CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN
WHAT DO THE EXAMPLES TEACH US?
by Michael I. Niman and Robert Knox Dentan
University At Buffalo, Dept. of American Studies
Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in a confrontation arising from a 1981 traffic stop involving Abu-Jamal's brother. Put simply, Abu-Jamal is a "cop-killer," the embodiment of all that has gone wrong in our violent society, a bad guy. He is on death row waiting to be murdered by the state in the name of the people of Pennsylvania, who demanded the return of such executions. Abu-Jamal is also a political activist and a journalist. Recently he reported on prison life for National Public Radio (N.P.R.). He currently reports for the alternative Pacifica network.
Officer Michael Lutz is president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. He is a cop, a defender of law and order, a good guy. He doesn't believe that a convicted cop-killer should be a radio commentator. When questioned about Abu-Jamal by the Associated Press, Lutz stated, "He should be dead. He should be dead. He should have been dead a long time ago." Abu-Jamal, Lutz reminded us, "is a coldblooded killer."
While the exact details of the 1981 killing of a police officer will never be know for certain, the upcoming murder of Abu-Jamal will unfold before public view. Unlike the slain police officer, Abu-Jamal will be unarmed. He lives in a cage, supervised by heavily armed guards. In this state he threatens no one. It is safe to call him defenseless. His murder will be premeditated. It has been in the planning for 12 years. There are many accomplices. When Abu-Jamal is killed, the media will be there. We will, as a nation, share the experience.
We will also share the lesson that murder is a legitimate and effective means of resolving problems. In the case of Abu-Jamal, the state has chosen murder as it's preferred method to combat cop-killers. Officer Lutz's cries for revenge become national news. Our children learn the officer's lesson, echoed by politicians and pundits, and another generation of killers is reared.
Popular entertainment mirrors this reality. Like their counterparts in the non-virtual world, characters in television and movies tend to choose violent strategies to resolve conflicts.
This paper examines popular prime time television programs as viewed by men aged 15 - 24, a group for whom murder is the 2nd leading cause of death. It examines how television characters respond to potentially violent situations - whether they chose to employ or avoid violence in resolving these situations. It also looks at who these characters are; whether they are cast as roles models ("good guys") or villains ("bad guys"). Through the actions of role models, heros and scoundrels, what message is our media sending to young men? What models for conflict resolution is it providing?
We have not attempted a scientific survey, but just a casual sampling of some current television programming. Our original plan was to interview young men from social categories at-risk for violence about television programs they watch. We hope this presentation will arouse enough interest to foster support for the completion of our study.
We chose to examine only conflicts where the potential for a violent outcome was clear and immediate. These conflicts usually involved a direct threat to a character or a character's entrance into a dangerous situation (e.g. arresting a `dangerous' person). We divided problem resolution into two categories: `violent' and `active avoidance of violence.' We did not allow for degrees of violence or avoidance. The definition of what is or is not violent, however, is fuzzy. There is no clear cut definition. For this paper we defined violence as actions meant to physically injure, maim or kill an individual or the credible threat of such action, or the use of force and the threat of force to capture and forcibly control an individual. We did not count the verbal bantering common to many programs, especially African-Americanesque sit-coms, as threats since they were clearly just linguistic devices and not actual threats. Active avoidance of violence included acts such as fleeing or begging for mercy, as well as negotiating settlements.
The time period we studied, prime time, is television's least violent, averaging five violent acts per hour. In our study we found it to be even less violent, averaging only 3.3 violent acts per hour. Saturday morning cartoons, by comparison, average 25 acts of violence per hour. Except for Beavis and Butthead, we watched only broadcast television, a less violent medium than cable. Rather than focusing on the most violent shows, we tried to watch the shows that young men who we surveyed tended to watch.
By age 16, the typical American has already `witnessed' approximately 200,000 televised acts of violence. The average American child sees over 1,000 dramatized murders on television each year. The question becomes, as children enter a conflict riddled adult world, is whether or not to employ these violent skills.
A recent study (L,W&R 1990) concluded that films promote violence among children by 1) justifying violence and 2) providing violent role models. Given a justification, children who identify with a violent character are likely to be come violent.
