28 May 1999
The nonsense effect
Andrew Calcutt puts 'effects theory' on the couch
What does Eidos, creator of computer-game babe Lara Croft, have in common with film director Oliver Stone? They both have US lawsuits filed against them by aggrieved individuals who maintain that their work has been a culpable factor in crimes of violence. Stone is being sued after a real-life shooting by a couple resembling the psychotic duo in Natural Born Killers, and, along with 24 other computer game publishers and console manufacturers, Eidos has been served with a writ in relation to a high-school shooting several years ago.
The idea that media violence causes real-life violence is not new. 'Penny dreadful' comics, jazz, rock'n'roll, and even the music hall have all been accused of causing antisocial behaviour. In the 1980s charges were brought against 'video nasties', culminating in the Video Recordings Act (1983). A decade later, following the killing of Merseyside toddler James Bulger by two older boys, Child's Play 3 was in the dock. After the high-school shootings in Colorado last month, the US Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission announced a joint investigation into 'the link' between violent crime and violence in music, film and computer gaming. The assumption that media violence begets real-life violence has never been more widespread.
Not that there is any evidence of such a relationship. Time and again, the alleged connection between a particular film and particular acts of violence (Child's Play 3 and the killing of Jamie Bulger, Natural Born Killers and a shooting spree in France) has been found wanting. Likewise, the 'effects theories' which maintain that media violence prompts real violence remain unsubstantiated. Whether psychologists encourage people to stick pins in dolls after seeing a violent crime, or interview groups of young offenders about what gets them going, their experiments have never revealed the dynamic which leads to actual violence in the real world.
Let's give the psychologists a taste of their own medicine and see if we can establish what kind of mentality gives rise to the assumption that screen violence causes the real thing. To set up a continuum between the former and the latter, you really do have to lose sight of the distinction between fact and fiction. Secondly, you need a pretty low opinion of humanity. If adult human beings simply mimic received stimuli, that puts us on a level with monkeys: man sees violence, man does violence - monkey see, monkey do.
Even when the relationship between screen and real violence is held to be 'more complex', the underlying frame of mind may not be much more edifying. Many of today's commentators shy away from saying that fictional violence can be the single, causal factor for real violence. They would rather have it that screen violence is one of a number of factors which may increase probabilities and confirm trends in that direction. Sounds more sophisticated, but the simple fact is that this version is equally dismissive of the rational capabilities of human beings; it too loses sight of our capacity for taking responsibility and working things out. We are now being driven by a plethora of interacting factors, so it is said; but that means we are still not seen as being in the driving seat.
The fictional-real violence correlation is ostensibly an observation about the outside world and the 'vulnerable' people in it. But it is really a projection of the internal world of the people who make that correlation. It says more about them than it does about the people it purports to describe. It shows that most commentators no longer have the nerve to uphold key concepts like responsibility and autonomy. They see themselves, and everybody else, as victims of circumstances beyond our control. If they were serving on a jury dealing with the case of a burglar who claimed he went out on the rob after watching the Shopping Channel ('QVC made me do it, guv'), the logic of their position would be both to acquit him (no responsibility, therefore no guilt) and to commit him indefinitely to a mental hospital on the grounds of his incurable vulnerability.
The mental make-up of today's commentators is the causal factor in the unprecedented influence of 'effects theory'. The latter is increasingly impervious to factual counter-analysis because it is less and less concerned with the world of verifiable facts and identifiable causes. The influence of 'effects theory' is itself an effect of the poor state of mind among today's intelligentsia.
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