tv violence, part two

Shortly after my last post on tv violence, a friend emailed me with some useful comments on the matter. Her best two points, I think, were about whether or not portrayals of violent situations are realistic, and the importance of the viewer identifying with the right party to the violence.

I really should have mentioned originally that I think that tv violence is only morally valuable when it’s somewhat realistic. My friend is absolutely right that the way fictional characters routinely survive shootings, car accidents, beatings, etc. must mislead many children into thinking that violence is not as serious as it is in reality. This is probably exacerbated by the typical path of human development. For example, it has been well-documented that, at certain ages, most children do not understand that death is permanent. So yes, unrealistic violence is, at best, not morally objectionable and at worst, quite morally misleading. (Possible hard cases here could be science fiction stories, in which creatures share some but not all qualities with humans. For instance, if the creatures can be resurrected Cylon-style, then the violence would probably be unrealistic to children. But, if the only difference is that the creatures are much more intelligent than humans, then the violence amongst them could be quite realistic.)

A stickier issue is that of how to ensure that the audience members will identify with the “good guy” in violent scenes. Possible troublesome examples my friend mentioned include the tv show Dexter, in which a serial killer channels his murderous inclinations for good by killing only other, ostensibly worse serial killers, and shows or movies featuring vigilante-style justice, in which our sympathies are often engaged by the vigilante (maybe this would include Dirty Harry; while the protagonist is a real cop, he dramatically oversteps the boundaries of institutional justice).

I suspect that the problem here is that there is often an inverse correlation between how gripping a story is and how obvious it is which party is the “good guy” with whom one is supposed to identify. Children’s tales usually feature morally good protagonists who ultimately prevail, or flawed protagonists who change their ways (think animated movies: The Little Mermaid, Toy Story, Cinderella, Aladdin, Cars, Beauty and the Beast, etc etc). While these stories may be entertaining to adults, they don’t really offer much opportunity to exercise your moral imagination. The morals of these stories are trite: treat others as you would like to be treated, if you try hard enough then your dreams can come true, and the like. It’s obvious to the kids who the good guy is, and they might learn something. But, to adults, the point is overly obvious.

More interesting to adults are “grey area” stories, wherein it is not quite clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and why, or movies that lack genuine good and bad guys altogether. These stories have real moral value because they encourage the viewer to work through their resultant moral emotions and judgments and, if necessary, to reassess prior moral commitments in light of them. However, the “greyer” the story, the more likely it is that the viewer might ultimately come to identify with the wrong party. So, you might become overly sympathetic to Dexter and kind of approve of his murdering ways, or you might become overly sympathetic to Dirty Harry, and thereby approve of cops everywhere who aren’t afraid to get their hands a little messy in the name of justice. But maybe even this suboptimal outcome is better than if those grey area fictions never existed. A sensitive person who thinks seriously about these stories will be at least morally uncomfortable with the killing and torture portrayed in them, even if they ultimately approve of those actions, and I think that’s morally healthy. It’s analogous to the waging of a just war: even if a leader is wholly convinced that a particular war is a just one, he or she ought to remain sensitive to the violence that accompanies war, and humanity of it all. So there might be moral value in watching grey area violent tv, even if ultimately your resulting moral conviction is a thoughtful but mistaken one. But, in any case, these kinds of shows are not appropriate for children, because they are not yet morally capable of recognizing and working through the moral subtleties. They are likely to uncritically identify with a Dirty Harry, which might be detrimental to the development of moral maturity and sensitivity in the future.

I’ll wrap up with a related story. One summer when I was maybe ten or twelve, my mom took my younger brother and me to a theatrical production of West Side Story at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, my hometown. It was a matinee, and much of the audience was comprised of what appeared to be underprivileged children participating in some kind of summer camp program. In case you didn’t know, West Side Story is a kind of updated Romeo & Juliet; the main characters are Tony & Maria instead, the setting is urban, and the theme involves alot of gang violence. Towards the end of the play, there is a climactic scene when a member of a rival gang shoots and kills Tony. Immediately after the shot rang out into the theatre, basically all of the summer camp children broke out into laughter. I don’t recall thinking much of it at the time, but my mom was horrified. To her, it was a glaring example of the desensitization of the children to violence. The scene in the play was completely realistic, but for whatever reason the children still found it hilarious. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I suppose it could have been a case in which one kid laughed and it became infectious. It’s possible that by now all those kids have realized that guns are no joke. I really hope that no one had to learn the hard way.


  • I sympathize somewhat with Dexter. He argues that his “code” is superior to the government’s, and he’s probably right. At a minimum, he seems to make fewer mistakes (cf. The Innocence Project). He doesn’t seem to kill for financial gain, whereas the governmental criminal justice apparatus would lose funding if it did not prosecute crimes and therefore has an incentive to overprosecute.

    Probably the best argument against (constrained) vigilantism is that it’s bad for the vigilante. At least when justice is administered by the government, it is not personal. A desire for justice is virtuous, but a desire for revenge is not.

    This discussion has made me even more excited for the release of Season 3 of Dexter on DVD later this month. It holds the place of honor in my Netflix queue.

  • Those are good points about Dexter’s justice vis-a-vis the government’s. But it’s important to remember that Dexter’s accuracy and disinterest in financial gain are not really to his credit unless his project is morally acceptable in the first place (in the same way that ostensibly good traits like perseverance, prudence and dignity are perverted when put into service for bad ends like murder and theft). So we need an argument for the badness of vigilantism in the first place. You suggest that it has to do with the fact that it’s bad for the vigilante. In order for that argument to speak against all vigilantism, you have to posit a psychological law of nature that such acts are always detrimental to their doers. But that universal claim is implausible on its face. To defend it would give the appearance of presupposing the claim that vigilantism is always bad, instead of arguing for it. Or you could bite the bullet and say that some of the time vigilantism is morally acceptable, or even required. But we still need to deal with the commonsense moral intuition that in addition to its badness for vigilantes, part of what’s wrong with vigilantism is how it affects the other people upon whom the vigilante acts.

    Hmmm, this sounds like the beginnings of another post. I will tuck this idea away in my ‘to blog’ file.

    Incidentally, should I watch some more Dexter? I’ve seen a couple of episodes and they were nearly too graphic for me to handle. H & I watch tv mostly during dinner, so I usually veto his Dexter suggestions, barf.

  • To clarify, I don’t think that vigilantism is wrong, at least when it achieves the end of justice without making mistakes or abusing power. The puzzle for me is more “how could anyone object to such a thing?” The argument that it’s bad for the vigilante is the strongest one I can think of against this sort of vigilantism, but I don’t fully buy it either. If you have a stronger one, I’d love to hear it.

    The commonsense moral intuition that real-world vigilantism is wrong is based on the belief that vigilantes will make mistakes or abuse power. I think that’s right, and we should be suspicious of non-fictional vigilantes for that reason. It’s also a reason to be suspicious of government. Analytically, the two are not very different (I am not persuaded by theories of political legitimacy and obligation).

    Yes, I think you should watch more Dexter. Probably not during dinner, though (in addition to the ick factor, I am moderately opposed to TV as a secondary activity). Maybe I am desensitized, but most of the death scenes end before the really gory stuff happens. I do find the opening theme really creepy and off-putting, though.

  • I should add that I do think it would be bad for me to be a vigilante…

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