Monday, May 2, 2011

Violence and the Media As Commented on by Suzanne Collins

During my Easter visit to my in-laws I just finished the two sequels to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. These are very well-written books with gripping plots. While I was left a bit disappointed with the ending of Mockingjay, both books certainly construct a frighteningly intelligent dystopia. The reader can't help but cheer the main characters to fight against it.

The two main ideas that gripped me with these three novels, and this becomes increasingly clear in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, is the relationship between the media, spectacle and violence. There is almost no violence un these books that does not take place in front of the camera, at least until the third book, and even in Mockingjay, our Heroine Katniss is part of a military squad whose main purpose is to engage in light combat and be filmed.

Now I'm the first person to admit that I enjoy some violent fare every now and then (especially first-person shooters), but I think it's also true that violent media can get a bit overwhelming. The Hunger Games novels makes it clear how violent entertainment can also be a way to control a population. This isn't just with the annual choosing of young people to fight in the Hunger Games, a process designed to demoralize the subjugated districts in the novel. The fact of the game itself becomes an all-consuming phenomenon; even if a resident doesn't want to watch the games, he/she can't help but because it's televised so widely. It becomes the overriding culture of the moment.

I'm reminded a little of the Superbowl. This annual game is always one of the biggest media events of the year, and, let's face it, it's kind of violent. The Super Bowl certainly isn't Roman Colosseum-level violence — we thankfully haven't gone to that level of depravity — but the game isn't gentle. Now I'm not trying to condemn the Superbowl here; all I'm saying is that there does seem to be something in the human psyche that desires this kind of experience, a mass-level hyper-competitive spectacle. Thank God we have something like the Superbowl, actually. While players do get hurt, at least their well-paid participation is by choice. The losers do walk off the field sadly, but at least, unlike in ancient Rome, they get to walk off the field.

I'm reminded also about stories I heard about the early years of the Civil War, where families would picnic and watch the battles unfold. Whatever the cause of this, we do seem to be a society that enjoys watching violence. Where does it come from? Frustration with modern life? The necessary suppression of the id by the superego? Whatever the cause, it's a part of human civilization. The good part about books like The Hunger Games and its sequels is that it points out the unsavory aspect of this, while also reminding us that we're participating in the spectacle by reading and enjoying the book.

1 comment:

  1. We keep finding evidence for more and more twigs on the evolutionary branch by which we arose from our common ancestor with chimps. Why did all those other human-like apes become extinct? I can't stop myself from wondering if we are here today because our ancestors evolved brains that are well-suited for paying attention to violence. If so, that would not mean that we are, as a species, "genetically programed" to be violent. Some research suggests that when children are exposed to violence, their behavior can adapt to match the violent environment. It might be that we instinctively pay attention to acts of violence...failure to do so might be why other human-like primates did not survive. Some people develop a very active behavioral reaction to violence: "reactive aggression". I wonder if you have seen the film "The Dark Knight".