Violence -One More Time

In a recent blog I leaped with both feet into a confusing and confused (heated?) discussion of the possible relationship between such video games as “Active Shooter” and violence in this country. As I say, the issue is complex because it involves establishing a causal relationship between two rather different entities — in this case violence in electronic games, television, and the movies and, on the other hand, the undeniable fact of excessive violence in this country. I suggested in a previous blog that there is a concurrence that comes very close to a causal relationship. But there are different points of view, several of which were expressed in comments on that post.

Being a daring sort of person, I want to visit the topic again with the help of John Stuart Mill who, in his  A System of Logic, sought to show how causal relationships can be established. He set forth five “canons,” the final one of which was what he called the “method of concomitant variations,” which is the surest way to determine whether we are dealing with a causal relationship. In his precise way he stated the principle as follows:

Whatever phenomenon varies in any manner whenever another phenomenon varies in some particular manner, is either a cause or an effect of that phenomenon, or is connected with it through some fact of causation.

— John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Vol. 1. 1843. p. 470.
In the case of violence, we might list the growing incidence of violence in this country in recent years, including such things as road rage, bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, rape, suicide, gun deaths, and, of course, mass killings by presumably deranged individuals which garner the major headlines and were the focus of much of the discussion in my recent post. Couple this with the rise in the sales and use of electronic toys and the staggering number of hours the young spend playing electronic games and watching television and we might indeed be able to show a concomitant variation between the increase in this society in the above instances of violence and the increasing number of people-hours spent watching violence on television and game-playing.
To make certain of the relationship, of course, we would have to reduce the instances of viewing violent programs and playing violent games to see if there is a drop in violence in our society. This would be nearly impossible to carry off, however, since there is no reason to believe that those who play the games and watch the violent movies and television programs want to cut back — though parents could intervene if they were motivated to do so. One might go so far as to say they should, in fact, be doing precisely that.
As I suggested to one of the commentators to my recent post, much depends on the degree of immersion of the young in those violent activities. If increased immersion in those violent activities does, in fact, correspond to increased instances of violence in its many forms, then we are warranted in concluding that there is a causal relationship between the two. My sense is that there is such a correspondence, or at the very least a “connection through some fact of causation.”
Please note that the argument does not focus on  violent games, such as “Active Shooter” which was the subject of the recent post on this topic. Nor do I insist that we look exclusively at mass shootings, since violence takes so many forms. I am asking that we consider the whole scope of violence in this country, coupled with our history of using violence to eradicate indigenous people and generally to solve our problems. “Make My Day!”  I ask also if there is a direct correlation between those incidences and the involvement of increasing numbers of people in the viewing of violent programs and  playing of violent games.
As I say, I suspect strongly that there is a concomitant variation between the two and tentatively conclude that there is a causal relationship. But I would add, as I did in my previous discussion of this topic, that the acquisition of a strong “reality principle,” to use Freud’s term, would lessen the correlation somewhat. A great many people play the games and watch violent programs and movies and are yet not prone to violent actions, because they realize that games are not reality. But I do contend that, in a more permissive society where electronic toys have become commonplace and the reality principle is weaker, the ability of many to distinguish carefully between the games they play and the real world is correspondingly weakened, thus increasing the likelihood of violence.

Powerful Toys

Ever since I went back and read Hannah Arendt’s exceptional study of violence, written in the late 1960s, I have been pondering the possible reasons for this country’s fascination with things violent. You may recall that she argued that violence is the result of a sense of powerlessness and it is when we begin to feel the frustration that arises from a sense that we have little control over our lives that we begin to gravitate toward violence. I have always thought this was the allure of an entire series of movies like “Dirty Harry” — an angry cop who has little patience with procedure and simply goes straight for the bad guy and shoots him dead with his huge Magnum hand gun (Freud take note). “Make my day!” It’s a quick and gratifying “solution” in a Kafkaesque world where molasses-slow procedures often allow the criminal to go free and tie up the police in yards and yards of red tape.

And as I noted in my earlier blog, we have a growing number of reasons to feel powerless as our world becomes increasingly crowded and angry, bills keep piling up, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, the government is clearly composed of ambitious idiots without a brain among them, and nothing seems to get done. So if Arendt is correct in her analysis, and it seems likely, we shouldn’t be surprised by the increase in violence in this country and around the world. The fact that violence is more prevalent in this country may simply come down to the fact that we have access to more lethal weapons with very few enforceable restrictions and those who use them to kill people always make the headlines. The rest of the world may eventually catch up with us.

But related to our growing sense of powerlessness is our expanding fascination with electronic toys, especially the hand-held devices that give us the illusion of power in an age when we have very little to say about the events that surround us. What is especially interesting in this regard are the XBoxes with their incredibly violent programs that allow the user to take charge of a situation and repeatedly wipe out the “enemy” with a push of the button — not unlike the maniac who walks into a school with an assault rifle and proceeds to shoot real children. If one is in the XBox world long enough it makes sense that he might well lose his bearings and forget where the fantasy world leaves off and the real world begins. And given the ready accessibility of weapons and ammunition….

In a word, electronic devices — and I speak of all electronic devices, not just the violent ones — give us the illusion of power at a time when we sense we are losing power in the real world where problems keep mounting up and solutions seem farther and farther away. For most of us this is simply some sort of compensation for our inability to make changes in the real world. But, coupled with our growing cultural narcissism, for others it may translate into violent actions.

Nietzsche thought that the fundamental urge in all human action was the love of power. I suspect that’s where Hannah Arendt got her clue to our present malaise. We crave power and as we sense that we are losing it we seek alternatives that will restore that sense of power. Electronic devices, even cell phones, do precisely that. The awesome weapons that those who commit violent acts wield are quite possibly an extension of this same urge; the few who take those weapons into crowded places and start shooting people may have lost their sense of where they are, wandering in the real world they can no longer distinguish from the fantasy world where they are indeed all-powerful.