Tuesday, December 08, 2009

How to Desensitize People to Violence


Some people have asked if my novels, which contain violence, aren’t exacerbating the problem of violence in the world. If they are not desensitizing people even more to violence and perhaps even inciting it as people imitate what I write about.

Here are my thoughts on the issue, and I’d love to hear your comments.

First of all, I agree that our world is desensitized to violence. I believe this happens when evil is mute and sanitized (TV shows where people get shot, fall over, there is no blood, no grief, no mourning), glamorized, or ignored. I think we become more sensitized to violence when it is portrayed with honesty.

So first, muting evil. Some books and television shows do so by diminishing the value of human life. A person will be killed and no one grieves. Cut to commercial. Come back and solve the crime. This is not real life. Death hurts because we are people of dignity and worth. Death matters because life matters. Unfortunately, this muting of violence often happens in books that are labeled “religious fiction.”

This also frequently happens in the news media. Think of a news program: “A suicide bomber killed 62 in Iraq.”

When you hear that do you weep? Do you mourn? No, because it is sanitized. Only when you see the screaming three-year-old children with shrapnel in their face, the desperate widows, the bodies in the street do you feel, do you recognize the impact of the violent, evil act.

Movies such as the Saw or Friday the 13th films glamorize violence. The most interesting person is the serial killer. This desensitizes people to violence. And since we tend to emulate those we admire, I believe movies or books that glamorize or celebrate violence draw people toward it.

In my books I want people to look honestly at what our world is like, both the good and the evil. The evil in my books is not senseless, people’s lives are treated as precious and I want my readers to hurt when an innocent life is taken. The only way to do that is to let them see it on the page and then reflect on its meaning.

I think that an effective way of dissuading someone from doing something is to make them see it as deeply disturbing. And the only way to make people disturbed by evil is to show it to them for what it really is.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear back from you.


13 comments:

Tara O said...

You hit the nail on the head in my opinion! Thank you for posting!

Randy M. said...

Good points on becoming desensitized, most media does seem to make death and pain a temporary illness.

I also liked your example of the way the news portrays the deaths in places like Iraq. Not only are we desensitized but we're detached.

As Stalin put it, "Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic".

A Little Bit of Everything

Eric McCarty said...

Just ran across a thoughtful set of podcasts that I think you would enjoy on Christianity and the arts. Some big names in the interviews. I'll suggest they have you on.

http://www.thekindlings.com/podcast-index/

Jon Guenther said...

Steven, I'm completely on board with you here, and glad that other Christian writers are addressing the differences between gratuitous and even metaphysical aspects of violence.

As a Christian author of adventure, as well as paramilitary action thrillers, I just recently posted an entry on this issue in my own blog. Thanks for putting this out there.

facesoflions said...

Thanks for your perspective on violence. Seems similar to what I've seen expressed by Andrew Klavan. I just happened upon your books on Amazon. Haven't read anything yet, but look forward to doing so soon.

Jason said...

Thank you for this post.

I have a question if you have a chance to answer. I'm working on my first work and the serial killer is one of the more interesting characters. Without getting too detailed, he is a Hannibal Lecter type in that he's brilliant and charismatic. His kills have a Saw-level complexity but all have a motive for the choice of death.

Would you say I should make the killer less interesting for the sake of not glorifying the violence? The way the story is written now the killer is as interesting as the protagonist.

Steven James said...

In response to Jason's question, think of it this way: who is your reader cheering for? Watch the movie "Public Enemies" and compare Johnny Depp's character to Christian Bale's. Depp is flamboyant, attractive, in love with life, Bale is cold-hearted (the first time we meet him he's shooting a man in the back), and one-dimensional. The movie doesn't work because it glamorizes evil and makes us empathize with and cheer for the criminals. I want evil to make people uneasy, not to make them cheer.

Eric said...

I really appreciate your stance on the glamorization of violence and violent characters in books and movies these days. I am a Christian and a father of young children and I suppose I've become more sensitive since having children. I have such a hard time enjoying a movie or a book these days without feeling like I'm participating in the debauchery along with the characters because of the goading of the author/director. My wife and I have come to the point where we basically only read books and see movies that are responsible with their handling of evil content because of it. Evil content doesn't need to be completely avoided, but it does need to be dealt with from a responsible, and hopefully God-honoring, way. As a result, we usually end up reading books by Christian authors, but without a "Christian Best-Sellers" list to guide us, we end up reading two or three very sub-par books for every good one. It's evident in your Bowers series that your intent is for the reader to be disgusted by the depravity of your "bad guys", and I would encourage you that juding from your blog entry that you are right to see it the way you do. I've really enjoyed your Bowers books, they've ridden a fine line without crossing it, and after reading here I can tell it's because of the careful consideration you give to the content. I just started The Bishop.

