Interesting piece in the NYT by three forensic psychiatrists, “Does Media Violence Lead to Real Violence?” making the case that recent research suggests that yes, in fact it very likely sometimes does.
There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990, the psychologists George Comstock and Haejung Paik found that the short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person was moderate to large in strength.
This makes sense to me. I’ve long felt that progressives and First Amendment champions can get themselves into a corner on this issue. Whenever there is a mass shooting, conservatives reflexively start looking for a link to media violence. Since lack of effective gun regulation is so clearly the more immediate condition for most such acts, and since the turn to blame “the media” so obviously seems to serve as a distraction technique deployed by gun-freedom absolutists, the liberal-progressive instinct is to insist that violent video games and other media must have absolutely no relationship to actual violence (and/or other social dysfunction). It’s as if the only choice is all or nothing: violent video games and movies cause and are to blame for dysfunction, or are irrelevant to it. But while of course unregulated gun ownership is the overwhelmingly more significant problem, this does not mean that it is not a problem when emotionally damaged/ depressed/ angry young men spend years in basements in effect massacre-training on games like Call of Duty. After all, as Buddha is sometimes said to have said (though maybe did not actually), “what you think, you become.” Consider Anders Behring Breivik, gunman in the July 2011 Norway massacre, who “played video games such as World of Warcraft to relax, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for “training-simulation”. He further told a court in April 2012 that he trained for shooting using a holographic device while playing Call of Duty. He claimed it helped him gain target acquisition.” Or Adam Lanza, who, similarly, obsessively played Call of Duty. Does this mean Call of Duty “caused” the shootings? No. But it does suggest that a hyper-violent video game could, in some contexts/ for some individuals, become toxic in extended exposure.
I thought about these issues when reading a fascinating interview in the magazine Sang Bleu with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, one of the founders of the “horror-core” genre of hip-hop incorporating imagery and lyrical content from slasher and horror films. The Geto Boys produced the wonderfully laid-back, and oddly melancholy, classic “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster” (which Office Space turned into a kind of anthem for white suburban wanna-be’s) but also songs like “Assassins.” Sample lyric (decided just to keep it to one line): “She screamed, I sliced her up until her guts were like spaghetti.”
The “conservative” position on horrorcore, or on other similarly extreme forms of pop culture (e.g. “torture porn” horror films — although of course there’s a race angle w/ the Geto Boys that isn’t usually a factor in those), is that it’s degenerate, probably dangerous, and should be banned or heavily restricted. The usual liberal/”progressive” position is that while the lyrics/images may be disturbing, this is free artistic expression, and that if we try to ban or restrict it in any way, we’re behaving as bourgeois audiences always have in response to challenging, boundary-pushing art.
The interview with Bushwick Bill suggests that both positions might offer one necessary but incomplete piece of the full picture. To the typical (especially white) middle-class listener in 1990, a song like “Assassins” was unnerving, more unnerving than a slasher film, because it felt less mediated, more purely the self-expression of an anti-social, violent, and misogynistic point of view. But Bushwick Bill in fact comes across as a thoughtful, surprisingly well-read guy who saw the Geto Boys’ music as not that different from what someone like Stephen King was doing in fiction or Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Craven in film — like them, exploring the potential of horror as a genre.
I was trying to be like Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe on that “Chuckie” song, and “Mind of a Lunatic” was my version of Psycho…. I always thought it was creative how they [horror film-makers] captured a mood in a moment—like a fear of the unknown. I grew up watching The Outer Limits, where people were afraid of what they didn’t know. I compared that to being an artist with a group from Texas. We were the unknown, and we had to give them intriguing or questionable stuff so they’d say, “Man what’s wrong with these guys? Why they saying that?” In order to be noticed in the South, we had to be shocking…. On the first Geto Boys album called Making Trouble, they had a song on there called “Assassins,” and that was really my introduction to horror core rap. That was my first time hearing rap like that. I started comparing it to movies. That’s what a New Yorker’s mind is like, you see a movie, you compare it to the things you see in the hood. That’s just how New Yorkers are, we compare it to things we know, things that we are familiar with, just like our graffiti names come from TV and comic books.
