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Violent Films: Natural Born Killers?

Matthew Kieran wants the censors to make his day.

Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a film about two serial killers, finally went on general release last March. The British Board of Film Classification delayed awarding its 18 certificate because of reported links to six murders in the States and, in Paris, to a couple who killed four people. The film itself concerns a couple, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, who career through America, littering the country with innumerable corpses. The way the story is told, utilising montage sequences and the best conventions from MTV pop culture, is itself supposed to constitute a satire upon the way the media glorifies the most vicious of crimes and nihilistic of criminals. Ultimately the BBFC issued a release certificate, without demanding cuts, because it presumed that the mere depiction of violence does not turn people into killers. Yet, on video release, it was deemed necessary to heavily edit Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s coruscating tale of degeneration and Catholic redemption. Such contradictory signs appear quixotic and alarm many who are increasingly disenchanted with representations of violence in the media. For, and this is the point Stone’s clumsy film makes, it seems intuitively obvious that there are links between the kind of films we enjoy and the nature of civil society. Given that we think films can significantly inform our understanding of the world, it would be surprising if they did not, conversely, also possess the potential to corrupt it.

The response to such worries by most media experts and film critics has been highly dismissive. Tom Dewe Mathews, recent author of Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain, has suggested that such concerns can only be disingenuous. Focussing on the possibility that violent films generate violence is considered a rhetorical move to distract attention from more fundamental social ills, which actually do have a significant causal role. Hence concerns about violence in the media are often labelled the worries of middle-class reactionaries or intellectually naive. After all, many of us enjoy violent films and yet, upon walking out of the cinema, do not proceed to murder, rape or otherwise maim people.

The liberal presumption against film censorship gains its force from the putative political motivations of those who call for greater censorship. One only has to gesture towards the Rushdie affair to elicit the support of all rightminded people. Obviously, we are highly suspicious of those who seek to censor what we might otherwise be free to watch. Hence, no doubt, many of us would be chary of a religious proscription against The Satanic Verses, The Last Temptation of Christ or, indeed, a sitcom such as Roseanne. If we value freedom at all, we quite rightly resent crass attempts to impose upon us any particular conception of what constitutes ‘the good life’, whether we share that ideal or not. Nonetheless, it does not follow that the call for greater censorship must itself be flawed.

In the first place, it is not clear that most of those who support greater censorship of violent films really do have a hidden political agenda. Moreover, even if a particular person is dubiously motivated, the complaint he or she makes may still be justified. In the same sort of way, we might abhor the violence which haemorrhaged the French Revolution, but still quite justifiably advocate the ideals of freedom and equality. Thus this kind of objection has no direct force. Of course, certain people may disapprove of the fact that we enjoy watching random or heavily stylised violence, just as the Puritans disapproved of dancing round the Maypole. But mere disapproval or the giving of offence is insufficient warrant for prohibitive legislation in a liberal society, given that those who disapprove are themselves free not to watch or participate in the things of which they so violently disapprove. If no harm is involved, where is the case for censorship?

The liberal opposition to censorship assumes that exposure to violent films does not affect peoples’ subsequent behaviour. Indeed, it is the acceptance of this claim which inclines liberals to assume, mistakenly, that any clamour for censorship must be politically motivated. It is interesting to note that the rejection of any causal link is usually presented in terms of exposure: as if the proponent of censorship is committed to the idea both that the very medium of film is itself obscene and, more significantly, that a violent act represented on screen, necessarily and immediately, leads to the same behaviour in the real world. Yet to deride the argument for greater censorship on this basis involves the rhetorical sleight of false attribution.

Ordinarily we are quite at home with the notion that arguments which appeal to our intuitions, sentiments and beliefs affect how we think about and behave in the world. No-one presumes the link is simple or immediate. So why presume representations of violence could bear no significant relation to violence in the real world? Of course, the psychological research is inconclusive. Indeed, it is hard to see how psychological research could ever hope to resolve the issue one way or the other. Apart from the complexity of variables involved and the ethical barriers to more informative research, the intentionality of human action itself militates against a scientific resolution of the matter one way or the other. This is not, of course, to claim that psychology is uninformative. But it is to recognise the limitations inherent in the scientific testing of hypotheses concerned with human cognition and moral psychology.

Now, what is represented in a particular film may be wholly fictional, genre specific and only indirectly related to our own world. Yet, in order to entertain, the film must bear a significant relation to the way we conceive of and understand our own world. For example, it is a staple convention of science fiction to represent an alien threat which seeks, in some form, to infect and thus destroy us. In the 1950s such a device was often used as a blatant cold war allegory, as for example in Siegal’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Such films, though apparently at the furthest remove from our everyday worlds, actually concern and engage with the most fundamental concerns, drives and desires manifested in ordinary life. This is, after all, why films may be profound in a way which transcends genre, time and culture.

