Violent media may have a cathartic role in healthy lives

Recent shootings by young men familiar with violent media-movies, video games, music-have focused our attention once more on what to do about it. To what extent should society and parents try to limit young people's access to such media?

This question has been around for a very long time. It was first raised by Plato (427–347 B.C.), the ancient Greek philosopher who, in his masterpiece, The Republic, argued for severe censorship of the media. Plato thought that in an ideal society citizens should not be exposed to literature or woven tapestries that demeaned the gods, or celebrated bad deeds. In reply to the defense that such things are, after all, just fiction, Plato insisted: "The young can't distinguish what is allegorical from what isn't, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable." And he recommended taking "the utmost care to insure that the first stories they hear about virtue are the best ones for them to hear" (387d). When pressed for examples Plato mainly turned to scenes from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

The basic concern is that children get bad ideas from the media, and we can minimize that by limiting their exposure. This is exactly what many concerned people are saying now, too. Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was recently quoted as saying: “Too many children grow up surrounded by images of violence and hate on video games, in music lyrics, on television, and on the Internet. Children don't create those images, adults do. We need to take a good hard look at what our culture is celebrating.” The issue also extends to the question of whether parents should let their boys play with “boy toys.”

It is not fashionable to defend violent media. What defense there is tends to come from those concerned to protect free speech and oppose censorship on principle. But it is worth examining whether violent media play a positive function for us. After all, the attraction to violent video games, horror movies, and heavy metal music hardly seems as though it is just a perverse taste foisted on people by large corporations. It seems likely that these media tap something in us, or in some of us. They do something for (some of) us that is not simply bad.

This possibility has also been around for a very long time. Plato's student, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) made the case, in his Poetics and his Politics, that tragic plays had a cathartic effect on the audience. In real life people are going to have negative emotions in them. Aristotle mentioned fear and pity, but his account works as well for anger, aggression, and alienation. We can debate about how those feelings got there-is it just through the media, or do they have a hormonal or cultural source? Parents who try to raise their boys without boy-toys soon learn how hard it is to avoid the desire for them. But when people do have those emotions, what should we do? Repressing or ignoring them seems doomed to failure, as they inevitably display themselves in some, perhaps worse, way eventually. Aristotle thought that tragic plays engaged and cultivated those negative emotions in the spectacle of the performance. But the audience was then relieved of them vicariously through witnessing their effects in the performance. Art could bring negative emotions to the surface and lance the boil they created. The audience did not have to play out those emotions themselves. Aristotle thought Sophocles' Oedipus Rex was a prime example of this.

Modern violent media could often be playing this role as well. Chris Cornell, of the recently disbanded heavy-metal group “Soundgarden,” said: "If you think of visceral music and aggressive music, it takes the place of actually going out and shooting somebody in the head. It gives you a chance to release those dangerous impulses without hurting yourself or anyone else.”

Since it is hard to know how to weigh all the influences on young people, it is tempting to oversimplify the issues. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas says: “Some parents may need to conduct search-and-destroy missions in their teen-ager's room, tearing down posters that depict violence and sex, throwing out music CDs with violent and hate-filled lyrics.” But until we know how to insure that our young people have no negative emotions (and I'm not sure we even want to insure that), we would do well, as Aristotle recommended, to try hard to appreciate what roles violent media play in their lives.

Instead of being moralistic and judgmental, as Plato was, we need to find ways to open up communication with young people who find violent media appealing. We need to help them, and ourselves, find relatively harmless and healthy ways to acknowledge and express negative emotions. Violent media may have a role to play in that, despite the revulsion of some. And since genuine communication is a two-way street, it should open us and our social structures to real assessment from youth. Perhaps there are things well worth their being angry or alienated about. Hearing this may be threatening to some of us, but I think it is good. After all, few of us have the confidence that Plato had that our republic is ideal.

James C. Klagge
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Virginia Tech; Blacksburg, Virginia