Real Violence, Simulated Violence, and Thinking War is Awesome

Most of us enjoy violence. The top movies each year largely come from genres dependent on scenes of people getting hurt, whether comic book action, crime thrillers, horror, or sci-fi and fantasy epics. We play violent video games, shooting and punching and blowing up imaginary people or the avatars of other players.

But the violence we enjoy is fake. That’s important. I’m happy to watch a movie about people getting beaten up and murdered. I love crime fiction and shooting people in Grand Theft Auto. Yet show me the same stuff in real life — hell, ask me to imagine the same stuff in real life — and it’s not at all the same. In fact, I hate it. Violence — real violence — repels me, as it does most other people.

Things weren’t always like this, of course. Historically, we have countless instances of real violence as entertainment — think gladiators and public hangings — as well as the kind of common, everyday slaughter that indicates a lack of widespread aversion to violent acts. In fact, the growing distaste for violence, which eventually became disgust and outright horror, was necessary to us growing morally, as people and as civilizations. Good people do not commit violent acts — except perhaps in extreme instances of defense of self or others. Much less do they enjoy violent acts, actual violent acts, with real people suffering real pain.

Except, I’ve come to believe, some of us, at some level, still do. My supposition — and it must remain one because I’m not sure how to research its veracity — is that a great deal of foreign policy hawkishness, support for CIA torture, cheering on of brutal police behavior, and so on, is the result of people not possessing an instinctive recognition of the distinction between legitimately-exciting-but-pretend violence and the horror of real violence. In other words, there are people out there who get just the sort of pleasure in carrying out — or, most often, witnessing or thinking about — actual violent acts that you or I get from playing a first-person shooter or watching a terrific action scene. These are the people who, for example, talk about war as if it’s awesome. They get excited at the prospect of another bombing campaign. They love military hardware and can’t wait to see it put to use. Their first reaction to any problem overseas is to call for blowing people up.

This likely results from one or both of two particular failures, one of character, the other of reasoning. The first is a devaluing of the humanity of others, particularly others of different nations, religions, cultures, or colors. This is an outright moral failing. A morally good person will recognize the humanity of others and see violence against them as repugnant. A bad person will think some people are less worthy of basic dignity and so will be less concerned by violence against them.

The second failure doesn’t necessarily reflect on the person’s character so much as it does on the person’s wisdom in putting his moral motivations into practice. Here, the person doesn’t explicitly believe unsimulated violence is okay. Instead, he has a difficult time recognizing recognizing it. His mind treats real violence, especially real violence depected in media such as in news reports, as if it were simulated violence. Of course, if asked about this directly, the person won’t admit to thinking the violence in the news is fake. He’s not stupid. But in the moment, when watching it, or when thinking about a bombing campaign or the brutality of cops busting heads, he’ll subconsciously fool himself and approach it the same way the rest of us do simulated violence.

There’s an interesting difference in how progressives and conservatives go wrong in thinking about violence. By and large, progressives are more concerned about direct violence done by the state than conservatives. They tend to be more wary of war and lament civilian casualties. (Though partisanship complicates this, obviously, causing Democrats to show more support for state violence when it’s perpetrated by a Democratic president.) Progressives also tend to decry police violence against minorities and marginalized groups. But they also overlook a great deal of state violence. Every law and regulation they clamor for, after all, is backed by force and ultimately only carries weight as a law or regulation if there are men with guns prepared to shoot people who don’t comply. So progressives think real violence isn’t okay — or at least pay lip service to being turned off by it — but at the same time fail to recognize the violence baked into their vision for a well-functioning, well-covered, and largely state-run society.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seem more likely to recognize the pervasiveness of state violence, but care less about violence itself. They’re the ones — again, I’m dealing in broad generalties here — who champion bombing compaigns and respond to police bruality with, “Well, he/they had it coming.” Unlike progressives, they appear not to care about the harm. Or, worse, they see the violence as righteous and just. As deserved.

As I write this, it occurs to me that these opposed attitudes to real violence get sometimes flipped when the subject is simulated violence. By and large, cultural progressives don’t mind violence on television, in the movies, or in video games. They may not want their children watching or playing particularly violent media, but they don’t see it as the downfall of society or even much of a threat to their own kids’ wellbeing, and so don’t call for its censorship. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are frequently among the first to blame video games after a school shooting and say how Grant Theft Auto leads to more crime. Much of their ire at the media is, of course, more about displays of sex and alternative sexualities, but a good portion of it is reserved for violence. To risk too much of a generalization, progressives hate violence when it’s real and conservatives hate it when it’s fake.

I’m not quite sure what to make of any of this. And, like I said, it’s all based on general impressions on my part. I don’t know how one would set about proving or disproving that neoconservatives champion war in part because they get excited at the prospect of bombing people. Certainly, none of them would admit to it. But if I’m right, even a little, then it raises serious concerns about governing the country. It’s one thing to disagree about the data on which policy produces better results. Reasonable people can have rather divergent opinions. Likewise, we can have meaningful conversations about the proper distribution of state power versus personal freedom. But there’s no rational or moral groundwork for the view that violence engaging each other via violence is okay. It’s just not, full stop. And if there are people out there who don’t only think it’s okay, but at some level think it’s fun, then we’ve got problems. Big ones. We can, and must, be better than that.