Do We Need Violence?

I was intrigued last year by Steven Pinker’s argument that despite all our fears & moaning, we’re actually living in the safest time in history. (You can see the TED talk he gave on this subject here, if you don’t want to take the time to read his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.) Pinker looked at death rates & causes of death throughout history, as well as death rates & causes in those few remaining cultures we call “primitive,” and compared them to today. He found a steady decline in a man’s chances of dying violently at the hands of another, from 60% in ancient times and primitive societies to less than 1% today for most men. And that’s including all the deaths of all the wars in the 20th century.

Pinker’s argument is that we only think things are worse now because we’ve become so sensitive to violence. In earlier times, people were used to it and so didn’t think about it much. In fact, they went to see torture or hangings or beheadings for entertainment! But we’re so unused to such things, we react with horror and think it means things are going very very wrong. And it’s that reaction, Pinker says, that is actually making us safer. As a culture, we’re becoming more and more gentle with each other. And now when we fight, we do it at a distance; we shoot each other in “drive-bys” from the safety of a moving car and fight our wars through computers and drones. Even the spectacle of “wrestling” where huge men posture and beat their chests and pretend to hurt each other is obviously fake. The days of mano a mano fighting are, for most of us, long gone. 

But that’s not what we see in the movies or on TV. Violence is front and center in most of them, particularly the big blockbusters: people fight each other constantly and are killed in every way possible (with impalement being a favorite method), there’s tons of gore, buildings if not entire neighborhoods are destroyed, cars crash, and oh lordy, the explosions! Everything blows up, including people – usually in the most messy way possible, so that everyone around gets spattered liberally with their remains.

What is up with this in-your-face violence and blood, if we’re so squeamish about it in real life? What is it accomplishing?

We know that the human forebrain – the part that reasons – is still evolving. But the older parts of the brain, the “animal” (or even “reptilian”) parts of us, aren’t keeping up. Those older parts still operate from instinct, and their responses are limited to “is it safe, or should I run away? Should I fight it? Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Do I need to protect it?”

Yet we’re living in a world where most of the time, none of those instincts apply. It’s the forebrain that’s squeamish about violence, because it’s thinking “first of all, I could get hurt, and second, it’s illegal and I’d go to jail, and also, my moral code forbids it and people will judge me for it, and after all, I don’t really want to be that kind of person.” Right now there’s a lot of attention being (rightly) paid to the idea that a person can’t always have sex with someone else even if the animal brain thinks they can; hopefully the social pressure against rape will soon be as strong as the social pressure against murder.

Still, the animal brain isn’t going to go away. And it does have its purpose. We do encounter danger, even if it’s not frequent. There was a time in my life where the animal brain served me well: I woke up in my dorm room to find a man standing over my bed, pulling the covers off of me. Without hesitation I sat up and socked him in the face as hard as I could – hard enough to knock him down – and then leapt up, screaming at the top of my voice, and chased him out of the room. I was so pumped up on adrenalin I was ready to beat the crap out of him. I weighed all of 118 pounds at the time, but the fighting instinct gave me the edge in that moment, right when I needed it.

Fear and anger serve us. The problem is, it’s easy to trigger those reactions, but often either there’s no actual threat to fight, or we’re forbidden to fight. Our forebrains may tell us that’s okay, but they can’t make us not have those reactions. (Unless you are a highly trained Buddhist monk, apparently.) Our reactions require that we do something, but most of the time, we can’t!

Which is why anxiety is such a problem for many today. Fear is supposed to trigger an immediate action (either fight or flight) that then relieves the fear. Anxiety is fear that either has no apparent cause or about which nothing can be done. It’s fear with no relief.

So what do we do, if real life doesn’t give us a chance to use or relieve those instinctive reactions? We do what the psychologists call “project” – we let others act it out for us. And where better to “project” our instincts than onto a movie or TV screen? (We also “project” our changing ideas there – you can tell a lot more about where a society is headed by watching TV than by listening to politicians and demagogues – but that’s a separate issue.) So we go to the movies to see the violence that we have willfully denied ourselves and that our instinctive natures cannot relinquish, so we can experience both arousal and relief. (And yes, this also explains why internet porn is so popular and not going away any time soon.)

There are those who argue that violence on screen leads to violence in real life. That may be true in a few cases, but for most of us, I suspect the opposite is true.

Personally I find the violence and explosions and gore are overdone. A little bit goes a long way for me, and I find it more effective if the violence, and also the sex and the scary monsters, are mostly left up to my own imagination instead of done as graphically as possible on the screen. Imagination is a trait of the forebrain; animals don’t have it. And our forebrains keep growing.

Here’s what I hope: more and more people will, in time, find movies that speak to the projections of the forebrain or stimulate the imagination do more for them than movies that satisfy the animal part of our natures.

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