This is part 1 of a 2 part article.
Two films currently on general release have both attracted controversy for their supposedly violent natures. Only God Forgives attracted boos and walkouts at Cannes earlier this year over its violence (something that is becoming a tradition at Cannes in recent years), whilst Kick Ass 2 star Jim Carrey has withdrawn his support from the movie, stating via his twitter feed “I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence. My apologies to... others involve with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart.” I will post my own opinions on these films in the next few days but I want to examine the relationship between real world violence and media violence, and society's attitudes towards that relationship.
Chloe Grace Moretz, Carrey's co-star in Kick Ass 2, suggested in a Guardian interview last weekend that Carrey had felt forced to distance himself from the film as he was involved in lobbying for gun control laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, and could foresee the accusations of hypocrisy that would fly in his direction whenKick Ass 2 was released. This isn't a stance that's without merit; certainly I would agree that doing something to curb the utterly insane right of US citizens to bear arms trumps the importance of publicising a superhero movie (and, indeed, the comic's creator Mark Millar has suggested Carrey's denunciation was worth $30 million of free publicity, so it could be Carrey is having his cake and eating it), but by distancing himself from the film I believe Carrey is tacitly accepting the idea that fictional violence and real world violence are linked, and in doing so he is actually damaging the causes of gun control and of free speech.
Let's start by stating the facts. No study has ever shown any conclusive correlation between exposure to fictional violence and one's propensity for real world violence (a recent US Supreme court decision criticised existing research as inconsistent and methodologically flawed). Moreover, mass shootings of the type seen at Sandy Hook are far too rare to be attributed to any single source. If watching the Matrix and listening to Marilyn Manson caused people to commit atrocities (as was widely argued by apparently sane people in the wake of Columbine) then the turn of the century would have been marked by a level of worldwide bloodshed unseen since 1945. As violence in the media – and the realism of violent video games have increased – levels of violent crime have dropped. In their 2002 evaluation of school shooters, the U.S. Secret Service found no evidence to suggest that these perpetrators consume more media violence than anyone else.
Following the Sandy Hook massacre The Sun and The Daily Express newspapers both ran stories about gunman Adam Lanza being a fan of Call Of Duty (The Sun's front page headline was “Killer's Call of Duty Obsession”). Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was also cited as being a fan of the game series (in fact, aside from his insane ideology it's almost the only think I know about Breivik, which goes to show how widely this insignificant fact was reported). A quick check on Wikipedia reveals that Call of Duty: Black Ops (released in 2010) has sold 25 million units worldwide. Those are first hand sales – that figure doesn't factor in second hand sales and people borrowing or sharing games. Given that there have been 9 Call of Duty games released in the past decade, totalling over 100 million sales, and that “As of March 31, 2012 there are 40 million monthly active players across all of the Call of Duty titles” (Wikipedia) it seems reasonable to estimate that, in total, somewhere in the region of 50-100 million people have played a Call of Duty game at some point. It's hardly surprising that a couple of those people have done something awful.
There are numerous examples over the past half century of violent media being blamed for the ills of society. As well as the attempts to blame Columbine on Goth culture (and really, doesn't it show the ignorance of the people making these claims that it was the goths whom they found the scariest people in youth culture?), the one that made the biggest impression on me during my youth was the controversy over Child's Play 3, and the attempts to link this exceptionally silly and tame horror film with the tragic and horrifying murder of toddler James Bulger by ten year olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. For the record, there is no evidence whatsoever that either Thompson or Venables had ever seen this movie. The only link between the movie and the case at all is that Venables father had rented the movie a few months before the murder. As Venables was not living with his father at the time, and as police psychiatric reports state he disliked horror movies, it is extremely unlikely that he ever saw the film, let alone that it had any influence on his later behaviour.
A toddler is murdered in the most horrific manner by two ten year olds. A lone gunman kills 77 people, mainly teenagers, in a pre-planned killing spree – driven by a hatred of muslims. Two teenagers kill 13 people, then themselves, in a mass shooting. Another gunman kills twenty elementary school children and seven adults before killing himself. Movies and video games are blamed. Why?
I believe that violent media is scapegoated because this act of scapegoating allows our society to avoid having a much more complex and meaningful discussion about the real causes of these awful events. In the Bulger case, the real issues involved were particularly profound. Both boys came from abusive family backgrounds. Both were barely over the age of criminal responsibility and were tried in an adult court – a process that the European Court of Human Rights decided in 1999 had denied them a fair trial. The then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, increased Thompson and Venables' sentence following a campaign by The Sun newspaper (this intervention was later overruled by The House Of Lords as illegal). The Prime Minister, John Major, said in response to the case that “society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less". Rather than discuss the appropriate age of criminal responsibility, the causal effects of nature and nurture, how we as a civilised society should deal with children who are capable of such appalling acts and whether social services should intervene more in the case of antisocial families of the kind that spawned Thompson and Venables, the two common reactions (propagated by the press and endorsed by politicians) were to a) blame Child's Play 3 and b) write two ten year old boys off as having been born pure, unmitigated evil. Even blaming a movie makes more sense to me than the latter.
In the case of Sandy Hook the issues were much simpler. Adam Lanza suffered from multiple psychological and neurological issues and had access to a wide variety of firearms. This is not to say that a combination of the two will always lead to mass murder, but if you keep rolling two dice, eventually you will roll snake eyes. Attempts by the right – notably Fox News – to pin the blame on violent media are an attempt to distract from the urgent need for reform of the country's gun laws.
In Part 2 I will examine censorship itself and why it doesn't work.