Tag Archives: violence

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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Diet for the Mind

When your child has an unhealthful, junk-food diet, you can either follow the encouragements of the mega-food industry (whose sole motivation is to get your money), and continue to feed him crap, since it’s what he craves and has become accustomed to, and after all, at least he’s eating something…

Or you can follow the advice of health professionals and put your foot down and say, “Enough! Crap is crap, and you don’t treat poor health by continuing to provide that which ruined it.” You fight (and it will be a fight) to restore healthful eating habits in your child, and perhaps to help other parents do the same by reducing the prevalence of junk food. A good way to do that last part is by refusing to buy what the purveyors are selling.

Sensible advice, right? The same holds true of the books we read and movies we watch. Perhaps your children crave the lurid, sensationalistic violence that pollutes media today, but that doesn’t make it less unhealthy. People defend this literary junk food by saying, “At least the kids are reading,” but that’s not good enough when it comes to food, so it shouldn’t be good enough when it comes to literature.  And how much is the desire for junk-reading due to it being the kids steady diet? The book-to-film industry insists they are simply providing what the people want, washing their hands like Pontius Pilate, but are they providing what kids want, or have the kids been conditioned to want it, for lack of any alternative that doesn’t seem as undesirable as brussels sprouts? Funny thing is, brussels sprouts are only unpalatable because they are so often poorly prepared. But there are some great recipes out there.

And there are great books; we just have to get kids used to the idea that conflict in a story doesn’t require physical violence, and the “stakes” don’t have to be death. Anyone who has had to eliminate salt or sugar or fat from their diets (I had to do one, and chose to do another) will tell you that at first it’s awful, that everything is bland and flavorless and makes you want that Bag O’ Calories all the much more. But gradually you adapt, and discover the amazing array of flavors that had been buried under all that sodium (I discovered the joy of black pepper when I reduced my salt intake). Subtle, delicate flavors that are far more rewarding. This is true of literature as well. When all you read is maiming and killing, anything else is boring, but eventually you can discover the much more profound strivings of the human heart and the human spirit, important things that were lost in the constant bloodbath.

I’m not all-or-nothing. There’s a place for tasty snax. But it’s a small place. I’ve always maintained that the key to healthy diet lies in two words: balance and moderation. Eat a variety of foods, and don’t eat too much of anything. Don’t deprive yourself of ice cream, but just have a small scoop, rather than the whole pint of Cherry Garcia in one sitting. It lasts longer, and you enjoy it more. Focus on quality: a six-ounce filet mignon is far more enjoyable than a two-pound porterhouse, and you are left feeling better afterwards.

But the interesting thing is, as far as the real junk food, the true crap, you find that, once you have reduced or even eliminated it from your diet, you not only don’t want it any more, you can’t even enjoy it. Once I got off salt, I became quite sensitive to its presence, and now I can barely stand salty foods. And this is as nothing compared to the experience of vegetarians who, having eliminated meat from their diets, find that if they do have meat, it makes them very sick.

I’m not advocating vegetarianism, although it’s a valid choice for people who know what they are doing. But I do think we should reduce or remove from our diets those things that make us sick once we’ve had a chance to step back from them.

And I think this can be true of media-literature as well. I hadn’t read much nor gone to many movies when I began my writer’s journey a few years ago. I’d been a voracious reader in years past, and once went to all the big movies. But I stopped, for reasons I’m unsure of. As a result, upon exposure to the media diet children subsist on today, I was literally sick, and, as you can tell, have perhaps not yet recovered. Had I been immersed as my fellow writers have been, the ones who responded to my horror with, “What’s your problem? I love that book!” I likely would have shared their enjoyment of these things. Yet a meager few actually listened and, taking a step back, looked at this stuff with clearer eyes and said, “Oh my God, this is awful!”

As I said before, some of my favorite movies were quite violent for their time, and I was concerned I was being a hypocrite. But that’s the key: for their time. Recent studies have shown that the ratings have changed. Movies that just ten years ago would have been solid R-rated for violence are now barely even getting PG-13. Dirty Harry, one of my favorite movies, was quite controversial for its extreme violence, and the glorification of it. But it would probably get a PG today. The level of violence in entertainment has increased, and continues to do so. When we feed our cravings, they are not satisfied. Drinking a sugary soda makes you want more sugar. Hyper-violent books and movies make you want more carnage. This has been confirmed in studies.

The junk-food industry isn’t going to stop producing Cheezy-Poofs, and the literature/film industry isn’t going to stop making carnage-filled movies, with higher and higher stakes, including younger and younger victims, and killers. So we have to be the ones to say enough. We must refuse to let them tell us what we want to read and to see. That’s the reason literary agents lie. They say they want something new and different, but they continue to go with vampires and zombies and dystopia and death. Something new and different is a risk, and there’s big money at stake. So they keep giving us more of the same, thinking it’s what we want, when in fact they are part of the conditioning to make us want it.

