08 March 2008

Violence and the Media

Memory Alpha
I've always loved reading science fiction, and enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows. My friends and I club together to buy seasons of Star Trek. Lately I've also seen some of the remade Battlestar Galactica and a new series called Heros. In these more recent shows there has definitely been a change in the way violence is depicted. It is more graphic, the obvious intent is to make it seem more real. It is more frequent. It is also more violent. Season three of Star Trek Next Generation, which I am watching at present, seems quite innocent by comparison.

Since my ordination retreat I have become a lot more sensitised to violence in the media. I find now that I cannot bear to watch much on the screen. The emotional response is too strong. I've also become aware of how violence is hyped in other media. Even the much vaunted BBC news focusses in on the most violent and shocking news. Perhaps their coverage is a little more sophisticated than a tabloid, but the tendency is to highlight stories which are violent - wars, disasters with many dead, mass murder, violent crime. These stories get the lead, and they are lingered over.

It is my firm conviction that the purpose of the media is to entertain. Fullstop. I no longer believe that "the news" is an exception to this. Stories are chosen on their potential for stimulating an emotional response, and written in such a way as to get the maximum emotion response from the target audience. It's all about creatingwhat physiologists call "arousal" . Violent images, whether intended as entertainment, or as "news", do have an affect on us even if the effect is below the threshold of consciousness.

Constant stimulation is not good for us. One only has to consider that in the UK mental health problems have replaced back-pain as the the no.1 cause of time off work sick, and of people on incapacity benefits. The thing about a fast pace of life is that our bodies cannot get back to their optimum resting state. My current understanding of depression is that it results from over-stimulation and an inability to process the physical effects of that stimulation. I recall an experiment we did in the 6th form on earthworms. Poke a worm and it writhes about vigorously in something analogous to our fight or flight response - it is making itself difficult to catch and eat. Wait till it stops and poke it again and it will respond with less vigour. Repeat this and the worm gives less response until after only 3 or 4 times it is unable to response to being poked. The lesson here is that constantly provoking a fight or flight response wears you out. I believe this is why depressed people avoid contact and anything stimulating - at worst they lie in bed in darkened rooms not moving.

Whether you realise it or not seeing violent images produces arousal in the body. This is generally short of the fully fledged fight or flight response. It can be sustained over longer periods and with more repetition. But it's clear that for many people it is happening too much, too often.

The knee jerk Buddhist reaction is to say that violence is a breach of the first precept, and violent images are in the same category. I think there is some truth to this, but it seems to me that it is more helpful to take a different tack. The Buddha liked to point out that the unenlightened are obsessed with, intoxicated by, totally caught up in sensual experiences - including the mind-sense. The Enlightened still have sensory experiences, but they have unhooked themselves emotionally from these. They are no longer caught up in the show, they no longer suspend disbelief. If everyday experience is intoxicating, then the media is like amphetamines, and media violence like crack cocaine.

Like any addict we do get a "hit", some kind of pay off, from the drug. Thanks to Will Buckingham of thinkbuddha.org I recently read Cordelia Fine's little book A Mind of it's Own. In it she makes the point that physiologically speaking it virtually impossible to tell the difference between emotions: her example focuses on fear and anger which are physically indistinguishable. The only difference is in your thoughts apparently. Emotion, she says, is arousal + emotional thoughts. What seems to be happening in the West is that we are seeking out more and more stimulating experiences, at the same time as substituting virtual contact via the internet, email, and virtual reality games, for real human contact. The media reflects this desire for more intense and more frequent stimulation. However this is a characteristic of addictive substances also - the addict needs more frequent, and higher strength doses, in order to get the same effect. Overdose is not uncommon because of this.

The Buddha's advice for those unable to disentangle themselves from sensory experience was to apply appamāda (vigilance*), and guard the gates of the sense; or as my teacher Sangharakshita says: reduce input. I decline to watch violence violent images in the media these days as I can tell that they have a lasting deleterious effect on my mental health.

Live long, and prosper.


* appamāda can be translated more literally as not blind drunk on the objects of the senses. I expand on this a bit in my essay on the Buddha's last words.
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