The interviewer asks, “You mentioned morals… You went to a biblical school, you were about to go on a mission in India, so how do you go from that to making these dark rap songs? Did you ever feel guilty about it?” Bushwick Bill replies:
It was never an issue. To me it was just being creative. I never in my wildest imagination ever believed that anyone would think I had done anything like that or was capable. To me, it was just being creative…. I applaud any musician that can be creative enough to make people feel like they are watching Wes Craven, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or Steven King. It’s no different than Orson Wells reading the War of the Worlds. What the difference? It’s supposed to be entertainment. That was the sole purpose: to entertain.
(Not quite explicitly articulated in what he says about why the Geto Boys were viewed differently from Wes Craven is what could be called the Trayvon Martin effect, that is, how scary young black men appear to many Americans.) BUT — it gets more complicated as B.B. talks about how he felt it subsequently affected him to keep working in this style. He started getting into drugs, and he now says that he lost his way in part because he was so entirely immersed in the Geto Boys’ violent, misanthropic material.
I was rapping about horrific situations and psychotic mentalities everyday. It started becoming a habit…. There wasn’t a balance, we were always talking about death and killing all day long, that’s it. Could you imagine that being your only food for thought?
To me, this points to certain limitations to the absolutist First-Amendment “progressive” position on media violence. Certainly horror and the horrific can produce valuable art and of course need to be protected by First Amendment principles. And violent video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto can have a lot to offer beyond their more obviously sensationalist content, e.g. clever and imaginative game design, the construction of virtual spaces and geographies, etc.
But “you become what you think,” the culture we consume does become our food for thought, and Bushwick Bill’s comments suggest that at least for some of their consumers and producers, the most extreme, violent, and misanthropic forms of culture can in fact, as the conservatives always insist, become toxic. And I don’t think it does the progressive position any favors to pretend that is never the case.
5 thoughts on “Can Pop Culture be Toxic? Call of Duty, the Geto Boys, etc.”
Thanks for this, Ivan. This seems like common sense if one reflects even on one’s own experience, and it’s also the advice of many wisdom traditions that what you ingest in terms of ideas and images affects your mental/emotional/spiritual health as much as food and drink affect your physical health.
Thanks Lisa! Hey, I have a piece about to come out in the LARB (maybe today?), pleased to be sharing byline space with you.
A friend who recently controversially banned *Call of Duty* from her household writes to observe: “There are kids who pretty much have no interest in these games (many girls, some boys); kids who have some interest but untether often and easily to do other things (some girls, most boys); very obsessive kids, for whom they can be a dangerous vacuum, affirm some baser impulses, and prevent lots of healthier things (certainly a good subset of boys, also some girls I suspect); and really fucked up obsessive kids, for whom they offer an alternate universe which is simultaneously an unprecedented full escape from a painful world and a vivid, detailed recipe for actual violence upon reentry (few, but of course with outsize impact on things). I think at the very least if one has #3 one can see #4 in the shadows and we shouldn’t be so immodest about what we know and don’t know about the human mind, as your piece suggests – what you think, you may become.”
There is another factor, though — what if in addition to the group for whom immersion in video games may lead to real violence, there is another group (perhaps much larger) for whom immersion in video games allows them to work out violent impulses and thus decreases the risk of violence from those people? If I understand how the studies work, these people would just show up as “not more likely to commit violence” but there would be no way to discern this countervailing effect. This has always been my strong instinct — that yes, there are some very disturbed people for whom immersion in video game violence is at least one contributing factor to real world violence, but that there are many more for whom the pretend violence performs a valuable violence-lessening function.
Hi “Krafty”– yes, although I took that to be part of the more typical view these days (i.e. that greater freedom is always a good) and I was trying to make the case for the other side– but I do see what you’re saying… Those arguments are interesting about pornography and sexual violence, for ex.