Media Violence: Excitement, Disgust, and Morality

This was inspired by Lorenzo‘s recent blog post on Sicario, which I highly recommend reading. The ideas presented here on “difficult questions” and moral ambiguity are indebted to it and his other writings.

Let’s begin with a couple of short video clips to bring to mind the object of this essay. Here is Steven Soderbergh describing a peculiar experience he had on a plane flight.

Here is Thae Yong-ho, First Secretary of the DPRK Embassy in the UK, comparing his children’s reaction to violence in Gaza shown on television to that of other people in the UK.

How to explain this?

Let’s begin by digging into possible reasons for the reactions of excitement or disgust to imperialist media violence. Recently a deliriously fascist trailer was released for a deliriously fascist movie, Hardcore. The movie’s filmed perspective is first person and the violence depicted is extreme and “stylized.” I saw this trending on Facebook back when it was first released and made the mistake of looking at how people were reacting to it, which was generally with excitement for its violence and awe for its technical accomplishment. Critics have been similarly positive, with one at the Hollywood Reporter writing, “Hardcore blasts along like a supercharged computer-game shoot-em-up, bursting with sick humor and splatterpunk violence.” This is the expected fascist response, and that it seems to be the main reaction says much about the ideological sphere of the YouTube viewing, IMDB browsing young male set. I haven’t actually seen anyone find the extreme “stylized” violence distasteful. I believe a line can be drawn between the reaction of excitement to simulated unrestrained violence in the media and imperialism. The basic contradiction that is triggering this kind of giddy catharsis in response to violence is one between being filled with the violent social determinations of imperialism and the inability to act them out, or seeing them as reserved for others who exist in a privileged social space of violence (e.g., military members or criminals). The antagonistic nature of capitalism also keeps people simmering in social conflict, and the perturbation resulting from this leads many (especially egotistical males) to infantile violent ideation. The obstacles to the fulfillment of desires, with this fulfillment seen as a right, become the target of violent fantasies that pull from the popular myths on justice and the imposition of violence needed to establish it.

However, wouldn’t one expect a truly human response to this kind of violence, in the absence of class and economic conflict, to be precisely disgust? Remember the video of the DPRK diplomat: his children felt nauseated by real violence that others conditioned in imperialism simply overlook as an accepted part of their daily reality (though it should be noted that this complacency can be very easily broken by the imperialists with their propaganda when they want to trigger a response). Even if it’s simulated, when you see someone being tortured, shot, bled, or maimed, shouldn’t the ideal response, assuming a general desire for peace, be disgust instead of bloodlust? I realized recently that the more I removed myself from the normal imperialist ideology of the US, the more my reaction to violence in the media did become one of disgust. I recently watched the first episode of the new season of Fargo, towards the end of which there was a shooting involving several people that was styled as dead-pan. The wanted reaction to violence with this sort of tone seems to be a kind of aloof surprise (maybe mixed with some “dark” humor), but my reaction to the shooting was undiluted disgust not just with the violence depicted, but with the fact that the show would present it in such a way and seemingly expect a different or more complex reaction – I turned it off. (That said, I don’t think this was a “correct” reaction, just one that was conditioned by the aforementioned ideological shift.) There is a simple argument that some make that we are calloused to violence from overexposure. Though there is perhaps some truth to that, this explanation doesn’t pierce down into the basis of violent ideology or its functions, nor can it explain how quickly the imperialist media is able to call forth and use emotional reactions to violence when it wants them by imbuing them with certain cues.

As mentioned earlier, there is an impetus for all this violence: colonialism and imperialism – this particular violent ideology came out of capitalism. Violent ideology has been central to the project of capitalism from the beginning, but this current ideology is qualitatively different and more complex than historical analogues. Capitalism itself creates complexity in social forms as its constraints and determinations are acted out, so this growing complexity of violent ideology shouldn’t be any surprise, especially given all of the newly available media forms. For instance, in the case of cheesy action B movies, violent ideology becomes aware of itself, parodies itself, and has fun with simulations of its most extreme manifestations. Relatedly, the ability for people to make abstract the reality of whole populations in certain ways that enable violence can also be, in part, seen as a result of capitalism. The nature of capitalism forces humans to abstract in certain ways because they need to analyze social forms for potential profitability or utility. These social forms become differentiated already outside of consciousness as society acts out the contradictions of the capitalist social order. Humans mostly just abstract around these already existing material differentiations. Though communists have an idea of the proletariat in our ideology, what it signifies is an actually existing social form oppressed by the social order. Similarly, outside populations enter into the spontaneous ideology of the colonialist or imperialist as an obstacle or tool for economic gain. They are already abstracted and placed in the context of capitalism before they are even interacted with, and the immediate socially determined reaction to them is to use them for profit or remove them as an obstacle (or both). One can see how genocidal ideology arises out of such circumstances!

