Saturday, March 23, 2013

Depicting reality or escaping from it?

I'm finally getting around to reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. The descriptions of how widespread and commonplace violence was in the 'popular culture' of the medieval and middle ages make for fun reading, but I wonder (because I don't know) how representative said popular culture was of the larger societies it existed in at the time.

I bring this up because that doesn't appear to be the case today--if anything, the inverse seems to be true. Agnostic has indefatigably documented a whole host of things, including this, in a long-running analyses of cultural differences between rising (and high) crime eras and declining (and low) crime eras. Check out comic books from the low crime mid-20th century, for example. Video games, a sort of contemporary successor to comic books, have become far more graphically violent and intentionally realistic in their depictions of said violence (having previously opted for stylized depictions of violence and a predilection for surreality) over the last few decades as actual rates of violent crime have steadily dropped.

As real life in the West has become increasingly more peaceful over the last twenty years, football has clearly surpassed baseball as America's pass time and MMA has left boxing behind. In many ways, as we've become less violent, our popular culture has become more so. Moving outside the US, the exceptionally pacifistic Japanese are into some extremely gruesome and disgusting stuff.

More generally, Quentin Tarantino is a successful director and producer, but if aliens were to try and surmise what life on earth is like for its human inhabitants by viewing Kill Bill and Django Unchained, their conceptions would be wildly off base. Western popular culture is way more violent than life in the Occident actually is.


Anonymous said...

Looking at comic books there is the possible issue of the comic book code, the first forms of which came into effect in the mid 40s (about half way through a "falling crime" period).

agnostic would no doubt see this as a symptom of the times ("It's so bad they have to try to regulate it!") but confirmation bias aside its hard to see that as more persuasive than the CBCs acting as an unnatural suppressor, artificially lowering a monotonic trend. and the Dark Age of Comic Books begins in the 80s. Comics codes were not such a thing in Europe or Japan, so those markets probably reveal a more natural trend over time (there were a number of English comic book writers moving into working in the US during the 80s, for this reason).

even agnostic argues for a sadistic violence / righteous violence difference (I don't find that very persuasive again) rather than a straight up violent / non-violent contrast.

Video games, a sort of contemporary successor to comic books, have become far more graphically violent and intentionally realistic in their depictions of said violence

its hard to separate that out from the aging of the audience. Sonic the Hedgehog isn't aimed at 18 year olds or 15 year olds, who wouldn't have played what was marketed as a toy, while the God of War and Doom are. Looking at PC games rather than console games might modify the trend a bit, although early PC designers such as Lori Cole have argued that early computer games appealed to cerebral nerds, as an explanation for a lack of violence in them despite an older audience.

Moving outside the US, the exceptionally pacifistic Japanese are into some extremely gruesome and disgusting stuff.

On the other hand, I get the impression lower murder rate Europeans (even ethnically adjusted) are just not into as much violent stuff - things Lars Von Trier are really not typical of the European mainstream.

Dan said...

As for the declining crime rate, I think technology matters a lot.

Ways that technology reduces crime:

1 - Entertainments like Facebook and cable TV keep people at home and out of trouble.

2 - Anti crime cameras are everywhere in US cities. You have to be a special kind of stupid to commit a crime on camera.

3 - Computerized police records keep the bad guys in trouble. Instead of having 7 records in 7 different towns, now its piled together and instantly accessible. A bad guy can't escape his past and its easier to lock him up.

4 - Cell phones everywhere. You can barely start an argument before five people around you are calling it in.

5 - Meds keep the crazies sedated.

6 - Retail security systems (RFID, alarms) make stealing difficult.

7 - When few people carry cash anymore, mugging doesn't pay.

8 - Home and auto security systems make the two main forms of robbery difficult.

9 - In an electronic age, financial scams leave a long trail.

10 - GPS means cops get to the scene fast for two reasons: 1 - Dispatchers can easily see which cop is the closest, and 2 - cops aren't spending their time lost on unfamiliar side streets.

11 - Hot spot computerized crime mapping lets the cops put an Iraq-style surge anywhere that gets exciting.

JayMan said...


JayMan said...

Dan, good points.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks. Among whites, those in Anglo countries (Britain and her offshoots) tend to be a bit worse behaved than whites in other countries. I wonder if there is an effective, accessible measurement of differences in violence as expressed through popular culture in countries like Canada, Australia, the US, and Britain vs France, Scandanavia, Germany, etc on the other.


Great points. It's a double-edged sword in some cases (cell phones also facilitate criminal activity, especially disposable ones), but my guess is the stronger argument is in your favor, net-net.

Dan said...

"Among whites, those in Anglo countries (Britain and her offshoots) tend to be a bit worse behaved than whites in other countries."

If you don't count the Russians. They manage, mostly without guns, to have one of the highest murder rates in the world. I was in a club in Korea and the first thing locals did before sitting at a table with me was make sure I wasn't Russian, their reputation precedes them that far.

Britain does have a degraded chav culture, which seems to be the result of many decades of welfare, weakness of the church of England, and lame policing. American whites seem to be better behaved. But Brits at the height of the empire were among the world's most civilized. Has the decent of a people ever been so rapid? Compare Downton Abbey (rich and poor) with their modern descendents.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Excellent post and discussion.

I would add that the murder mystery is more popular in countries, and regions of countries, where the rate of violent crime is lower. It's only a fun fantasy if it's not very likely to come true.


Violence to animals was much more socially acceptable when I was growing up.