Culture of despair may be behind prurient violence in media

While I realize that I’m old I like to think I’m not a prude. Nonetheless, I am becoming increasingly concerned with the glorifying of brutal violence in films, video games and television. What is going on? Is there some sort of agenda to convince the people of America that we are living in a war zone on the home front when in fact the murder rate has declined steadily for years? I turned the TV on and the film "Let Me In" came on and, though I only watched for about 10 seconds, a young boy was being brutally sodomized by three bullies. I was sick to my stomach and turned it right off. TV used to at least have a balance of decent shows and trash. Now it’s 90 percent trash. Biography used to have the life stories of heroes as well as mobsters. Now it’s all serial killers, Susan Smith, urban drug dealers, mobsters, biker gangs and now kid killers. The women on TV treat each other like trash, the reality shows are mindless and violent, prison shows – do you see a pattern here of an overabundance of brutal violence like "Borgias," "Spartacus," and these are advertised all day long on channels that don’t even show them. I guess the only vote I have is with my pocketbook so I can cancel, but why are the people of America paying for all this violent trash and then trying to put anti-bullying programs in school? Do they want a generation of desensitized violent adults? What is wrong with the adults today that they would buy violent films or video games for their kids? And I know it’s happening all the time. Do you know why? – J.E., Las Vegas

Since I can remember, people have discussed and argued about the depiction of violence in media – movies, television, and more recently, in video games. When I was a boy, there were discussions about whether Warner Bros.’s Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons were harming me. Through the ’60s , television westerns reigned supreme. "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "The Rifleman," "Have Gun Will Travel," "Rawhide" – and every episode of every western included somebody drawing a gun and killing somebody else. In the ’70’s, police shows replaced westerns, but guns and dead people remained the abiding plot line.

Always there were some teachers, parents and researchers afraid that this violence was hurting me and children like me.

Like a lot of folks, I suppose, I find myself stuck between two truths. On the one hand, I have such a deep respect for authentic art and authentic artists. And there is no dimension of the human experience that should be off limits to artistic interpretation. This must include anger, rage, sociopathy, despair and violence. I think Steven Spielberg was born to direct "Schindler’s List" and "Saving Private Ryan," although I must admit it took me about two weeks each to shake the horror of those tales from my soul. Then, why did I watch them, you might ask? Because, from time to time, sacrificing the peace of my tidy, idealistic world is the necessary price for seeing life as life is.

Evil is sickening. War is horrible. But both are real. And authentic hope only emerges from a commitment to reality at all costs.

On the other hand, there is a line between art and prurience. A line between sober realism and blithe obscenity. And I agree with you, J.E. – modern media theater has long since normalized crossing it.

I love scary movies. In 1978, John Carpenter gave us the film "Halloween." I’ll never forget my friend Harry screaming in the student union theater at SMU, not to mention that there was hardly a drop of blood. Carpenter terrified us by provoking our imagination. In 2007, Rob Zombie remade the film. I thought Zombie’s version was a prurient obscenity.

Not that anyone has made me the arbiter of where the line is.

Do I know why we have normalized and now glorify prurient violence? Off the cuff, I think the crisis of meaning continues unabated in western civilization. As meaning decays, so does emptiness ache in the human soul. Empty souls crave to feel alive again, and they will reach for anything to feel alive.

I’m saying I don’t think the ultimate cause of cultural decay is violence. I think the chief enemy of thriving culture and whole, happy human beings is despair.

In the end, all I can tell you is that, at 55 this summer, I find myself more and more selective about the stories and pictures I’m willing to let into my soul.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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