Let’s examine how violent ideology connects to capitalism a little more closely. Much of the process of colonialism was carried out through the use of debt as a mechanism for both expansion and control. Conquests were expensive and required the extension of credit, which would have to be paid back in goods returned. This required the usage of massive violence for acts of plunder that took place, and this required an ideology of violence to be both spontaneously created by the killers as well as consciously propagated by the ruling class. If the violence was not employed, the debt would not be paid, and therefore the debt was issued on the assumption of massacre. The institutionalization of this plunder in particular areas would make up the colonial period, wherein brutal mass killings occurred as a normal method of interacting with colonized populations. But the ideology wasn’t simply violent, there was also justification for this plunder to be found in its supposed “civilizing” effects and the propagation of religion, both of which were used to control the target population and to fit them into a larger economic system in which they would be the most exploited. This enabled colonization to be seen as essentially moral by those meant to carry it out, or at least the citizenry back home, even though the reason for it had nothing whatsoever to do with such concerns.

The US grew out of a colonial project and became an imperialist nation as part of its founding, as was the intention of the “founding fathers,” and its ideology of violence became extended into the projection of its own force unmediated by a larger colonial power. One of the main reasons to carry out the revolution for the American elites was that the British were holding the colonists back from economic opportunities in the violent expansion to the West and use of slavery. This violence had become an expression of a specifically American spirit carried out for the gain of a white people.

The United States created an entire mythology of the white supremacist colonization of the country, which has been a pillar of the sensibility of the population for decades, propping up an ideal of rugged individuality established and sustained with violence. This trope is as popular now as it ever was and is a primary facet of the US’s particular brand of fascism. To take a recent example, in American Sniper we see the rugged individual soldier become tarnished by the violence he inflicts on a group of people who seem to force these reactions from him, beginning with a woman and child trying to attack a group of soldiers with an explosive. It isn’t that he is imposing violence, but that he simply must be violent in reaction to them to protect us and his imperialist brothers in arms. It’s negatively determined, so the sniper’s virtue can be tarnished but not questioned; virtue is the essential characteristic of the violent rugged American, which becomes a driving force as they are thrown into this mean world full of monsters and savages. We are meant to sympathize with his progression through the moral confusion of being an imperialist murderer, and average Americans are able to see themselves here a bit – most Americans have lost some pride in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, though this is an unstable perception and typically located firmly behind the rhetoric of “support our troops.” The contradiction between religious moralism and “necessary” brutal violence becomes only somewhat resolved into a feeling of dirtiness, unease, and dissonance. The theme of moral ambiguity that this contradiction comes to is now seen as the height of artistic expression in films involving violence. The contradiction resolves itself with the (sometimes anti-)catharsis of the audience coming to a recognition of the need for imperialist violence regardless of their own feelings (though fascists do love their imperialist violence). The artistic quality seen by critics seems almost quantitatively determined, which is measured in two ways (though these can compete). The first way is by how damaged the protagonist is by their own role in imperialism – that is to say, by the level of their sacrifice. The second is the perceived tentativeness of the catharsis (as long as it doesn’t completely dissipate), as though the intellectualization of imperialist violence becomes a key desired effect, along with the confused numbing that this imposes. It’s, of course, realistic and asks difficult questions. But what creates this “reality”? What is the basis for these “difficult questions”? The foundations are not approached because the surface phenomena are too opaque and there has been a long propaganda campaign to impose the idea that imperialism is necessary and beneficial.

