Showing posts with label Violence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Violence. Show all posts

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 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.

22 April 2006

Armed forces and non-violence

NZ troops at Gallipoli
NZ Listener
Recently a man has been in the news. Mr Kember was rescued from being abducted in Iraq. He apparently did not express sufficient gratefulness to the army for rescuing him. His reasoning was, apparently that the army were the cause of his kidnap in the first place, and that had they not invaded Iraq a lot of killing and suffering might not have happened. This is all up for debate in the media and one can hear, see or read a variety of opinions on the subject. Will of has written some very salient articles on conditionality recently (1, 2, 3) . Isn't it interesting how, by focusing on different aspects of the infinite web of conditions, we can come to polar opposite conclusions about an event.

I wanted to look at one aspect of this web of conditions. The 25th of April is ANZAC Day in New Zealand (and in Australia). This is an interesting public holiday. On the surface it is a simple commemoration of the dead in both World Wars, and in particular the first. Below the surface however is another current. Ask any New Zealander and they will tell you that the New Zealanders' sense of identity as distinct from the English emerged during this time. Gallipoli stands out as representing the New Zealand experience of WWI - a futile, strategically useless attack on what may have been the strongest part of the Turkish defences. What Churchill was thinking is not clear to most people, and we might speculate that perhaps his heavy drinking started well before he became Prime Minister. The New Zealanders, who were, it must be said a minority on the beaches at Gallipoli, came to see themselves, like I do, as not English. Having spent four years living in England I can tell you that I get daily reminders that I am in a foreign culture.

ANZAC Day then is a day which celebrates national identity. And that identity has been bound up from the beginning with the military. Our National Anthem beseeches God to protect us from the shafts of strife and war.

About 12 years ago I became a Buddhist. Having spent my teenage years being convinced that Ronald Raygun was going to start a nuclear war with Russia, I didn't think much of the military. Buddhism reinforced these views. I became quite rabidly anti-military. I probably even, without any sense of irony, became angry about the activities of the military. I celebrated the father of New Zealand poet James K. Baxter. Archibald Baxter was a 'conshie', a conscientious objector, who refused to fight. He was tried, convicted and sent to the front in France. One of his punishments was to suspended by his thumbs above the trenches to provide the enemy with target practice. He survived and wrote a little book about it. I was deeply moved by Baxter's story, and convinced about the utter brutality of the army, and that there was nothing positive about the military at all.

Then one day I was walking down the main street in Auckland. I hadn't registered that it was close to ANZAC Day, and was a bit surprised to find myself watching a parade of old soldiers, some marching, some riding old military vehicles. Something made me look at these men. I saw old men, a bit stiff, a bit sombre, looking ahead, all wearing their medals. They had a sad dignity about them. And then something clicked and I saw how these men, these flesh and blood humans, had fought in wars half way around the world. They did so for different reasons. Some would have believed in the course, signed up and experienced a sense of fervour perhaps. Others would have been less willing. All survived but had watched friends and comrades being killed. I found myself moved by the sight of them. Tears welled up. These men had fought for me, foolishly perhaps, but they did so, and I felt some empathy for them.

Later I came across something written by Dharmacari Subhuti. He gave my relatively incoherent emotional response a more reasoned basis. Subhuti reminded me that I enjoy considerable freedom. That freedom was won, in part at least, by those old soldiers fighting Hitler in Europe. Whatever the rights and wrongs, whatever the conditions, I knew that I should feel grateful that some men had laid down their lives so that I could enjoy my freedoms today.

So I've come to have a more complex view of the military. I'm still resolutely opposed to violence, and to the use of force. But I recognise that others are not, that there are other people who are quite willing to use violence, and who are willing to fight, to kill, to achieve their ends. And I acknowledge that I want to be protected from being attacked and killed. So while I personally try to refrain from any acts of violence, and try to immediately confess any acts which stray into that territory, I would be a hypocrite if I maintained the view that the military is entirely evil. It would be hypocritical because I benefit from it.

The situation today is far from morally clear - we westerners appear to be benefiting from wars of aggression in the Middle East. I don't pretend to understand all of the arguments, and don't have space to go into any of that here. But I want to acknowledge that men and women have killed and died, so that I may enjoy the freedom to practise the religion of my choice - of which non-violence is the highest value. And that is one of the greatest koans of our times.