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Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns
A Book by J. Neil Schulman
Does Hugging on TV Cause Real Violence?

The following article appeared in the Commentary section of the Sunday, June 21, 1993 Orange County Register, under the title, “Tube Shocks.”

What does watching TV make you do?

Since we live in a violent society, we’re constantly hearing arguments that seeing TV violence, particularly as kids, desensitizes us so we accept real violence more offhandedly — maybe it even triggers real violence.

But TV also shows lots of hugging. The standard plot for most family sitcoms is (1) Problem causes family members to get mad at one another; (2) Family members abuse each other in cute ways; (3) All is forgiven by end of show and everybody hugs.

So television gives us a conflicting set of images: violence and hugging.

Every popular medium has undergone the charge that it corrupts youth. The novel was attacked, then movies, radio, comics, rock and roll, and now TV, music videos, and rap. The theory behind the attacks is always the same: if Johnny commits a crime, he’s not responsible and his parents are not responsible: Something Else is responsible.

The problem in this society isn’t the easy availability of drugs, or guns, or pornography, or television, although all are scapegoated. All are mere inanimate things: they do only what we have them do.

All supposedly scientific studies on the subject of TV violence “causing” real violence are based on a theory of cause-and-effect that is contrary to humans having the capability of making responsible, moral choices.

But we are volitional beings by nature: we choose what we do and what we make ourselves. You take two brothers from an identical lousy environment — missing father, overworked mother, no money, rotten inner city neighborhood. One brother joins a gang and has committed his first murder within a couple of years. The other brother hides out from the gangs at the public library and learns to read out of boredom. Because of reading, he manages to stay in school and takes a fast-food job while attending night college.

Even if you postulate a deterministic model of human behavior, comparing two specific phenomena in isolation tells us nothing useful. How can you isolate one specific set of television images from the effects of the other available images? Further, how do you go inside the skulls of the people doing acts of violence and find out the actual causes, when even asking won’t give you a sure answer?

Serial killer Ted Bundy claimed in a final death-row interview that reading pornography made him do it. But how did that screwed up psyche know what was cause and what was effect? It’s just as likely that the same impulses that attracted him to pornography attracted him to violent acts, and there was a third (prior) cause.

Studies linking TV violence with real violence try to reduce human behavior to stimulus and effect. It may work with rat psychology, but it doesn’t work with human psychology. We aren’t robots which are programmed. We learn, choose what we focus upon, change our minds, ignore what we don’t like or believe, focus on what we like and believe. If someone is prone to violence, then they will probably seek out and obtain violent images — and if it isn’t broadcast on TV, it will be sought and obtained otherwise.

A mere statistical link between two phenomena — TV and violence — supposes a causal link which is unproven. It’s just as likely that TV violence, by providing a catharsis to those who would otherwise commit real violence, prevents real violence.

Furthermore, TV violence is almost always part of a morality play. When criminals initiate violence on TV, cops use violence to make sure they don’t get away with it. If TV drives home any lesson, it’s that using violence for criminal purposes will bring you to a violent end.

It’s even more probable — given that TV is demand-driven — that the increase in real violence is the cause of the increase of violence on TV. The more violence there is in real life, the more reason there is to portray it on news and other “non-fiction” programs, and the more demand there is from violence-interested individuals to see it portrayed.

Showing that real violence causes TV violence is simple. But statistical correlations between any two particular phenomena, in the absence of a valid theory of human nature, prove so little that one could just as easily come up with a plausible-sounding theory of how hugging on TV sitcoms causes real violence.

Try this on for size.

Johnny is a latch-key kid whose father beat him every night before the age of five, then abandoned him and Johnny’s mother. Johnny is left at home alone for hour upon hour, and watches TV. Johnny is fascinated by the TV sitcoms which show functional families. He watches them all: Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Who’s the Boss?. Over and over again, young Johnny sees these families hugging each other.

He watches these scenes of family hugging for years, and they have a cumulative effect. When Johnny is eleven-years-old, he’s in a sporting goods store at a mall, when he sees a son hug his father, who has just bought the son a new baseball bat.

Johnny goes over to the baseball bats, picks out a nice heavy one, then goes over to the son and smashes the bat into his head, fracturing his skull and instantly killing him.

Now, what conclusions do we want to draw from this incident?

1) Hugging on TV causes senseless violence, and the networks should be subject to greater regulation by the FCC.

2) Baseball bats are dangerous and should require a fifteen-day waiting period and background check before they are sold, and they should never be allowed to be sold to minors.

3) Johnny committed the act of violence because he was jealous that another boy had a father who loved him, which Johnny never had. The trigger for the incident of violence, and the particular tool Johnny used to commit it, are more or less random.

This is the sort of question that might appear on your average test in verbal logic to get a job.

But I wonder how many members of Congress, or sociologists, or journalists — or lobbyists against pornography, rock videos, guns and TV violence — could pass such a test?

If there is any valid criticism of TV, it’s the same one that can be brought against drugs: both can be distractions designed to dull the pain of living in a stupid, brutal, and hope-destroying society. TV, not religion, is today’s opiate of the masses.

If you want to change TV, change the desire of the viewing public from distraction to intellectual stimulation.

Or you can just change the channel.


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Copyright © 1994, 1999 J. Neil Schulman &
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