This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Do violent movies make people violent? Does gun violence onscreen lead to people being shot in the streets? Are school shootings the result of too many John Wick rewatches? We can pretty confidently answer “no” to these questions. At least, there’s clearly no 1:1 relationship between fictional violence and real-world violence. The motivations behind things like mass or school shootings are just too complex to be reduced in such simplistic ways. But that doesn’t mean we should end the conversation there.
Last week, Infowars editor-at-large and fake brain pill enthusiast Paul Joseph Watson suggested that the recent bombings in Austin, Texas, may have been inspired by Netflix’s Manhunt: Unabomber, a series about American terrorist Ted Kaczynski, AKA the Unabomber.
Watson was conspicuously, if predictably, silent on the question of race. As another white terrorist targeted people of colour in a city rife with racial tensions, the omission certainly stands out.
Even with a confession tape, authorities haven’t determined a motive for Mark Anthony Conditt’s crimes, and certainly nothing about his streaming habits has come up. There’s a possibility he was motivated by Kaczynski’s actual crimes (which weren’t exactly obscure even before the Netflix series), or he could have been motivated by literally anything else.
Watson is reliably found on the wrong side of just about any debate you can dream up, but we can call bullshit on his arguments without forgetting that representation does matter. “It’s just a movie” is a useless contribution to any discussion of cinema or its impacts on society. It’s why we can discuss everything from positive depictions of queer love to passive acceptance of toxic masculinity onscreen as important parts of the zeitgeist.
When film studios announce that their movies won’t feature characters smoking anymore, most of us accept the logic of it—try watching Don Draper chain smoke his way through a pitch meeting without wanting a cigarette. And yet the right vs. left, us-and-them tenor of 2018 has managed to make us play a mind-numbing game of yes-it-does/no-it-doesn’t with the question of violence in pop culture, stripping the nuance from just about any ensuing discussion.
Infowars’ Austin bombing claim comes on the heels of another right-wing push to blame gun violence on pop culture. It’s a predictable deflection away from gun control, with many conservative lawmakers (many of whom accept vast amounts of money from the National Rifle Association) blaming the recent Parkland mass shooting tragedy on movies and video games—all while schoolchildren literally beg grownups not to let them die.
This kind of nonsense is nothing new. The Columbine shooters were famously thought to have been inspired by The Matrix and the video game Doom. And any crime with even a passing resemblance to a film has led to speculation about pop culture corrupting minds and causing violence.
But this latest flare-up of faux concern stands out. It is clearly tied to a desperate need to legitimize a pathological love of guns, even in the case of a series of bombings.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the whole thing. Sure, maybe the Parkland shooter was inspired by what he saw on TV (his MAGA hat was likely purchased after seeing Trump at a televised rally, even if that’s not what they’re talking about), but the more pressing issue is and should be why he had such easy access to the assault rifle he used to kill 17 of his classmates and teachers.
But we would be wise not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Of course turning to movies, TV, or games is transparently ineffectual when reasonable Americans fearing for their lives and their children’s lives demand stricter gun laws. Of course! But the now ubiquitous response that movies obviously don’t make people violent is getting less and less convincing—where does this certainty come from? Rolling our eyes with the utmost confidence in the face of Trumpian stupidity might feel good (or it did until the Trump Fatigue began to set in), but there’s still value in checking our facts in the face of bold-faced lies.
After all, people study this kind of thing. And their voices have been conspicuously absent from the self-satisfied responses to the “movies made them do it” camp. The few exceptions usually rely on opinions from outliers in the field, people pushing against what seems like a fairly strong consensus from those who research the psychology of aggression and violence.
Brad Bushman is a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University. He was also a member of President Obama's committee on gun violence as an expert on media violence effects. He has studied the effects that popular media can have on aggression extensively. VICE connected with Bushman on the phone last week to understand how violent movies might impact someone like a mass shooter.
“There is no simple cause for violent, criminal behaviour. It's usually based on a number of risk factors that combine in complex ways,” says Bushman. “Violent media is one of those risk factors. It's not the only one or the most important one, but it's not a trivial one either.”
Bushman stresses the complexity of the studies that have been conducted, where no single cause can ever be identified for things like mass shootings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t identify some links.
“There's very strong evidence that exposure to violent media increases aggressive behaviour, and what I mean by that is any behaviour intended to harm another person who doesn't want to be harmed. There are hundreds of experiments that have been conducted on that,” he says. With “violent” behaviour, “the harm caused is extreme physical harm, such as injury or death, and that's a lot rarer than aggressive behaviour. There is a correlation between exposure to violent media and violent criminal behaviour, but as the behaviour becomes more extreme...the strength of any risk factor diminishes.”
