Violence – We All Bear Responsibility

Posted on by Larry

[ I wrote this blog a month ago at the request of a publisher who ultimately decided not to run it. I’m posting it here in hopes of starting a conversation about the subject. Comments are moderated and intolerant comments will not be allowed. Discussion and disagreement are encouraged. ]

After the tragedy in Sandy Hook, there is a rush to find villains and assign blame. But the situation isn’t that easy. It took a lot of hard work from a lot of people in a lot of organizations to get us into this mess. It will take a lot of work to get us out.

There is no one villain. There is no one single “magic bullet” (pun intended) that will resolve the issue of violence in our society.

However, I was struck by how quickly our industry tried to distance itself from any responsibility for the attack, or violence in general. The current flashpoint is Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” described as an an ultra-violent take on slavery and societal division.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Samuel Jackson echoing the industry theme when he said: “I don’t think movies or video games have anything to do with [whether on-screen violence has an influence on someone who decides to behave violently in real life]”

While it is true that violence is bigger than a single industry, to say the media industry bears no responsibility misses the larger point. Ask yourself the following questions and see where the answers lead you.

If films have no impact on real-life, why is film merchandizing a billion dollar industry?

If films have no impact on “real-life,” why do producers make millions of dollars in product placements within their movies?

If the programs we create have no impact, why does the multi-billion-dollar advertising industry exist?

If the messages we create have no impact, why did advertisers play $7 million dollars a minute to advertise on the SuperBowl?

If what stars wear, do, or say makes no difference, why does the tabloid industry exist?

If what our scripts say makes no difference, why have so many catch-phrases entered every day speech? I mean, “go ahead, make my day.”

If what we do makes no difference, then why is “Django Unchained” the fourth Hollywood-related event to be postposed or canceled since last Friday (according to the Los Angeles Times)?

Can you honestly say that a film titled “Bullet to the Head” has no societal implications?

If we are being honest, we could say: “The money is more important.”

Or, “My story is more important.”

Or, “I’m not really paying attention to the results of my work.”

Or, “I don’t really care what happens to some little kid.”

All too often, we add violence to our stories because we don’t have any better ideas.  Now look at where that attitude has taken us.

We could say that we are simply cogs in the machine, doing what we are told to do. But this is disingenuous — we always have a choice – to say “yes,” or say “no.”  How can you explain to a group of children that you blow people up for a living?

Violence is complex, there are many different factors involved. But we can’t say: “What we do doesn’t matter.” None of us would be in this industry if that were true.

When pointing fingers of blame, one of them needs to point to us.

As always, let me know what you think.


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UPDATE – Feb. 4, 2013

I am very grateful for the thought-provoking reactions and comments to this blog. Please click the Comments button below to read what others have said.

33 Responses to Violence – We All Bear Responsibility

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  1. If art did not shape society then what would be the point of making art? I agree that our various forms of entertainment have a profound influence on society and the individuals who compose it, but we each have to take responsibility for how we interpret art and how this affects our ensuing behavior. Most people do not watch a violent movie and then re-enter society wanting to perform acts of violence, and this is perhaps because the movie allowed them to release their aggression in an imaginative way. On a biological level, we all literally have a reptilian brain at the base of our brain stem, and on a psychological level we have the ego, which tells us we are separate from each other –separate from everything– which produces a huge amount of psychological stress. Better to release this stress and aggression by living vicariously through a character on a screen than to run wild, wreaking havoc in the streets.

    The world’s great mythologies, which are truly where storytelling began, are all soaked in blood. There are more heinous acts of violence in them than most anything we’d see in a movie today. But they are also where we got our great wisdom traditions, and teachings of love and compassion. It is not uncommon for a Christian, for example, to tout the teachings of the New Testament while downplaying the cruelty and violence of the Old, but then they’re not getting the whole story. If all of our movies were about love and happiness then most of the story of our collective human condition would also remain untold.

