Violence on Demand

According to Geraldhino Vieira, a journalist and director of ANDI, a Brazilian NGO recognized by UNICEF with the Children and Peace Award 1998:

The most recent of the studies undertaken in Brazil examined nothing less than 71 hours of cartoons shown during one week on seven commercial public television channels.  Carried out by the UN Institute for the Prevention of Violence, the study shocked the country with alarming data: every hour, from eight in the morning onwards, some 20 crimes are shown almost always with excessive bodily harm and murder.

In seven days, the cartoons showed quite naturally 1,432 crimes, 34% of which were committed gratuitously and 38% in response a preceding act of violence. Generally, the police were absent along with any other possible intermediary in the conflict.

Do people feel as if there is too much violence being shown on television?  We look at some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted during 51%.  According to this survey, 51% of the respondents completely agreed with the statement "There is more violence on television that I would like."  The next chart shows the breakdown by age/sex groups and socio-economic levels.

(source: TGI Brasil)

In the face of such negative feelings from the populace, the television programmers nevertheless continue to pour violent programs on television.  What is their justification?  They always say, "This is what people want!" based upon extensive ratings analyses.  In a free-market economy, you give the people what they demand.  They may tell you that they abhor violence, but the empirical behavioral evidence is that they watch violent programs, then that means they really like violence.  Case closed.

But is this a correct inferential step?  Read this article in The Guardian:

Early scholars who studied propaganda called it a "hypodermic needle approach" to communication, in which the communicator's objective was to "inject" his ideas into the minds of the target population.  Since propaganda is often aimed at persuading people to do things that are not in their own best interests, it frequently seeks to bypass the rational brain altogether and manipulate us on a more primitive level, appealing to emotional symbolism.

Television uses sudden, loud noises to provoke a startled response, bright colours, violence - not because these things are inherently appealing, but because they catch our attention and keep us watching.  When these practices are criticised, advertisers and TV executives respond that they do this because this is what their "audience wants".  In fact, however, they are appealing selectively to certain aspects of human nature - the most primitive aspects, because those are the most predictable.  Fear is one of the most primitive emotions in the human psyche, and it definitely keeps us watching.  If the mere ability to keep people watching were really synonymous with "giving audiences what they want", we would have to conclude that people "want" terrorism.  On September 11, Osama bin Laden kept the entire world watching. As much as people hated what they were seeing, the power of their emotions kept them from turning away.

And fear can make people do other things they would not do if they were thinking rationally.  During the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, psychologist Gustave Gilbert visited Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering in his prison cell.  "We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction,"  Gilbert wrote in his journal, Nuremberg Diary.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged.  "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? ... That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship ... That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same way in any country."

(posted by Roland Soong, 7/13/2003)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)