“We can predict pretty accurately whether a kid will get in a fight during the next year in school, based on a number of predictive factors including exposure to violent media, whether they're male, and things like that. But as the behaviour becomes more and more complex, from getting in a fight to murdering someone to committing a mass shooting, the behaviour becomes rarer and much more difficult to predict.”
Craig A. Anderson studies violence specifically. He is a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University. VICE spoke with Anderson to get a clearer sense of how violent media can impact those who commit more extreme acts of violence.
“Extreme violence always requires the presence of multiple risk factors. So when the NRA says it's violent video games, that's too simplistic,” he says. “That's not to say violent video games don't play a role, but it's clearly too simplistic.”
Anderson says there’s more than a dozen studies showing links between violent video games and real-world violent behaviour. These studies rely on complex correlations between violent behaviour and exposure to violent media. While we like to deny links between correlation and causation, that’s a pretty standard scientific measure—it’s how we know smoking causes cancer.
“Every major scientific body that has ever reviewed the media violence and aggression literature has come to the same conclusion. This isn't just my position,” he says. It’s also the position of organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the US Surgeon General.
Now what do we do with this information? It certainly doesn’t tell us that guns aren’t a problem, nor even that they’re not the primary problem.
Unlike guns, movies aren’t made to kill. They actually serve other functions, and those functions, in this humble film critic’s opinion, are important to a healthy society. Some films distract us. Some challenge us. Some disturb us. And yes, some rile us up.
I’m not here to offer an answer, because I don’t have one. Censorship doesn’t appeal to me, but neither does quietly doing nothing. Trump suggested the implementation of a ratings system while discussing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings, which actually isn’t a bad idea. The fact that America has already had one in place for decades doesn’t reflect particularly well on the president, but it does show a national attempt to address this issue already. And maybe that’s enough, though it seems a little weak.
(For one thing, the MPAA, the organization in charge of rating movies in America, lacks transparency and oversight, and frankly does a terrible job of rating movies.)
But wherever the violence-in-pop-culture discussion goes, the country, first and foremost, needs robust gun control. And that gun control should neither be dependent on nor related to whatever we do to reduce the root causes of violence.
Australia has become a popular reference point for how America should rethink its murder weapon fetish, and for good reason.
In 1996, in Port Arthur, a man shot and killed 35 people, wounding another 18. One of the two military-style weapons he used was an AR-15, the same model used by the Parkland shooter. The Australian government was quick to act, banning semi-automatic and military-style weapons and their import, and creating a government buy-back program to get such existing weapons out of circulation. It was the kind of “common sense” approach we hear so much about, and since then, Australia hasn’t experienced any mass killings.
Australia—home of Mad Max and Russell Crowe—clearly isn’t immune to violent entertainment, nor, presumably, to its effects on viewers. But the country has found a way to limit the use of guns by limiting the availability of guns. As much as violent films may affect us, there’s a limit to what we can do with our newfound aggression when the potential outlets for it are limited, even if that ought to be addressed.
As Bushman told me, there’s a critical period when someone is contemplating suicide when they decide whether or not to go through with it. When a gun is readily available, the number of people who successfully take their lives is over 90 percent. When a gun isn’t available, the number is closer to 18 percent.
It doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to imagine available guns being used to satisfy an impulse to harm others too. While making the choice to commit a mass shooting is complex and may or may not involve some kind of interaction with violent media, the availability of firearms is a constant. Or as Bushman succinctly put it, “of course there'd be no mass shootings without guns.”
Similarly, Anderson described research that shows you’re more likely to be assaulted in the UK than in the US, but that you’re more likely to be killed in the US than in the UK. “That's because of guns,” he says. “We don't assault at a particularly high rate, but we're very efficient at it, because very often we have guns.”
What a statement like this tells me is that we need to get rid of guns ASAP, but do we ignore non-deadly assault and its causes? I’d rather get punched in the face than shot, but I’d like someone take steps to ensure I don’t get punched in the face regardless.
If I thought making shit up would finally lead to some basic gun control and even a small reduction in the completely preventable deaths that keep making headlines, there’s a good chance I’d go along with it. But the right-wing lawmakers lining their pockets with the NRA’s blood money aren’t listening anyway. Instead they’re offering up the red herring of media violence, which has the kernel of truth necessary to be an effective dodge.
But why not also have an intelligent conversation about media violence? A real one that doesn’t detract from the dozen other pressing issues that should come first, ideally.
It sure as hell won’t solve the pressing issue of gun violence. Not even close! But if nothing else, it’ll keep us busy while America’s kids do what the grownups should have done years ago: force some kind of change in the nation’s gun laws.
Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.