Tag Archives: society

Violence in Stories

One of the egroups I’m on (Worlds of Fantasy) got into a debate yesterday about violence in entertainment and in society. Whether or not violence in entertainment has increased was poked around as a notion. We were able to agree that on the whole, humans in western civilizations are not as violent as they used to be.

The vast majority of stories are driven, to some degree, by sex, death, or a combination thereof. These are subjects around which it is possible to weave vast, complex, meaningful tales. Just look at Shakespeare. Humans respond to sex and death and all the things those two activities create, in all kinds of ways. In seeking, and avoiding them, justifying them, punishing and rewarding people for them… all the many facets of the human condition can be played out.

It may be fair to say that modern entertainment focuses more on the details of the sexual and lethal activities than older stories did. That in itself doesn’t have to be a problem. Good stories can be told around detailed depictions. Go back to ancient writing and what you find is very light on description, heavy on telling, light on showing. Classic myths don’t spend pages establishing characters or pondering motivation. Preferences and styles change. But there’s no shortage of sex and violence. I read Ovid’s Metamorphosis last year, and the single most frequently occurring plot element was rape.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that modern story telling is doing some very similar things to that classic Greek story telling. It’s become very focused on the sex and violence. There are films now whose sole purpose seems to be to shock, frighten and disgust audiences. There are Ovid stories that caught me very much the same way – it’s just about revelling in the ick. Our modern world is far tamer and safer than the ones the Greeks inhabited though. So why are doing this? I don’t know.

The context for sex and violence in the story is important I think. Sex and violence happening in the context of good story telling is very different from entertainment that is mostly depictions, with very little narrative reasoning. It’s the reasonlessness that bothers me most. When the ‘story’ is all about surface and immediate thrills and offers nothing deeper, then the violence and sex come through in very different ways. They aren’t just driving forces, they become the entirety, and that reduces everything down. Sex and death might underpin human experience, but they are not the sum and total of what we are.

Stories, like everything else, have their cycles and seasons. Currently people seem partial to immediacy, and intensity. Fast paced, in your face action, plenty of bare skin and a high death toll quite often makes for a successful film or book. Slower, more elaborate and involved story telling that isn’t a ‘page turner’ or ‘edge of the seat’ is out of fashion. The collective hunger is for thrills, not for thinking. There are, however, plenty of people who want to experience their stories in different ways.

The ways in which we tell each other stories (be those spoken, in books, films or computer games) informs our sense of what is normal. Most of us are not going to go out and emulate what we read or see. However, the entertainment we imbibe does affect how we perceive the world, how we understand our own lives, and what expectations we have. That makes me wonder where we are going with this, and what we might unwittingly be doing to ourselves.

Being Naive

The social structures we have operate, as far as I can make out, on the assumption that people are basically selfish and in it for what they can get, that money is the main motivator for most folks and that fear of chastisement will just about keep people in line. If people happen to be nice, it doesn’t take the system down, which is an added bonus. One of the reasons communism doesn’t work, is that the ideas Marx proposed (as best I understand it) depend on people being fair and mutually supportive, and it only takes one greedy manipulator to wreck the whole thing.

Suggest any system which involves trusting people or assuming that folks will be basically decent and honourable, and someone will call you naive. It’s not reality, it’s not human nature, that’s not how politics, nations and big business work.

I recall a Christian man (his name escapes me) talking about the enthusiasm with which American politicians refer to Christianity. He analysed the words of Jesus to see how this works for policy. If a man takes your shirt, give him your coat as well. Turn the other cheek. These are not traditional political values. The conclusion he came to is that this kind of gentle morality cannot, must not, be enforced as a top down system. Not only is it unworkable, but it kills the spirit of the thing. If we want to be communists, Christians, Druids, Buddhists or anything else of that ilk, it should be individual, not state choice. You can’t make people treat each other well, it doesn’t work.

But does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to live in a culture where people act not out of greed, but enlightened self interest? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone had an eye on the greater good, the need to protect shared resources (air, water) for the benefit of all? Wouldn’t it be better if we all felt that those around us were basically honourable folk and that the default would be to trust their word? Most of believe that our politicians lie to us, that the media misrepresents to suit its own agenda, that companies manipulate us, systems will screw us over, and that there are a lot of dangerous people out there just waiting to take what we have and stab us in the back.  We don’t, for the greater part, like or trust the social systems we have built, but to imagine it could be different is naive. Apparently.

