Monday, September 19, 2005

The Influence of Anxiety 

Danny Alexander interviews Zemblan patriot G.J., author of the highly recommmended Killing Monsters and (most recently) Men of Tomorrow, at the new and promising culture blog Holler If You Hear Me:
GJ: I’d love to see some real research done on [the effects of media violence], but that requires asking questions that no one’s asked in 80 years of social-science “research” on entertainment.

1) What might be the positive effects of this media? (Not just, “Does this increase hostility?” but also, “Does it increase boldness, self-confidence, social connection, the desire to take right action?”)

2) How do the effects of “violent entertainment” compare to sports fandom, academic pressure, social competition, patriotism, religious zeal, and the many other factors in life?(e.g., anecdotally it certainly seems that more large-scale violence is inspired by holy texts and national causes than anything make-believe; but no one ever puts entertainment in a larger context.)

3) How do we explain the fact that instances of crime, violence, and other antisocial and self-destructive behavior keep dropping even as media use increases and media violence becomes more frequent? All the research I see is “bubble research.” The numbers make sense within the bounds of the study, but they’re never reflected in real life. (As contrasted with, say, the cigarette/cancer connection, which clearly showed up in real-life statistics and then was backed up by lab studies.) Can it be that the increase of aggression recorded by so many studies somehow results in a decrease of genuine acts of violence? There are hypotheses to explain such a phenomenon, but the usual gang of researchers and politicians never wants to look at it. Heart doctors study the “French Paradox.” Will social scientists ever study the “Media Paradox”? I’d love to see it happening, but it won’t come at Clinton and Brownback’s urging . . . .

DA: Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas argues that cultural anxiety is a tool used to push right wing agendas. You make the point that much of this cultural anxiety comes from a fear of the future and projection of our fears onto our children. Do we have as much to fear from our fantasy culture as we have to fear from the effects of this cultural anxiety Why do you suppose political progressives are so resistant to the kind of critical thinking you try to model in Killing Monsters? (Maybe that’s two questions)

GJ: First, yeah: the culture of anxiety is far, far more pernicious to children and adults than anything we’re likely to see in our make-believe. I think entertainment has very little power if we say “someone made that up to shock us” and “it doesn’t matter.”

As for progressives ... I think it’s mostly just that they feel they have to steal as many issues as they can from the right without compromising the core progressive issues that they need to stick to. They figure they’re not going to lose any votes (or at least any likely votes) by yelling about violent video games and rap songs, but they might by seeming to be “soft on family values.”

Underlying that is the elitism of educated progressives. They still see themselves as having to take care of less well-educated people, which means that their reliance on upper-middle-class standards of taste and the research of people with PhDs will always be seen as more “correct” than the direct experience of kids, teenagers, immigrants, and lower-middle-class or working-class people who comprise most of the audience for the entertainment attacked. This is one reason that attacks on shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under never get much media traction, and why the heat always goes toward rap music and pop of the Britney Spears ilk but rarely toward alternative rock. Poor people don’t partake in it, so they’re not as worked up about it; and educated elites “get it,” so they ignore or deflect criticism, imagining that their children won’t be affected by it. The basic progressive model is that “those people” are being led astray by crass (probably right-wing) profiteers, and we liberals need to protect them from themselves.

DA: What’s more dangerous, violent video games or politicians who have problems distinguishing between video game violence and reality? Clinton has consistently supported the Iraq war and is now pushing for an increase in the size of the Army by 80,000 troops. How do you suppose such hawkishness compares with fantasy media in terms of aggravating real world violence?

GJ: I think killing real people is a bigger problem than killing badly animated pseudopeople on a computer screen. And I think arguing from the Senate floor that America should be sending its young men and women to their deaths for a disastrous colonial venture is more likely to distort our thinking about violence than watching superheroes fight in a cartoon.

My one hope is that the costs of real war will help Americans remember (maybe for longer this time) that real violence isn’t fun and exciting, and you don’t get a happy ending after two hours. Hawks like Clinton may help us that way.
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