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Torture on Television

This opinion essay appeared on July 3, 2016 in the Durham Herald-Sun.  It is based in part on research for an essay in the journal The Muslim World, April, 2013, Volume 103, Issue 2.

Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker, recently opened a laudatory review of two new television series with this caveat:

“If you don’t watch shows that include sexual violence, please avoid ‘Outlander.’ (Actually, you might rethink ‘The Americans,’ too.) Like ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Outlander’ is set in a universe in which rape is a constant threat, and not just for women.”

Many of my friends love the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” and I wrote a long essay for a journal called Muslim World, arguing that the series is horrible.  Nussbaum’s review prompts me to try again.  Watching human beings violate one another in the worst possible ways on a screen can cause a kind of numbness, making horror mundane.  To “escape” into such a fictive “universe,” as some friends have told me they do, is to turn off a part of your soul that needs to be vibrantly awake if we are to love one another well and be courageous for the sake of flourishing together.  Fans alternatively contend that these shows are “realistic,” as if watching rape after rape after beheading after impaling (“Game of Thrones” features all of the above) is to become acquainted with the facts of life.

The allure of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Outlander” is, in part, their complex, unique characters, and their intricately drawn storylines. The brilliant writers for such series simultaneously encourage viewers genuinely to care about the future of an individual on the screen, while warning viewers to prepare themselves to view this individual’s violation or death on the screen.  I see no way that this helps someone appreciate the beautiful uniqueness of a neighbor, child, co-worker, or spouse or to trust that the world is a mostly-not-horrifying place.  In short, shows like “Game of Thrones” can make us less loving and less open to trust.  I also believe that television violence, however well-written or decorated with dragons, has encouraged cynicism.  Screen violence has dulled moral outrage when we discover, for instance, that our own government has been torturing people.  Repetitively entering universes “in which rape is a constant threat” (Nussbaum’s phrase) may lead viewers to think sexual domination is normal.  Repetitively watching violence on screen may have led people to accept brutality as politically necessary.

My long essay for Muslim World came out of a conference in 2011 here in Durham with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  One of my teammates put the purpose of the conference like this: we wanted people to turn their eyes toward a set of facts about U.S. sponsored torture that people seemed to be ignoring.  Robin Kirk wrote an essay for the conference that explained we were slightly off, in that, after September 11, 2001, television shows had actually offered a continual loop of torture, and people were happily watching.  People had become convinced that torture is simply how the world works.  (Even CIA and FBI studies report torture as ineffectual, unless your purpose is to render people mute.)

In a 2002 essay for The Christian Science Monitor, Gregory M. Lamb wrote about a drastic increase in violence generally on television after 9/11: “So much for media critics’ expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after . . . September 11. Instead, scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years.”   Lamb names a Parents Television Council (PTC) study, an organization that, in 2008, characterized Fox’s series ‘24’ as the biggest offender:  “A Parents Television Council review found that ‘24’ showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons.” Other television programming kept up: “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture. Data from 2006 to 2007 showed that there were 212 scenes of torture” that year alone.

Adam Green also wrote an essay for the New York Times in 2005, tracing how story-lines in ‘24’ had “normalized torture,” shifting our perceptions of torture as “a violation of the norms governing everyday society” to “the turning point – at times even the starting point – for social relations.”  I believe sexual violence and domination in popular series today continue this trajectory, with more sophisticated storylines and better costumes. I submit that putting your eyeballs in front of these shows is to endanger your capacity to envision a universe not marked by brutality.  Finally, in his book on fear as a mechanism of social control, Corey Robin asks “What exactly, we must ask ourselves, is missing from our world that we should require spilled blood and incinerated flesh, and the fear such havoc and loss create, to feel alive?”  I suggest it need not be so.

Is Fear Your God?

AP680826625536 (1)This opinion essay first appeared on Sunday, June 4, 2016, in the Durham Herald-Sun. Please consider subscribing to your local paper.  Local journalism needs our support. 