I’m not sure who benefits from things the way they are. I suspect no one does. We feed each other’s fears, we cling to our stuff and gaze out mistrustfully. Through politics, the media and sometimes religion as well, we tell each other stories about how dangerous the world is, how awful people are, and how we must not trust each other. If someone asks you the time in the street, it means they’re going to mug you. If you leave your door unlocked, your possessions will be stolen. If you hug a frightened child you will be done for being a paedophile. If you clear the snow outside your house and someone slips on it, they will sue you for everything you own. We’ve all heard these, and more. That we tell such stories does not make them true.

My experience of people is that most are decent and compassionate folk, who try and do the right thing even when they are scared. I see a lot of kindness and goodwill when I’m busking. Being a volunteer, I see the generosity of other  volunteers. I see community in my area and people who look out for each other. But we still tell each other the fear-stories, and the media is full of them. Yes, there are people who take, who damage, mock, alarm and otherwise cause trouble. They are not the majority. Sometimes all it takes is a word, or a smile, to deflate them and change their direction. Some of them are just posturing, because they are afraid too. Some are just bored, or in need of attention. Things are not always as they first seem.

I’m naive, I guess. I think we, as a species can learn to treat each other, and the planet, a good deal better. I think we can develop systems that are more compassionate. I think we can be honourable, take pride in our honour and be able to trust in the honour of others. I don’t think we’re anything like close to this, but while we persist in saying ‘it is human nature to be greedy, competitive and obnoxious’ we deny ourselves the chance to be more. Being wilfully naive does not mean being wilfully stupid or downright suicidal though. Some people are greedy, competitive, destructive and obnoxious, but not everyone. Where possible, I will judge people based on what they actually do – not on what they say, or what fear inclines me to suspect they might do. It’s a choice we can make as individuals, and I invite you to consider it.

The car mindset

People who have cars get into the habit of using them. They are easy, convenient things, and just popping out to fetch something is so simple when you have one. I watched a fellow parent send her bloke out, by car, to a shop ten minutes up the road to get a packet of parsley sauce. The shortest journeys are the least efficient. I know plenty of parents who drive their kids to school, when the distances are entirely walkable. People with cars get used to thinking of the car as something it is fine to use.

People who design towns (and tend to have money) and people who decide where resources will be, tend also to think in terms of cars. Lots of people, due to age, poverty, infirmity or lack of inclination, do not own cars. Living in a culture which assumes you can and will drive places, makes this very hard. It is also unfair, pushing marginalised people further out to the edges. This particularly means younger folk, who cannot drive. If we build housing where there is no access to shops, or schools, give people a minimal or non-existent bus service and leave them to it, the results are not good.

In rural parts of the UK, it’s almost impossible to get by now without a car as the most basic of services have long since left the villages and are being pulled out of the small towns as well. Bus services in the countryside are thin and not very frequent.

Cars facilitate commuting, and people give insane amounts of their lives to driving about from one place to another. The time spent driving is time we never get back. Sitting in queues is a miserable business. They might profess to be convenient, but cars facilitate a way of living that takes far more away from us than it gives back.

This is not entirely a rant against car ownership. It’s a rant about the culture we build around cars, the centralisation of them in the way society is structured, the assumption that everyone can access them.

Being car-less is hard work. Buses do not run when you need them, or where you need them outside of cities. Feet will get you around, but how far can you walk? How much can you carry home from the shops when it all has to go on your shoulders?

For the majority of human history, we did not have cars, and life without them was entirely possible. Most people believe that cars give them freedom and independence. They cost a fortune to run. They are the most dangerous thing most people routinely tangle with. A lot of people die on the roads every year. They are noisy, and they belch out pollution. They currently run on oil and the oil will run out. Long term, they aren’t going to be viable.

It might be sensible to start looking for alternatives now, while we have the time to explore it, and start re-structuring our lives and communities so that car use is not at the heart of all ‘normal’ life.