The Wrong Way to Talk About Violence in Movies

Harvey Weinstein wants less carnage in films. But "less" and "more" aren't helpful terms when answering questions of how on-screen mayhem influences real-world mayhem.

The Weinstein Company

Harvey Weinstein has produced some exceedingly violent films, including Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. But now, as he begins work on an anti-NRA film starring Meryl Streep, Weinstein has had a change of heart. "I have to choose movies that aren’t violent or as violent as they used to be," he said. "I know for me personally, you know, I can’t continue to do that … I can’t make one movie and say this is what I want for my kids and then just go out and be a hypocrite.”

Weinstein's stance has garnered some praise, most notably from Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. But while O'Hehir congratulates Weinstein for his stance, he also points out that "no one really understands the whole question of media violence and its relationship (if any) to actual violence." There's no reason to think that America will become less violent, he says, simply because Weinstein stops producing Tarantino films.

O'Hehir is certainly correct that direct links between media violence and real-life violence are hard to prove. Still, it is possible to find some evidence about the relationship between the two. That evidence is, however, conflicted. It doesn't blanket condemn movie violence, nor does it show that such violence is irrelevant. Rather, it suggests that if you want to see the effect of violence in film, you need to look not just at the film, but at its context.

One study that did find a link between movies and violence, for example, was Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna's paper "Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?" The authors looked at patterns of violent crimes during evenings that violent movies were shown. In their words:

We find that violent crime decreases on days with larger theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent. After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent. This finding is explained by the self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance, leading to a substitution away from more volatile activities. In particular, movie attendance appears to reduce alcohol consumption.

The main viewers of violent films are young men. Young men are also disproportionately responsible for violence. If large numbers of young men are sitting and watching a violent film, they aren't going to be committing robberies or vandalism or hooliganism or murder. They also aren't going to be drinking alcohol, which can lead to violence. So, Dahl and DellaVigna show, the immediate result of violent films is to reduce violent crime. If Weinstein wants to reduce violence, shelving Tarantino films is exactly the wrong way to do it.

So, violent films lead to less violence? Well, not exactly. In his memoir A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, who was forced to become a child soldier in the terrible Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990s, writes about how violent media was part of his training regimen. Rambo: First Blood, Rambo II, and Commando were screened in constant rotation, a supplement to the drugs the children were given to encourage them in battle. "We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn't wait to implement his techniques," Beah writes. In one incident, Beah's friend Alhaji says he wants to practice his Rambo moves, then sneaks into an enemy camp and starts slitting the throats of the guards. Violent films here inspired real-life violence. They were part of a deliberate system that turned children into killers.

Media violence doesn't just affect children. Just as Beah and his friends learned from Rambo, so did lawyers at Guantanamo take information from 24's Jack Bauer.  According to military lawyer Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, 24 was  "hugely popular" among personnel at Guantanamo, and "gave people lots of ideas" for novel ways to interrogate prisoners. Philippe Sands, who interviewed Beaver, said that the lawyer "believed the series contributed to an environment in which those at Guantánamo were encouraged to see themselves as being on the frontline—and to go further than they otherwise might."

All of these examples are pretty clear indicators that there is a real link between media violence and actual violence. But the nature of that link is in each case rather different than narratives of media and violence usually suggest. These are not situations in which a mentally unstable individual sees a violent films and then goes out and commits a mass shooting.  Instead, violent media in each of these cases serves a specific social function. In the Dahl and DellaVigna study, it's an entertainment that distracts people from other pursuits (like violence or getting drunk). For Beah, violent media was used essentially as brainwashing. And at Guantanamo, violent media was mined for patriotic fervor and torture techniques.

It is to Weinstein's credit that he's trying to engage with the issue of violence and ethics. But (as O'Hehrir indicates) it's a little depressing that he goes on to endorse Lone Survivor on the grounds that violence is okay as long as it glorifies the American military. That's a sign, I think, of how confused the debate about "less violence" can be, and how utterly it seems to be tied up in a single context (domestic gun violence) and utterly ignore others (like war.) It's almost as if the call for "less violence" isn't a serious moral debate, but a way to avoid talking about (for example) a social failure to provide meaningful occupation for young men, or the way in which fantasies of terrorist enemies slides easily into human rights abuses in the name of patriotism. Media violence becomes an entertaining distraction from violence everywhere else.