    Statistically speaking, the world is a much less violent place than it used to be. But there is still a great deal of violence, and we have a a lot of violent movies. Some of them have socially redeeming value, certainly some do not. But I think the fact that these movies are popular says more about the general population buying the tickets than the filmmakers and studios producing each product. If we weren’t buying tickets, they’d make different movies. It’s not hard to understand why someone would want to make a violent movie. What is it about our collective psyche that makes us want to see violent movies?

  2. “Then there’s the blood-soaked slasher films like “American Psycho” and “Natural Born Killers” that are aired like propaganda loops on “Splatterdays” and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it “entertainment.”

    If you think “Natural Born Killers” was a celebration of violence in American society than you completely missed the point of that movie. That film puts under a microscope everything that’s been spoken about in this thread. It is a complicated, layered film, despite what the original screenwriter probably intended. What is it about that movie that caused you to have such a… violent reaction?

  3. Dan Wright says:

    Nice article Larry,

  4. Dan Thomas says:

    Larry – Great article. I agree that media does indeed influence us. How that impacts our decision regarding what to show, how much to show, and when to show it, is a tough question. It’s so easy to overreact – I’ve been there myself.

    I honestly don’t know the answer. But one thing I’m sure of is this: If we are regularly asking ourselves the question, we stand a better chance of “doing the right thing” (whatever that is), than if we pretend our decisions have no impact whatsoever.

    Thanks for making us think. I hope we keep doing it.

  5. James Irwin says:

    I seem to recall that Stanley Kubrick personally pulled “A Clockwork Orange” out of theatrical release in Great Britain after an apparent copycat incident of “ultraviolence” made headlines there… Quite a different response from the one Tarantino is taking now.

  6. O'Steen says:

    Larry’s post strikes me as something of a stirring and ringing clarion call to hacks not to behave so much as hacks.

    His sincere request of those willingly employed in the industry, who are there for the explicit, overriding purpose of being over-compensated and having their egos metastasized, to consider the higher artistic or moral good for more than a fraction of a second sits somewhere between quaint optimism and a condition best understood from readings in psychiatry’s DSM manual.

    Those who have attained sufficient status or power in the business *and* also are among the distinct minority anxious to enforce higher artistic or socially responsible standards in the work they produce – don’t require admonishment. Admonishing the rest is futile.

    Furthermore, though well-intentioned, here is why Larry’s attempted moral question is beyond simply irrelevant, but perhaps ill-advised:

    Gun violence in America is predominantly, if not very nearly exclusively about guns. Yes, there are many elements of society which share responsibility, but proportionally, outside of the actual ease and proliferation of gun possession they comprise no more than a *tiny* percent of the problem.

    Drawing the direct correlation between our unique volume of guns and level of gun violence until the persistent drumming-in of the correlation compels genuine redress of the problem is all that is really important.

    The rest is distraction, and more often than not, Larry notwithstanding, a calculated distraction by gun manufacturers and their political marionettes.

    • Larry says:

      An interesting point of view. But violence is more than just guns. And it is a matter of degrees. It could be argued that all drama has conflict at its core, and isn’t conflict synonymous with violence? The main point I’m making is objecting to the statement that art merely holds up a mirror to society. If that were solely true, this would not be an issue because who really enjoys looking in the mirror?

      I am making the case that we are responsible for what we create. We have a choice in how we portray violent behavior. And we can not abdicate our responsibility by simply saying that we were following orders. That excuse has been used in the past and it didn’t work then, either.


  7. Leo Hans says:


    I have to start pointing that I am not from USA and English is not my mother language so if something sounds unfriendly or politically incorrect, perhaps is about my difficulties to express myself.

    I was shocked by Moore’s Bowling for Columbine movie showing people getting guns in a supermarket or having a gun as a reward after opening an account in a bank. In my country, with its own problem’s with violence, it is very complicated to have a gun, you must apply for a license to buy guns or even bullets.

    It’s true that having a knife in your kitchen doesn’t make you a killer, but knives are made for cooking unlike guns that have no other use than killing (with the sole exception I stated before). Even if you think guns as a self defense tool, guns are needed because there are guns in the other side of the conflict too (I don’t even think guns serve well for self defense since statics about having guns for that tends to worst endings).

