The Ernest Becker Foundation
|LOV V: Violence and the Media|
The Fifth Love of Violence Conference (LOV V) convened on October 22, 1999 to consider the topic: "Violence and the Media." Speakers reflected Becker's interdisciplinary thinking as they reported and questioned the existing dialectic between the individuals' search for well being (positive self-esteem) and the existing cultural hero systems that valorize violence and foster cultural isolation. (A recurring theme among lecturers at the conference was this country's need to actively support one another, especially young people in society.)
The keynoter, Kirby Farrell, set the tone by speaking on "The Berserk Style in American Culture." Two prominent and thoughtful media personalities were there as panelists throughout the conference, and Farrell's theme of style-a theme the media realize they help set-got them and the audience connected to the humanities in a jump start. Farrell roamed expansively and brilliantly through history, literature, and philosophy, highlighting our ambiguity toward berserk "losing it" violence. He connected our belief systems (individualism, competition, survival magic) to real killings (Littleton, Grenada) and depictions of stylized and sanitized acted-out killings ("no stinking rotting corpses"). We magically create and kill "enemies," without punishment, in video games and movies (Mortal Kombat, Doom, Rambo, Death Wish). Farrell always ties our motivation back to Denial of Death (seeking godlike power and invulnerability).
The speakers that followed further deepened the connections to underlying themes and panel discussions following each morning and afternoon session provided additional clarity and definition. Panelists, in addition to the featured speakers, included Kay McFadden, Seattle Times TV critic, and Steve Knight, news director of KIRO and KMWX radio. Exchanges between panelists, speakers and audience were sometimes sharp but mostly good-natured and fostered better understanding of the "Catch22" position of the media as "for profit" businesses while supposedly serving the public interest.
Henry Richards, a forensic psychologist, pointed out the increasing reliance of the media on fearsome but enviable psychopathic violence to portray potency. The inhumanity of the psychopath can even be seen as virtuous as he erases ambiguity and deals with God-like strength and certainty to resolve conflict single-mindedly. He unhesitatingly defines public enemies and scapegoats and dispatches them without remorse, quite unaware that he is appealing to the unconscious denial of death and facilitating the return of barbarous mythic archetypes of renewal and immortality. Using Becker's insights, Richards helped us understand the envy of evil and demythologized the psychopathic way of living.
Mark Powers, an executive in the broadcasting industry, noted that our fascination with violence makes it inevitable that the media will continue to provide it; our need to narrow down the world to manageable concepts offers media the opportunity to cater to us-they provide our cake (violence) while permitting us to scapegoat them for the simplified (and violent) views they present. If only TV could let us see ourselves through the eyes of others, whom we would see as equals, not as "different" and hence "not OK." Seeing ourselves as essentially equal and similar requires a "leap of faith into a labyrinth of infinite truth-a difficult task." The genesis of Columbine, Mark says, lies not in "my absolute truth but your death-denying delusion."
Jeff Greenberg, experimental social psychologist, U. Arizona, used the insights of Ernest Becker and representative scenes from two movies (Martin Scorcese's deeply disturbing treatise on urban violence, Taxi Driver, and Matty Rich's brutally vivid tragedy of an urban African-American family, Straight Out of Brooklyn) to make the case that some portrayals of violence are important and necessary because of their ability to reveal socio-cultural antecedents and environments that incubate such responses. Without justifying those actions or minimizing their tragic consequences, Jeff pointed out that we all have responsibility for many of the circumstances that contribute to violence. We all pursue self-esteem and meaning in human relations, and if society fails to do its part in providing for basic human needs, we all share in the responsibility.
Sociologist Joanne Cantor appreciates these conflicting valences and, with data, strongly advocated the V-chip, urging that parents should control the TV viewing of their children. She also called attention to the dramatic methods of presenting violence in movies and TV: evocative music, prolonged scenes of violence, especially violent close-ups and particularly grotesque images. Such images can bother people for years after being viewed.
Two professors from the UW School of Communications, Kevin Kawamoto and Roger Simpson, spoke about the discrepancies created by the media in presenting the news (actually violence is down while reporting of it has increased), the growing business school mindset that favors the bottom line in news department front offices, and the effects of reporting stressful incidents on the reporters. Roger Simpson wants to change the overly heroic, tough, and dispassionate culture of the reporter. He believes that reporters will do better interviews of victims if they themselves work in an atmosphere that encourages a depth understanding, even of denial of death. He urges role playing and "buddy debriefing" to help them deal with their own anguish and to be more sensitive to the victims of violence.
Jim Hernandez ranks the media one of six major risk factors for violence along with guns, alcohol and drugs; incarceration; community deterioration; and the witnessing of violent acts. A student of Kierkegaard, Fromm, and Becker, he works the violent streets of Concord, CA and laments the lack of good models for young people, especially in TV and movies. He especially criticizes TV for failing to follow up on its stories of violence, for probing wounds, then leaving the scene for the next event. Jim performed a sad rap poem of his own composition as a powerful finale.
Dan Liechty did the wrap-up calling for Becker's Aesthetics of Democracy to be used as the template. He noted the interrelated ideas of freedom, conformity, and censorship of the artist and individual in society and the tensions created in a constitutional democracy that uses state power to limit state power. Although Becker approved of maximum individuality within maximum community, he knew that the state undermines itself if freedom is curtailed by censorship. Government must stretch beyond the merely comfortable and safe; it must incorporate positions that challenge and expand, that encourage dissent without being subverted by the psychotic fringe.
A special final panel on Sunday morning dealt with the varied views of psychologists toward memory, repression, consciousness, and unconscious motivation extant today. The Becker-researching experimentalists Greenberg and Solomon welcomed two renowned colleagues from the UW, Elizabeth Loftus and Anthony Greenwald. Kirby Farrell, posed the questions: How do we edit the world? Is it useful to speak of the unconscious and the repressed? What kinds of evidence do we have to go on? The result was a helpful airing of views and approaches, with lots of common ground in evidence.