Authority, Responsibility, and Psychology in Liberal Democracy

Vic Napier


I have trouble accepting that simply watching televised violence, or looking over the shoulder of someone playing a violent video game would compel people to act out violent behaviors.  If people were influenced to commit violent acts simply by watching TV, we would expect the opposite to be true as well.  That is, watching non-violent TV would correlate with peaceful behavior.  If this were the case, we could cure violent criminals simply by subjecting them to endless reruns of Touched by an Angel and Little House on the Prairie. 

While reading the Schneider, Gruman & Coutts (2007) text I noticed that some studies quoted in the text studied violence on TV, while others examined only the influence of TV in general.  Hennigan  (cited in Schneider, 2007), for example looked only at the correlation between the issuance of TV broadcasting licenses and crime rate.  He found that non-violent theft increased, not violent crime.

Joy, Kimball & Zabrack (cited in Schneider, 2007) looked at the impact of the introduction of TV in isolated Canadian towns and found that increased violence among children increased with the introduction of TV.  However, our text says nothing about the kind of TV programming children watched. 

It seems to me that taking a random variable like TV and looking for violent correlations is not good science.  There are so many other variables that need  control that I do not understand how we can say with any confidence that TV is a causative factor in violent behavior.  It makes far more sense to me to examine the context of the television watching and the social climate in which the TV watching takes place. 

For example, what are the adults doing while the children are sitting in front of the TV?  Adult behavior during children’s viewing time would have a huge effect on how children process TV programming.  If the programming is WWF or COPS, and the parents are reveling in the violence, egging on the most aggressive of the wrestlers and police officers we would not be surprised if the children are more aggressive following the program.  However, if the parents make it a point not to watch violent TV – “What is so uplifting about watching people hurt each other?”  – and instead calmly watch PBS, we would expect children not to harbor aggressive attitudes or behavior following the TV watching.

There is something else at work here as well.  Violence has functional value.  As much as we would like to be a species that is peaceful and sharing, the opposite seems to be the case.  We now dominate the earth because we have exterminated or controlled every other species.  I do not have to worry about being eaten by a cougar on the streets of Tucson because we seized the land, killed the cougars who lived there, and then made the lad unsuitable for cougars to return.  The same general scenario is true of Native Americans who lived here. 

Aggression has functional value for whole societies as well.  Wright (2000) points out that the threat of violence is one of the factors that forced early bands of hominid hunter-gatherers into increasingly sophisticated social networks.  The threat of aggression from other hominids was the catalyst for creating a warrior class, choosing a leader, and pursuing technology and innovations.

Violence and aggression is something that is a part of us, whether we like it or not.  We will not be able to eliminate violence, but we can strive to manage it.  Take for example how we manage violent criminals.  In times of a healthy economy, we can lock them up, but during economic downturns, such as the one we are now entering, we simply do not have the money to keep all violent people under lock and key.  Communities then must find ways to deal with increased violence.

Something else to consider is that violence of all types is going down, and has been for some years, at least in the United States  (Uggens 2005).   I find it very interesting that no one seems to have come up with a good reason for why it has been declining.  Lott (2000) thinks more armed citizens have something to do with it, and Levitt, S. & Dubner, S. (2005) thinks the availability of abortion among poor women eliminated violent people before they were born.  Interesting ideas, but nothing that one could hang one’s hat on when it comes to the causes of violence.

At the societal level, we could take steps to ensure that officials who engage in violence are made into public displays of discipline.  Punishment of those involved in the Abu Ghraib torture case did not go quite far enough, for example.  Although low-level soldiers were punished, none of the high-ranking CIA and special operations personnel was ever brought to justice, revealing conflicting attitudes about the wrongness of those atrocities.

We should also make examples of police officers and prosecutors who use or condone illegal violence against citizens.  The Border Patrol officers who shot an escaping illegal immigrant in the back, killing him, should be severely punished. 

It is important that highly visible officials, such as police officers, be held to a high degree of public accountability when misusing violence because it demonstrates the lack of tolerance we have for violence as a society.  When this lack of tolerance is shown on TV, it will have the effect of countering the fantasy violence that is also shown on the TV.

On an individual level, we can combat the effect of media violence by paying attention to what our children watch on TV.  Rather than using the television as an electronic babysitter, we might consider actually engaging with our children.  Imagine reading a book to or with your kids, or helping them write a letter to their grandparents.  Simply refusing to watch violent programming sends a powerful message to kids.  Imagine the impact on a child if the parent were to act appropriately when stomach-turning violence is shown on the TV.  Simply saying, “That’s disgusting,” and walking away sends a powerful message.

Something else to consider is the subject of sex on televisions.  I remember seeing a commercial for an Arnold Schwartzneggier vehicle that was so violent I began counting the killings.  There were about a dozen murders in the space of a thirty second commercial.  But here is what was really shocking…this commercial preceded the entertainment segment on CNN Headline News when the big story was the huge reaction to Muriel Hemingway being featured nude on an episode of LA Law.  Ms Hemingway’s breasts and pubic areas were strategically hidden, mind you.  Nevertheless, people were up in arms over the amount of skin shown on LA Law, but had little to say about dozens of murders in a commercial for a movie.

It seems to me that if we had more sex and less violence on TV the same amount of people would watch, but for different reasons, and with a much more peaceful effect. 

I think that everyone should be held to the same standard as well, but the police have been given special protections un