It’s been quite a while since I wrote a post here. That’s not because I haven’t been reading books or not viewing other media. But it happens that much of what I’ve been reading lately hasn’t been the science fiction / fantasy that we usually dissect here. So here’s a partial list of what I’ve read or viewed in the past few months:
I was part of the team that observed the binary asteroid 2004 BL86 recently.
2. Various public health / epidemiology / medical research material. These have ranged from extremely positive (e.g. Hep C could now be potentially eradicated!) to anxiety-inducing (e.g. antichloinergic drugs – in very common use – appear to be associated with higher risk of developing dementia) to preliminary research that is too early to form opinions on (e.g. projects to identify genetic predispositions to various diseases in different cohorts and what those could imply for future prevention efforts).
3. Quite a lot of material on intersectional social justice. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do here; my reading lately has focused on but not been limited to efforts to simulanteously address racism, sexism, heterosexism, and gender essentialism. I have some biases in what problems I’ve been educating myself on – I’ve tried in particular to read up on problems in current US culture and in the scientific community, since those spaces are where I spend most of my time.
For the classic Chinese novels, as with a lot of other media past and current, I’ve had to invoke Anita Sarkeesian‘s rule: “it is both possible and necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects”.
For example: One of the main characters in the novel 水滸傳 / Shuǐhǔ zhuàn / “Outlaws of the Marsh” or “Water Margin” is called 宋江 / Sòng Jiān. He starts as a clerk for the government, but helps the titular outlaws steal a large amount of money and takes a payment from them. His estranged wife discovers his involvement, and threatens to report him unless he divorces her. He kills her. And we are meant to be sympathetic to him. In another episode in the novel, some of the designated-hero outlaws become sworn fictive brothers with a cannibalistic serial killer who had drugged them into unconsciousness and was going to murder and butcher them until he figured out who they were – apparently not having a problem with his killing and eating people, as long as he isn’t killing them. So yeah. Not so much. Lots of Values Dissonance there.
5. I have read some scifi lately. Specifically, books from C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting. I may do a post about them at some point.
This time, I’m going to put out a few thoughts I’ve had about how violence is portrayed in fiction in general. While this connects to some previous posts, the patterns that have been bothering me are properties of fiction in general rather than just science fiction, fantasy, or superhero stories.
This isn’t some nonsense like “video games make people violent” (there is no obvious such relationship). It’s more indirect than that. I’m worrying about how violence is portrayed in fiction and how that reflects and influences how people perceive violence in reality.
Why Are You Fighting Someone?
Let’s start with what may seem a relatively minor example: sports movies. Most particularly football movies, hockey movies, boxing movies, and the recently-popular mixed-martial arts movies. The generic plot goes something like this: underdog player gets beaten badly initially, goes through extended practice and training, and wins the championship/the big game against a rival. The problem I have with this is not the basic hero’s journey plot. It’s that people are inflicting horrendous trauma on each other, fundamentally for only one reason: the entertainment of others. Some people would still like contact sports and fighting even if, in fiction and in reality, they weren’t glorified and paid for doing so. But the rate would be lower.
Of the examples I gave, boxing is probably the worst. Dementia pugilistica is documented in 15%-20% of former professional boxers, the legacy of a history of repeated concussions. Mixed-martial arts fighters have a somewhat lower rate of serious head injuries, because not all fights go to knock-out. The injury rates of American football and ice hockey are not quite as high, but are still horrendous. You all may draw the boundary lines for the acceptable levels of injury at different points, but the idea of glorifying excessive violence that happens just for people’s entertainment should be opposed by everyone. This is not a new point, of course.
In other cases, fictional heroes are motivated to violence by revenge. Hunting down and killing everyone who was even remotely involved in hurting a child is a popular one. But how is a Roaring Rampage of Revenge heroic? Killing a bunch of people doesn’t reverse whatever it was that they did. Sometimes overwhelming retribution is shallowly justified as “justice”. But even someone who was as much of an authoritarian social dominator as Hammurabi was should be able to understand that retribution has to be limited.
Is Fighting Someone Really A Good Idea?
Other times, fictional violence may be in the name of a justifiable cause – fighting The Evil Empire, stopping a terrorist attack, taking down an organized crime syndicate.
But is that violence really a good way to accomplish your goal? If the military of The Empire is willing to blow up a planet with 2 billion people on it just to scare more people, destroying the weapon that can do that may be the only way out – even if that kills 250,000 in the process. But if destroying the replacement to it would sterilize an entire planet of civilians, that is not a good idea.
And in reality, extended wars usually kill more people indirectly from displacement and disruption of vital services than are killed directly in combat (e.g. consider the casualty figures from WWII). Many war movies don’t acknowledge that at all, and glorify the violence as solving a problem without showing the incredibly high cost. How much does that contribute to people not considering anything other than violent confrontation in dealing with social problems?
As a final example, consider the TV series 24. Jack Bauer is supposedly heroic, but goes around torturing people – not exactly a fight, but incredibly and gratuitously violent. In real life, torture is not effective at obtaining information from people and causes horrendous pain. Anyone who acts like Jack Bauer is not a hero. He or she is a villain.
I will not say that violence in fiction is bad. But when fictional characters who are gratuitously violent either for no good reason or in a way that defeats their supposed justifiable goal are presented as heroic, there is a potential problem.