Bloodshed and Tears: An Ethical Look into Violence at the Movies

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Throughout the ages, artists have always had to contend with censorship. Going all the way back to the Renaissance era of art, almost all of it was regulated by the Roman Catholic Church and artists had to find ways around the church’s stance to get their message across to fellow observers. This was a much more dangerous time than today, where people could be killed for different ideas or using a subject matter than was deemed intolerable. Censorship can be really seen as an obstruction to what that piece of art is saying or its ideals in order to suppress them. It’s a form of Fascism, no matter anyway you spin it, no matter how noble it may seem. Where do you draw the line to regulate such things? Is it a painting? Or is it more than just your conventional artwork? Does film fall under the umbrella of art? Many could look at it as just plain entertainment, but if that’s all they see movies as, then obviously they have gone beyond the stereotypical Hollywood summer blockbuster film production. Even they have parallels to the great Greek adventure stories of old. Film is this generation’s greatest form of art. “Not only does film provide pure entertainment to audiences across the world, it is also known as the seventh art” (Bergan 7). Unfortunately with film being so young, it comes under fire from almost all fronts from its very earliest inception. It was called “the gateway to hell” (Sex, Censorship, and the Silver Screen: The Early Decades) and many screamed for not only police regulation but government as well. D.W Griffith, director of such unforgettable films such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Intolerance”(1917), was very outspoken against censorship, however even a voice from the man that gave birth to many of the modern day versions of film, could stop the progress of censorship. By the 1920s, in fears of government censorship, the studios created their own censorship group that every film had to be approved by. Before that in the Supreme Court case, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the government ruled that film wasn’t an art form and therefore was not protected under the first amendment. Throughout the proceeding decades, films challenged the censors and slowly they became more lenient. In another case Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, the Supreme Court overturned what had occurred in the first Supreme Court case. Film was art, and is protected under the first amendment. The censors slowly started to die out. In 1968, the censer group was disbanded all together in favor of the “new” MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) under the leadership of Jack Valenti. Over time the violence stayed bloody and was getting progressively more graphic over time (This Film is Not Yet Rated). It is no secret that the highest grossing movies of all time featured plenty of action, violence, and battle sequences on screen. None of it was significantly questioned until 1999.

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The date was April 20th, 1999. The setting was Littleton, Colorado at the Columbine High School. The event was a mass shooting constructed and executed by two fellow Columbine Students named Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Fifteen were dead, plus another 21 injured. This was one of the first mass school shooting to hit the United States rural areas. This raised some serious questions on the nature of violence in our lives. What was it exactly? Was it violent movies? Was it violent video games? Was it angry music? Was that to blame for the school shootings? Nearly everyone was pointing figures at everybody. It was at that time people started to question if any of the violence in the movies had any effect on children? With each mass shooting to follow, people constantly kept struggling with that question. None further exemplified that question then the 2012 shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. During the midnight premiere of the much anticipated film “The Dark Knight Rises”, 24 year old, James Holmes, dressed in similar makeup to the Batman villain, the Joker, and ran into the theater killing over 15 people and injured another 50. Did he do it because of what the Joker did in “The Dark Knight” (2008)? Or was it that he was going to do it anyway and he just thought the Joker looked “cool” and since the movie was about Batman he’d figure to go dressed as the Joker? If he was going to a Spiderman movie would he get dressed up as a Spiderman Villain? None of these questions will probably ever be answered. All it does is raise more questions. Researchers say there just isn’t a link between violent movies and mass school shootings. There isn’t any clear-cut evidence, so far. We know that many people of the public will be pushing for more research. What the future has in store for us is yet to be seen. So that brings us to yet another question. Should we be on the safe side and censor the graphic violence on screen in order to be on “the safe side” until we know for certain that it has no effect? That brings to all sort of ethical problems arising from that. How can you do that without violating first amendment rights? If you should censor these films, then what credibility do the amendments have? Should we be focusing on greater good as oppose to what our amendments say? Do we have a duty to shield our children or even ourselves to these images being put on screen? Does it matter now? Some people and politicians are crying out for it. Should we just do to make people feel safer?