As far as muting violence, I'm not sure where I stand on that. I'm sitting here today, still thinking about the first chapter of The Bishop that I read last night...it was disturbing, and I'm still bothered by it. The callousness and the sexuality of the two killers and some of the specific things they did...is it good for me to be thinking about those things? What are you hoping I glean from it? Right now it kind of haunts me more than anything else. I actually kind of appreciate the more tame who-dunnits on TV that don't dwell on morbidness of the crime, because I don't want to feel weighed down by the burden of death, I pretty much just want to try and solve a mystery. We've stopped watching anything over TV-PG for that exact reason...we ended up feeling oppressed or depressed because of how much todays shows and movies dwell on the depravity and the tragic flaws of their characters. I don't think it desensitizes me, because I've become more and more sensitive to this kind of stuff the less I've exposed myself to it. Maybe it helps me to maintain some level of ignorance or naivety, but is that a bad thing? Does exposing my mind and heart to all the sinful deeds an author or director can dream up for his evil characters help me glorify God, or even better understand the depravity of my soul and my need for a Savior? Maybe in small doses, or in specific circumstances, but to do it too often seems more damaging than uplifting. I think real life probably has enough woes of its own! :) So I would encourage you to err on the side of muteness (?) when it comes to disturbing imagery and delving too deep into the mind of an evil character.

Thanks for your careful consideration of these matters, it shows in your books and it's the reason I decided to read them (after doing a quick perusal of your site and reading some of your opinions.)

Sorry for the long post, I never comment on blogs but I thought this sounded interesting.

Eric said...

I really appreciate your stance on the glamorization of violence and violent characters in books and movies these days. I am a Christian and a father of young children and I suppose I've become more sensitive since having children. I have such a hard time enjoying a movie or a book these days without feeling like I'm participating in the debauchery along with the characters because of the goading of the author/director. My wife and I have come to the point where we basically only read books and see movies that are responsible with their handling of evil content because of it. Evil content doesn't need to be completely avoided, but it does need to be dealt with from a responsible, and hopefully God-honoring, way. As a result, we usually end up reading books by Christian authors, but without a "Christian Best-Sellers" list to guide us, we end up reading two or three very sub-par books for every good one. It's evident in your Bowers series that your intent is for the reader to be disgusted by the depravity of your "bad guys", and I would encourage you that juding from your blog entry that you are right to see it the way you do. I've really enjoyed your Bowers books, they've ridden a fine line without crossing it, and after reading here I can tell it's because of the careful consideration you give to the content. I just started The Bishop.

As far as muting violence, I'm not sure where I stand on that. I'm sitting here today, still thinking about the first chapter of The Bishop that I read last night...it was disturbing, and I'm still bothered by it. The callousness and the sexuality of the two killers and some of the specific things they did...is it good for me to be thinking about those things? What are you hoping I glean from it? Right now it kind of haunts me more than anything else. I actually kind of appreciate the more tame who-dunnits on TV that don't dwell on morbidness of the crime, because I don't want to feel weighed down by the burden of death, I pretty much just want to try and solve a mystery. We've stopped watching anything over TV-PG for that exact reason...we ended up feeling oppressed or depressed because of how much todays shows and movies dwell on the depravity and the tragic flaws of their characters. I don't think it desensitizes me, because I've become more and more sensitive to this kind of stuff the less I've exposed myself to it. Maybe it helps me to maintain some level of ignorance or naivety, but is that a bad thing? Does exposing my mind and heart to all the sinful deeds an author or director can dream up for his evil characters help me glorify God, or even better understand the depravity of my soul and my need for a Savior? Maybe in small doses, or in specific circumstances, but to do it too often seems more damaging than uplifting. I think real life probably has enough woes of its own! :) So I would encourage you to err on the side of muteness (?) when it comes to disturbing imagery and delving too deep into the mind of an evil character.

Thanks for your careful consideration of these matters, it shows in your books and it's the reason I decided to read them (after doing a quick perusal of your site and reading some of your opinions.)

Sorry for the long post, I never comment on blogs but I thought this sounded interesting.

Leanna said...

I work as an RN and sometimes do shifts on a palliative care unit. The dying and death I see there is real but the effect is desensitizing. If it was up to just me, I would not be able to stay compassionate in the midst of that. (Thank God for His grace!)

I don't disagree with you completely. I just want to point out that even if you deeply disturb someone with an accurate portrayal of evil, the result can be a detaching numbness rather than grief.

Anonymous said...

Well you have done a great job Steven and I do and have felt sorrow and grief over characters that have died I believe the two stuck in my mind as I write this are tucker and hunter .... I think those are the names forgive me but I haven't read your books in a couple months

Brendon Reid said...

"Death matters because life matters." I remember reading that in "The Bishop." Do you come up with that or did you hear that from someone? And I agree with you and highly enjoy reading your books!

God Bless!

Brendon

Steven James said...

Brendon,
That saying is just something I came up with one day when I was thinking about the dignity of human life. Either every moment matters or none do. I can't see how the alternative of some moments mattering ultimately and some not makes any kind of logical sense. In books in which death is treated lightly, I think it degrades human life.