature, but that may reflect more on the nature of the publishing industry than on society as a whole.

I grew up on a steady fare of very violent old movies about World War II, kung fu vendettas, and cowboys & indians. The body count in the 1938 Errol Flynn version of "Robin Hood" is staggering. Remember Hamlet and Macbeth? And Homer? Can we talk about what Achilles did to Hector? (OK, a little facetious, but you get my point. Which is that the newness of violence in popular culture may not be so new upon further investigation.)

Also, violence has been a part of kids' games, as well as part of kids free play, for generations.

I think we escape into literature, games, and movies in part to imagine ourselves in unimaginable situations. Could I survive past the cornucopia? Could I clip the wire on a ticking bomb? Could I stare down a Balrog or point my X-wing at the Death Star or steal the NOC list or bust up a drug cartel?

I don't remember any situation where the reader/viewer is put in a position of asking themselves, "Could I buy a bunch of ammo online and go shoot up a theater full of unsuspecting people?" That, I think, would not be a popular book. If it ever got published to begin with.

Violence is. We've had war on our TVs for decades. As a parent, I've become much more aware of how pervasive violence is in reality, and I've had deep discussions with my kids about it.

I am not sure what to think about the questions you've raised, but I do appreciate your point that we should be not only asking them, but discussing them.

Robert Michael said...

As a species, we, collectively, are violent. Violence from humans is usually brought on by a need or desire for aggression against another human or animal. "Need" is usually defined by a defensive posture required to maintain survival. "Desire" is generally characterized as a sport (football, boxing, MMA, hockey, competitive martial arts, etc), but is sometimes manifest as a breech of someone else's human rights. Examples of this would be an aggressor or instigator of a war, a murderer, an assailant, a rapist, or even someone using words or gestures in a threatening or psychologically harmful way.

Not everyone is violent, to be sure. Some people war against their nature to be peaceful, even when provoked, even when angry, or threatened. This is laudable. Throughout history it is evident taht these same individuals often receive the brunt of violence.

Incidents like the one in Aurora make us more aware. Our compassion and horror at such a tragedy demands some sort of answer, some kind of justice, some semblance of correction. Invariably, media such as books, television, games, etc get called in to question. These forms of art are reflective of our human condition. Although some of the reflection can influence a similar attitude in others, censoring media is correcting the symptom, not the disease. The same is true for gun control. Criminals will continue to commit violent crimes regardless of the the strictness of the law. The only thing accomplished by making stricter laws is to breach the civil rights of law-abiding citizens. Criminals will manage to continue their ways. The laws in place are manageable, but enforcement must be ramped up.

The disease is that we as a culture, as a species, has a delusion that violence can make things right, can correct an injustice, can make us feel better. Violence is not an answer. Simple as that.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the United States in 2012 is a violent society. We now top the list of ALL developed countries in number of gun deaths, and that number is close to that of other countries known for violence. Whereas children in the United States used to be allowed a childhood that was an age of innocence and imagination, far too adults now argue that children need to learn the world's a violent place. In reality, our country is a violent place. And I cannot remember any recent time in which our public discourse and political will was so full of hatred and meanness. Other countries do not understand why we have so much animosity toward even providing health care to all our citizens, but we do. In 2012, we seem impressed by greed and aggression.

Bamboo Grovers said...

Thanks for an excellent post, Nathan. I am mystified by the American obsession with guns. In Australia and New Zealand we read much the same books, view the same tv and movies, play the same games as people in the US. The difference is that if a person was deeply troubled here it is extremely unlikely that they would act on those feelings by mass murder. Guns are simply not part of our mindset or culture. What will it take for Americans to decide they want to change?

E.B. Black said...

Violence in literature isn't something new. Even before humans had the ability to write stories down, they told violent stories. If we're apathetic now about it, then it's not because of fictional stories. In fact, it might be because of the news and the fact that we are bombarded with REAL violent stories (unlike in the past when there was no news) every day to the point where we don't care anymore.

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