My daughter said something recently that made me stop, wipe my dish-watery hands off, and ask her permission to quote her. She said that CNN Student News, which she is told to watch every morning at school, is “all about war, and disease; and people are scared.”  She is a brave kid, not naturally prone to anxiety, but this barrage of “current events” has had her wondering whether the world is a mostly dangerous place.  She is noting how this ritual of sitting down to watch, over and over again, about death—destruction—plague, is shaping the imaginations of her peers.

I was a teenager during the Reagan era, and teens who were aware during that time were clear the adults in charge of the world were insane. We did not expect to live past thirty.  A wily political scientist may even today explain “Mutually Assured Destruction” sufficient to convince people around her of MAD’s wisdom, but teenagers who lived through it, and who were not susceptible to rhetorical manipulation, were clear this was a ludicrous way for human beings to exist.  We envisioned our lives under an umbrella of doom, one buffoon away from apocalypse.  I remember watching a videotape of the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” and thinking, “um, this is not helping.”  I did not laugh.  It was too real.

During this time, the horrors of Apartheid South Africa were finally making news in mainstream media, and so aware kids were supposed to find hope sufficient to fight for divestment, remaining aware that our own government was funding death squads in Central America and threatening our entire earth with death by nuclear apocalypse. I was fourteen when Prince’s “1999” came out, and he summed up perfectly the mood of many young people at that time.  We would be lucky to live seventeen more years to see thirty.  By high-school graduation, we had a whole new reason to be afraid, as HIV/AIDS made headlines daily, usually scapegoating our gay friends or making all of us afraid to kiss anyone.

So, I can sympathize with my daughter when she wonders whether the best way to be informed about the world is to be told over and over that people are being drowned, beheaded, poisoned and infected. And, by the way, all the polar bears are going to die and your grandchildren will know a world without frogs.  Apocalyptic thinking can effectively debilitate people.  It can lead to a kind of fear-induced despondency.  As Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine named in their 1997 song “Vietnow,” “Shock around the clock, from noon ’til noon” can lead you to a place where “FEAR is your only god.”  The songwriters graciously suggest it may be better to turn off your radio (or CNN), rather than walking around in the world with a zombifying sense of terror.

Novelist and poet Margaret Atwood has written a riveting triptych of what she terms “speculative fiction,” describing life in and around an apocalypse. One of her heroines describes a feeling that I recognize in myself and others around me:

We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling.  The waiting builds up in you like a tide.  You start wanting it to be done with.  You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with.  She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake.

Stop reading my words now, please, if you have not read Atwood’s novels and you do not want to know a central theme. The first of the three books ends asking whether human beings are more worth saving than killing.  The second of the three books ends with an annual feast of “Saint Julian and All Souls,” drawing on the visions of fourteenth-century writer Julian of Norwich, and Atwood there repeats the question.  I cannot spoil the final picture in Atwood’s triptych, because I have not finished it.  I am already missing the characters too much to turn pages quickly.

Atwood’s use of Mother Julian has me trying to stop implicitly weighing the evidence of hope against the data of despair. Forget neuroscience or phrenology or whatever else someone is telling you authoritatively about humanity.  There is no evidence people are more or less prone to incinerate ourselves in a climate apocalypse or a race war.  As Atwood writes, “What is our Cosmos but a snowflake? What is it but a piece of lace?”  To find that beauty, I must release my hold on what I usually think of as truth, and see the world askew.

* According to the AP Images site, from which I pulled this image, “In this Jan. 12, 1963 file photo, demonstrator Michael Kirby, 25, of Milton, Mass., carrying a peace sign, is taken into custody by police in Groton, Conn., outside the launching site of the Polaris nuclear missile submarine USS Nathan Hale. Kirby, a former nuclear weapons specialist in the Navy, was one of two pacifists arrested at the site.  Under the shadow of the Cold War’s threat of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ 1963 was the year of dawning arms control between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; they signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

 

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