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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.

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