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We can look at these questions through the lens of philosophy which is described byProfessor of Philosophy, Leonard Peikoff as “man’s relationship to reality” (A video lecture by Leonard Peikoff, AynRand Institute). This is broken up into several different fields, according to Peikoff, with that includes Metaphysics, which deals with the nature of reality, and Epistemology, which is the question of knowledge, “how do you know that you know?” Converging underneath that is ethics. The most simplistic way to describe ethics is the question of what is right and what is wrong? How do you want to live your life? Can we exam the issue of censorship in the movies with ethical thought? The answer is of course you can. Taking this issue and examining it from three different schools of thought, Utilitarianism, Kaant’s Duty Ethics, and Situational Relativism, we’ll be able to see if there is any ethical or moral thread really attached to this issue

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The first thing to analyze is the ethical approach, Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the ethical school of thought that the course of action you take should be for the greater good. So what is the greater good in this situation? It’s hard to come up with a definitive answer to that question. Since studies cannot find a link between on screen violence and violent crimes as a whole, how do you find what is the greater good? You would have to turn to the people of the United States and if a great majority of them agree it’s time to limit violence on screen then that would be considered “the greater good”. But all polls on public opinion aren’t reliable up to this point. Nearly all of them hover around 50% of the people polled think there should be more policies limiting on screen violence. An Associated Press-GfK poll in January of 2013 showed that 54% of adults would like to see policies changed, but even that isn’t enough to go with a Utilitarianism point of view with limiting film violence (Noveck). This poll is of only 1000 people. The population of the United States is 313,914,040 (“USA Quickfacts”).That means this poll only represents 3.1% of the United States. The next 1000 people could have completely different views than the last 1000 or the next 1000, and so on. The only way to know for sure is to poll nearly all the citizens of the United States and that hasn’t happened so this issue of movie censorship from a Utilitarian point of view, the American movie industry would remain unchanged.

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You run into the same problems with Kant’s duty ethics. Kant’s Duty Ethics is about doing the right thing. So we ask ourselves the question, what is the right thing to do? The United States is a very culturally diverse country. People come from all different backgrounds and places; therefore, everyone would have a completely different view on what the right thing to do is. It’s the same problem that “The League of Nations” came into when they formed shortly after World War I.This league was formed in an effort to stop all future wars. The “League of Nations” found difficulty coming up with an ethical code to live by. They found that everyone has a completely different idea of right and wrong and therefore, could not find one simple ethical code to live by. The only way to apply Kant’s Duty Ethics to this situation is if they were definitive proof that there was a link between violent crimes and violent films, which at this point, there is no evidence that can point to that as a fact. Is the right thing to do is to show more films about love? Would that make it a better place, that type of influence? National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre had this to say, “We have blood soaked films out there, like “American Psycho” and “Natural Born Killers” that are aired like propaganda loops on splatter days” (Mass Tea Party).Does love or violence in film create a worse society? Howard Suber, a ULCA film school professor, has a different idea, “There are those who think that love will produce a just world, and those who think that violence will. Any examination of human history shows that both methods have repeatedly been tried, and neither, by itself, has produced the intended result. That’s bad for humanity, good for drama” (399-400). That brings us to the final ethical school of thought that we will exam for this issue, Situational Relativism.