Yet, it might be thought, even the profoundest of films cannot touch our own world. For a film’s supposed insights can only be properly assessed within the appropriate intellectual discipline. We do not just watch Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and then go away convinced that experimentation with life itself is profoundly immoral. Rather, we enjoy the film but consider the issues raised, say in relation to genetic engineering, quite separately. The fact that we can and often do value films with seemingly contradictory ‘insights’ seems to back this picture up. The pleasures afforded by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction depend upon suppressing our natural presumption in favour of the significance of human life. Conversely, Natural Born Killers depends upon our holding that same presmption in the forefront of our minds, to act as a critique. Thus, in order to enjoy both films, we must call upon apparently incompatible attitudes toward human life. Therefore, we obviously do not look to films to provide ‘insights’ about the human world. It is just that, typically, our world functions as a springboard from which our imaginatively enjoyable fantasies spiral off.

But the fact that our appreciation requires apparently incompatible attitudes does not show that we don’t expect a film to illuminate our world. After all, we rightly criticise films for failing to provoke an appropriate response to the events depicted. It would be a serious criticism of Branagh’s Frankenstein if we were to find the psychological motivations of Victor, perhaps arising from the gruesome loss of his mother in childbirth, wholly unconvincing. Similarly, we may legitimately criticise Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula if it doesn’t scare us. For, given the nature of Dracula, we ought to feel afraid. Moreover, insights about our world are not the only things we value in a film. We value a film if it is original, interesting, deepens our understanding of the medium or enables us to imagine something in a particularly vivid way. In other words we value films both for their content and for the way we are led to imagine what is represented. We could enjoy a film because of the way it fired our imaginations, even if we thought its putative insight about, say, human psychology, was false.

But how could films threaten the very fabric of our society? The point is that films, through engaging our imaginations, promote particular kinds of self-understanding. We imagine what it would be like to be a particular person or in a certain state of affairs. Such imaginative simulation is crucial in our ordinary lives if we are to properly understand others, whether at an individual or cultural level. Ordinarily, we do not refer to abstract hypotheses to explain another’s behaviour. Rather, we seek to imagine how, given their nature, they conceive of their situation and are prone to feel and act.

Given that our imaginations enable us to grasp our own world and that of other people, it should seem obvious that films may affect, directly or otherwise, the way we see the world and thus the way we act within it. Hence what we watch may deepen or distort our understanding. This serves to explain precisely why we should rightly be suspicious of violent movies. The problem is not one of mere offence, it is the age-old Platonic paradox: art may both enlighten and corrupt. In a culture increasingly tolerant of the appetite for violence, violent films may not only reflect but cultivate the delight taken in it.

Perhaps this is the reason Quentin Tarantino’s films have enjoyed such success. They touch upon an element of sadism flowering within our culture: the delightful stylisation, enjoyment of and revelling in the infliction of violence. What is peculiar about Tarantino’s films, and sadism generally, is the celebration of this delight. Such a positive evaluation of violence, and the concomitant indifference to the suffering of others, may dissolve the ties that bind us within the larger moral community. Therefore, for the good of civil society as a whole, we have a duty to censor films which may exacerbate a delight in actual violence.

Of course, such a view will no doubt attract charges of elitism. Who should say whether someone can adequately understand a particular film? Who is to say what constitutes gratuitous violence? I am not denying that these are crucial questions, especially when considering policy matters. At best, such considerations show that plausible arguments against censorship do not rest upon the false presumption that violent films are harmless. Rather, the problem is that justifiable instances of censorship may, wrongly, enable censorship which is detrimental to justice and democracy.

The point here is that such a worry does not hold, in principle, against the case for greater film censorship of violence. For, typically, we tailor what we are attempting to communicate to the level of understanding our audience may have. This is not a matter of hypocrisy. Rather it is because different explanations are appropriate for different levels of understanding, whether one is dealing with children or adults. Fundamentally, our moral understanding is open to corruption by representations of violence: because they may both promote a radically flawed understanding of the world and cultivate our baser pleasures. Of course, we should encourage the capacity for critical engagement with films generally. However, we must also protect those most susceptible to the appeals of violence, which violent films may provoke and satiate. For it is such appetites as these which undercut the very possibility of moral community.

In principle, violent representations should be censored according to the understanding brought to bear by the relevant audience. Freedom of expression is qualified by the obligation not to harm, whether in relation to a particular individual or civil society as a whole. Hence we require a much greater emphasis upon the need for self-censorship by film makers, ranging from the commissioning to the editorial process, and the families or groups which constitute civil society. However, where society itself increasingly revels in vicious violence, and where parents apparently fail to care for children’s viewing habits and behaviour, the state has a strong obligation to exercise powers of censorship. The liberal state, for laudable motives, may well shy away from such strong action. After all, why should someone else’s carelessness have a detrimental effect upon what I can watch? Why should I suffer because others, who should know better, do not?

But failure to censor, under such conditions, constitutes an abrogation of the point and purpose of the state in the first place. It fails not just the victims of violence, and not just those who enjoy violent crimes, but society at large. It is to allow the very preconditions of a liberal state, security, stability and tolerance, to be uprooted. Typically, the liberal consensus tends to dismiss popular worries about violence in the media. Hence liberals tend to shrink away from considering any positive obligations they might have to censor. Unfortunately, the way we actually engage with and understand films suggests that this isn’t an option. Rather than perpetuate the rhetorical condemnation of all censorship, this constitutes a dilemma that any mature liberal must confront.

© Dr. M. Kieran 1995

Matthew Kieran is a philosophy lecturer at Leeds University. He teaches a course on media ethics and is writing a book about it too. (But will it be made into a film?)

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