    Hollywood pictures are seen from people all around the world and so people all around the globe plays the same Playstation games than in USA and situations like that one at Sandy Hook rarely occurs in other countries.

    Entertainment is just that. I love thrillers, some war and action movies, but I don’t like people to have guns but for sports like skeet shooting (I am vegetarian, so I disapprove to go hunting too). I haven’t seen Django yet, so I have no opinion about it, but Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” is the most violent movie I saw with a real time rape scene but actually nobody started raping women after watching it.

    Even though most people would feel repulsion watching that scene it’s true that there are some who may enjoy it, but that’s because there is something wrong in their minds.

    Taking in consideration historical and current events like wars, slavery, racism, terrorism and inequality, maybe we should look at what people has to live in their real life more than what they look at on the movies to get the real reason this kind of things happens.

  8. O'Steen says:

    Larry, thank you for your response. I agree there is more to violence than guns. Because your opening sentence referenced Sandy Hook, I was under the impression that your concern was the narrower subject of Hollywood culpability in American gun violence rather than the plague of violence that has for the duration of human history plagued mankind.

    Art is seldom intended “solely” for a single purpose, however very often it IS intended to hold the proverbial mirror up to society. The higher art forms aspire to do exactly that, and thoughtful consumers of those higher art forms traditionally have sought it out.

    But the argument doesn’t apply here, simply because what comes out of the Hollywood entertainment industry isn’t art. The mortal flaw in the defense Serge posted is to compare Hollywood’s product to art rather than, for instance, to a restaurant franchise irresponsibly selling hamburgers that will make you ill, or automobile companies knowingly manufacturing cars with faulty accelerators.

    For the record, I am no more against admonishing individuals operating in a larger corrupt organization to act as moral agents or to embrace accountability and responsibility any more than I am against the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I just find it akin to admonishing BP or Goldman Sachs to behave better.

    No argument from me that Hollywood products have an indisputable impact, the power to pollute, debase, infantilize and dumb down the population in myriad ways. But any sincere or effective response to violence in America will not be distracted by allusions to Hollywood entertainment and will concentrate on the principal cause – glut and ease of possession of guns in the U.S.

    • Larry says:

      The gun issue is a thorny one – and actively discussed on bigger stages with other players. There’s a saying that’s useful here: “Think Globally, Act Locally.” I have little to no control over the issue of guns. However, the readers of this blog directly control or influence the creation of media around the world.

      We, more than any other group, determine the films, television, and YouTube media that is created and watched globally.

      All I’m suggesting is that, as media creators, we consider the impact of what we create on the minds of the people watching. You can agree or disagree with my point of view. What I’m asking is that you spend a few minutes and think about this. I suggest that you can achieve drama without resorting to graphic violence. That what we produce affects the mind of the viewer and society at large. And that high-quality, creative story-telling can exist without blood, gore, and maimed bodies filling the screen.

      What we control, we can change. And we always have choices.


  9. Justin says:

    I dissagree Larry and question why you even need to comment about the subject? are you a criminal psychologist? All you’ve done is perpetuate the myth that we can’t think for ourselves.

    You are falling for the same old Oprah style incorrect pop psychology that says we have no ability to discern right from wrong and TV brainwashes us. Ask yourself if you’ve ever felt the need to be violent after watching a movie? Of course you haven’t, despite what happens in A Clockwork Orange there is no credible scientific research that says we become violent after watching a violent movie. So why is it that despite the fact that we all know we as individuals are fully capable of watching violence and not being violent, then why do we think that our neighbours/colleagues/friends aren’t the same? Why is it we think we are the only individual with morals?

  10. Ryan says:

    Thanks Larry.
    I think as artists/creatives the biggest disappointment about violence in movies is that it is more often than not, a crutch for a gap in story. I did a spoof video years ago, and the gist was that this guy was writing a screenplay, and he came up three pages short. Fortunately his software had a feature called the F Bomb generator. Using it, the program inserted expletives until the script reached the desired length. Often violence in film feels the same way. Are there valid, compelling reasons for violence in a film? Absolutely. If we’re being honest with ourselves though, our use of violence far outpaces its value as a legitimate plot device.

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