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Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest, created the ethics behind the views and in its most simplistic form, states that sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations in order to make a decision that would otherwise go against your principals but(in theory) be the right decision (Situation Ethics). So for this situation we look at the issue from a whole different perspective. We can eliminate the fact that Supreme Court recognizes it as an art form and protected under the first amendment and focus on the situation at hand, without getting bogged down in law details. Should these films be censored just because these violent mass school shootings happenedso we, as a society, can be on the “safe side” in the future? That is probably the most difficult to answer because is there really a safe side? The crime rate (including violent crimes) in the United States frequently goes up and down. Currently in this century, the overall crime rate is at its lowest since the big jump in the mid-1970s and 1980s (United States Crime Rate). Murder is also dropping. From 2008-2011, all violent crime and murder have been down. The only year recently that those two stats were up was last year in 2012. Not by much and most of it can be attributed to the mass shootings in Aurora and Sandy Hook Elementary School (Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report, January-December, 2012, FBI.Gov).Looking at these crime statistics it suggests that censoring movies isn’t really the thing you have to do at the moment. Films are at their bloodiest in history, yet even with these mass school shootings, there is no “Situational Relativism” to apply with this issue.

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Think of this issue from this point of view. Thousands if not millions of people flock to these violent movies, yet now crime is down according to FBI records, and these people who go these movies will takes kids with them, and yet out all of those people, how many of them go out and perform acts of violent crimes? How many of them go on mass shooting sprees? The amount is nearly non-existent. How many people as kids played Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers? How many people who played those games grew up to be violent killers? Back before movies or comic books or video games or “hateful” music, parents use to take their kids to public executions.What happen to those kids when they saw real violence as oppose to stylized fake violence of the movies? How about in Roman times when kids went and saw lions eat live people in the coliseum? According to Dr. Andrew Weaver assistant professor at Indiana University concludes through his research that “watching a horror film gives us back some control. We experience an adverse event through film, and we know that it will end. We’ll survive it. We’ll go on with our lives” (Madigan 41). What really happens when someone watches a violent act and they know it’s real has been studied. In a famous study, reported in the same article by Madigan, people knew what they saw in a movie was fake. The researchers had viewer watch a real-life violent act “authentic scenes of live monkeys having their brains scooped out and of children having their facial skin peeled away in preparation from surgery.” These viewers, realizing that the scenes were real, stopped watching and refused to finish viewing the film. “We seem to need to know it’s fake” (Madigan 41).

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People have been seeing real violence throughout the ages of mankind, kids and adults, yet once movies came along we started to blame them for violent crimes. Why? The answer is we never want to take responsibility for our own actions or look at a more complex answer, whether it be mental health or parenting in America or even education. Asian films are much more violent than American movies yet why aren’t they censored? Canada isn’t having the discussion of censoring movies so why is America? Canada also has much less gun violence and crime. According to Lionel Chetwynd, a film and movie producer
Canadians are subjected to virtually the identical popular entertainment as Americans. . . . And yet, Canada appears virtually free of the enervating social pathologies that erode American society. . . . How do the critics of Hollywood explain this? . . . If our popular culture is the cancer-causing virus, why is the annual homicide rate for all of Canada roughly the same as a tough long weekend in Los Angeles? (Clark).

Unfortunately when writing a paper like this you come up with more questions than answers. I recently conducted an interview with an retired Suffolk County Police Officer, whose decided to withhold his name and his alias will be known as John Corey, said the following, “I think movies have always been violent since they have been around. It’s not a recent thing…whether or not it affects people is an interesting question one that hasn’t been able to be fully answered but there isn’t enough evidence” (Corey).

Patrick Shaw, a senior editor with Gamepro Magazine sees it as an “overblown issue”. “I haven’t had much of a history of violence at all despite my lifelong obsession with horror, gore, and slicing people in half with chain saws in games. I’m not saying we should start handing toddlers copies of ‘Manhunt’. There just needs to be some sort parental involvement” (Kushner 34).

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Going back to Leonard Peikoff’s description of philosophy there are still two more categories. After the three already mentioned (Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics), there is Politics, which is how we choose to govern ourselves and one last one called Aesthetics. Aesthetics is the question of what is art. What makes art good or bad? How do we define it? It’s established that we define film as an art form and is therefore protected under first amendment rights. Under that platform and the fact that there is no evidence to support that violent movies lead to violent crimes shouldn’t movies not be censored?

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