But if we stop, if we say, “I don’t want that, not matter how tasty you make it look,” then eventually they’ll have to do something else. As I said, there are good books. And there are good movies. Not just saccharine fare either, but rich, provocative stories that get awards, but rarely pack theaters or fly off bookshelves. Demand more of that, and less of the sick ugliness. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be healthier for it.

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Broken Record

I admit it: I do tend to go on and on and on about my abhorrence of violence. Why? It’s just stories, right? Fiction. Entertainment. First, let me clarify that my aversion is not as much to violence as to killing. A life ended, snuffed out, never to be restored.

It would be easy to call me a hypocrite in this. I’m not a vegetarian. I’ll kill a black widow spider if I can’t safely remove it from the area. I support the careful application of capital punishment in rare cases as the only humane means of removing from society a monster who has been proven conclusively to be a great and unredeemable danger. But in every case, I am sad. Death is final, so in a way it’s odd that I am not particularly afraid of my own mortality. But perhaps that’s the point. My life is my own. It’s the one thing I have that is absolutely mine, and violating that in others is profound. That’s why the idea of death as part of an entertainment is so repugnant to me.

And I will acknowledge another hypocrisy as well: this is a comparatively new development for me. Some of my favorite movies have been Dirty Harry and The Godfather and the James Bond series. All have their share of killing. To be honest, since I reached this point in the past couple of years, I haven’t watched any of those movies, and have some trepidation about how I would respond to them today.

So what changed for me? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the increased prevalence of children being mixed into these lethal entertainments. When children die, or kill, in these violent books and movies, an additional element is added, and taken away. Not only is there loss of life, but of innocence as well. The tragedy is doubled.

I understand the counter-argument. Conflict drives the plot, and the stakes are never higher than when life is on the line. Our emotional response is part of the enjoyment of what we read, or view on a screen as the case may be. It’s part of the essential catharsis. Okay, fair enough. But context is everything. You see, while the defenders of hyper-violent entertainment say that the tragedy of death is part of the overall “message,” they tend to undercut it by how they present it. In most cases, only a handful of deaths are actually tragic. We see this at the ludicrous extreme in movies where the main characters endure horrific catastrophe, where the end of civilization has occurred. But the dog survives! That scene always elicits a rousing cheer. Presumably because the dog also represents innocence. It’s enough of a cliché that writers and filmmakers will take great pride in subverting it, sometimes to drive home the seriousness of the story, sometimes for laughs.

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m guilty of the former case. In my book a beloved dog is killed when trying to protect a main character from the bad guys. I wanted to make it clear the stakes were high, and that the danger was real. Yet, oddly, that scene met with considerable objection from several of my critique partners, who somehow had no problem with all the dead children in The Hunger Games, but insisted that I revise my scene  so that the dog lives, or else readers would hate my story. Because of one dead dog. Twenty-two children hacking each other to death? What a great story! Pass the popcorn.

It ends up being a numbers game. Most deaths in violent stories are largely unremarked upon. Terrible, yes, but of import only in the moment. The story goes on. Sure, that’s realistic, because life goes on. And let’s face it, an action story where every single death was treated as a profound tragedy would not be a pleasant thing to watch.

But maybe that’s the point.

This all came to mind when I encountered a recent quote by Michael Gerson, writing about the way the people of Rwanda have dealt with the horrific genocide of two decades ago. They focus on remembering the victims. By affirming, in Gerson’s words, “that every human story is more important than the diseased narratives of dictators and killers.” And this is where the creators of dark, violent dystopian stories get it wrong.

These authors, and the filmmakers who come after them, think they are sending that message. But they aren’t. Perhaps they can’t. People claim these stories tell us about standing up to violent oppression, that every life matters. And yet, in these stories, the only lives that actually matter are those of the main character and her small circle of characters-with-names. The body counts are almost incomprehensible (brace yourselves, Hunger Games fans who are anxiously awaiting the next movie without having read the book it will be based on, where there’s literally death on every page). Stories like Game of Thrones make the frequency of death a selling point. But mostly it’s something that just happens. As long as the characters you are actually invested in continue to live, it’s all good.

But that disconnect is precisely what makes these stories diseased narratives themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the narrative is about a tyrant or the plucky young girl who stands up to him. Only some deaths matter, and all the rest are just part of the body count. Which brings to mind another quote, one that, nearly a century later, still speaks volumes:

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The words of Josef Stalin. One of the dictators and killers. Who would understand that truth better?

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