Americans are made to identify with the violence their country has to inflict for the preservation of capitalism and on the “blowback” from this preservation. When the moral valence of the violence becomes obviously negative, as occurred for many in the case of the genocidal war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia), this becomes reflected in the media. Though some liberals think that the war in Vietnam was a “mistake” that happened because bad people were in power, this violence was necessary for imperialism to carry out, because the danger of communism spreading in poor countries was very real. Socialist countries would cease becoming areas for exploitation and join into economic relations with the USSR and/or China. If communism was unimpeded by imperialist intervention, it would’ve spread quickly across oppressed nations and capitalism would not be the hegemonic force it is now. Without the ability to exploit these countries, the US economy would crumble along with the material base that sustains the imperialist system. This genocidal violence was an economic necessity for capitalism that was acted out through the US ruling class and its lackeys, resulting in the murder of millions of people. Americans identifying with these goals and the violence involved not only were made to absorb the violent ideology of the ruling class, but had to engage in the self-maintenance of this ideology to sustain their ability to live a normal life in the given conditions. The white supremacist ideology of colonialism and slavery fit perfectly into the mindset required for imperialism to be carried out with the complicity of the majority of its citizens. Through time this white supremacy has morphed and displaced itself into a more general (or less obviously racist) supremacist ideology through the need for it to be adapted across cultures, which has been enough to keep it invisible to most as its spread continues even though statistics show the blatant and extreme racism of the concrete results of imperialism.

Hopefully the above has exposed some of the reason for the response of excitement to media violence and how imperialism is involved in violent ideology formation. But where do we stand as communists in relation to “difficult questions” and moral ambiguity? We aren’t free from these concerns, but they are grounded in and guided by the goal of building a world free of exploitation. For the imperialists, the answers to “difficult questions” are strategies for social control to extend and deepen imperialism. Our answers to “difficult questions” are strategies to destroy the conditions for the asking of such questions – for the questions to not arise. On the topic of moral ambiguity, Engels clarified the nature of this for communists in Anti-Dühring.

We maintain on the contrary that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.

A really human morality simply doesn’t exist yet and shouldn’t be expected to, and the proletariat should be, as much as possible, conscious of both the ideological nature of morality (so as to be aware of its ultimate plasticity) and the place it has in the context of class conflict.

However, for those living in or with nations that stand as oppressors, or come out of a non-proletarian class background, perhaps this understanding only becomes superficially placed over deeper drives from the internalization of oppressor ideology, especially if these drives haven’t been made conscious yet through study and self-criticism. This sort of dynamic would create clear problems with deviationist tendencies among the petty-bourgeoisie in every communist revolution. An example of this is the application of a mechanical, liberal morality, something convenient for petty-bourgeois “revolutionaries” without a history of being oppressed to hold, as a frame for evaluating class conflict, finding it to be distasteful. This was the sort of thinking that led Mao to his famous retort about dinner parties and insurrections. Though the oppressed live with violence inflicted on them from imperialism, the more privileged leftists in imperialist nations only comparatively dip their feet in oppression and rely a lot on sympathy with the oppressed. If a communist in that circumstance recognizes their privileged standing as a consequence of the imperialist domination of their country over others (and they should), this relationship involves, in part, the attachment of the emotion of shame or shamefulness to bourgeois culture and its effects both in society and personally.

In the climax of Steve McQueen’s examination of this emotion in his film Shame, we find the line, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.” Two sides of a contradiction between the intention of transcending a past and the lived reality of that past’s inescapability collide brutally in the scene this narration occurs over and what happens afterwards. The film goes on to show that such a merely ideal delineation does not at all free the individual from their history or having that history affect their actions – the film shows the instability and limitation of making conscious a situation abstractly and acting purposefully to change it. For a privileged leftist, a recognition of this dynamic can serve as a point for self-critique while moving towards superseding the spontaneous ideology that a privileged history imparts. In addition, I think the irresolvability of the contradiction can serve as one among other motive forces for communists with backgrounds among oppressors, as it confronts the moral ambiguity of having benefited from imperialism and turns it into an engine for anti-imperialism. In such a way the complacency that leads some comrades to think they’ve superseded their past attitudes or current environment, even as in their deeds they show this to not be the case, is removed, and backtracking into liberalism gives negative feedback. But one should be careful to not let such a personal project slip into solipsism, a moral auto-immune disorder, or pity – communists, above all, need strength.


2 thoughts on “Media Violence: Excitement, Disgust, and Morality

  1. Like everything else you’ve been doing on this blog, this is great and so full of valuable observations. I’m really gratified that you’ve found my writing on “morally ambiguous” war films useful.


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