Limiting Free Speech (7): Violence in the Media and Real Life Violence

Conventional wisdom says that violent films, violent video games, violent song lyrics or even news stories about violence, lead to an increase in violent crime. On the basis of this causal link, some argue that the right to free speech of movie makers and others should be limited and they should be forced to show restraint when depicting violence. And if they don’t, some measure of benevolent censorship should be applied. The use of movie ratings, which do not limit freedom of speech, isn’t enough. It’s useful to protect children – probably the most impressionable part of humanity – but if violence in movies incites real violence, there’s no reason to think that this is only the case for children.

Is this conventional wisdom true? It probably is, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that limiting free speech is the right kind of remedy. Many studies have pointed out that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior because

  • it renders viewers insensitive,
  • excites them,
  • changes their moral compass (especially in the case of young viewers),
  • and gives them ideas (people, also adults, learn through imitation).

However, another study claimed that movie violence might temper the real thing:

On days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower. And crime is not merely delayed until after the credits run. In the hours after theatres close — from midnight to 6 a.m. the next day — violent crimes dropped. Violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs. Instead of fueling up at bars and then roaming around looking for trouble, potential criminals pass the prime hours for mayhem eating popcorn and watching celluloid villains slay in their stead. “You’re taking a lot of violent people off the streets and putting them inside movie theaters,” said one of the authors of the study, Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. “In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.” Over the last decade the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1,000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year. (source)

Such things are difficult to prove. Who can say that a movie is the cause of a particular crime? And who can redo the events to see what would have happened had the criminal not seen the movie? Or the other way around: if you claim that moviegoers forgo activities that have a greater tendency to encourage mayhem, like drinking and drug use, how can you prove that they would have been more likely to have committed a crime had they not visited the cinema?

Any act of violence has multiple and complex causes. One person can sit through hours of violent movies and remain his own calm self. Another person turns violent because of one wrong word. He or she may be burdened by low self-esteem as a result of years of childhood negligence, poverty etc. The problems is: if there have to be limits on the freedom of expression of artists, these have to be the same for all viewers. You can’t check at the ticket stand of a cinema if a person has violent tendencies that may be aggravated by a violent movie. You just have to cut away the violent scenes from the movie. And then you’ll always be overshooting (pardon the expression) because you’re protecting many viewers who don’t need protection since they will not be incited to violence.

But better safe than sorry and cut the violence anyway? I don’t think so. Freedom of expression and artistic expression are extremely important. It’s likely that other measures, short of censorship, and intervention earlier in the causal chain of violence will be more successful in stopping or limiting violence.

2 thoughts on “Limiting Free Speech (7): Violence in the Media and Real Life Violence”

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