In this context, the results of our study are particularly disturbing. Good guys were responsible for more than 2/3 of the violent solutions employed. Bad guys were responsible for less than 1/6 of the violent resolutions; neutral or ambivalent characters did the rest. In other words, good guys were well over four times as likely to commit violence than bad guys.
Given the choice between violence and the avoidance of violence, good guys were more than 3 times as likely to employ violence, with approximately 3/4 of their chosen resolution strategies being violent while only about 1/4 employed non-violence. Bad guys, by comparison, were more likely to employ non-violence then good guys, choosing the non-violent route at almost 1/2 of the opportunities. Overall, the bad guys were only about 50% more likely to choose violence over non-violence.
This trend was especially evident in the "real life" police program Cops. On Cops, the police use violence, albeit in varying degrees, at almost every opportunity. The alleged criminals, by comparison, actively avoid violence in most instances. The good guy/bad guy roles are cut and dry. The shaky hand held camera profiles the police officers while they talk about social problems, the challenges of police work, etc. Viewers are given the opportunity to momentarily see the world in their eyes and walk in their shoes. By not interviewing the bad guys, the commentator dehumanizes them, leaves them as unknown avatars of deviance, objects which the good guys catch and cage. The good guys always win - the power of the state reigns supreme. So effective is this formula for conveying this message, that the Chinese are now making an imitation of the program.
The typical segment involves a short good guy/bad guy chase ending with the perp surrendering and a number of police officers who slam their prisoner to the ground and slap on a pair of handcuffs. The more reprehensible the criminal, the more violent the arrest. The bad guy's response is usually first to flee, which is avoiding violence, then to surrender and often to pleas their case, which are also nonviolent tactics. The bad guy also usually attempts a rhetorical act of negotiation in an attempt to convince the cops of his or her innocence - which is also a non-violent strategy. Since the directors do not show perps committing violent crimes, viewers see only the violence of the good guys.
It is tempting, and wrong, to dismiss the police violence on Cops as the work of right-wing producers pandering to what they perceive as a law 'n' order audience. ABC's July broadcast of Mississippi Burning, a painfully liberal movie, shows the same bias in favor of violence, in this case in preference to historical fact. In the movie, as in history, the murder of three civil rights workers brings an influx of FBI agents to a small southern county. Thereafter, fiction takes over. In the movie, the humdrum police work which in fact solved the murders, not only fails but also inexplicably causes the Ku Klux Klan to embark on a wave of violence. The solution comes only when the good ol' boy agent, Gene Hackman, persuades the orthodox agent John Hurt to permit torture and death threats as investigative techniques. The only mention of the nonviolence which marked the civil rights movement of the time comes in a speech by a black preacher, the longest given to any African American character. He denounces the idea of loving one's enemy and turning the other cheek. It is hard to imagine a more thorough trashing of legally restricted police procedures or nonviolence as a tactic. On the left as on the right, if the cause is just, then police violence is in order. Only the question of what causes are just is debatable.
The only police character who persistently renounced violence during our viewing was the star of Robocop, in Buffalo available only on Canadian TV. Although the violence on the program is cartoonish, there was more of it than in any other fictional police series we watched. Moreover, the hero is a sort of comic bumbler whose ethics get him into amusing scrapes. Nonviolence is apparently okay only for cops who are silly supermen.
On ABC, even God, the greatest cop and enforcer of all, prefers violence. In the highly promoted televised mini-series production of Steven King's, The Stand, God frees the residents of the divinely inspired utopian community of "Boulder, Colorado" from the treat of the evil city-state of "Las Vegas." The solution is embodied in a nuclear mushroom cloud. In this case, the bomb is ignited by none less then the supposed hand of God. In our Judeo-Christian society there is no force wiser or more powerful then God, whose only recourse on ABC was to use an earthly bomb. God is good, God is violent.
Throughout television, role models, be they God, the police, or Mr. T, overwhelmingly choose violence. "TV represents violence," as one critic puts it, "as an appropriate way to solve interpersonal problems, to get what you want out of life, avenge slights and insults and make up for perceived injustices." Few products or concepts in our society, save for possibly the sanctity of consumption and the omnipresence of the automobile, have as strong of a public relations campaign as violent conflict resolution.
Non-violence, on the other hand, usually gets a bum rap. Fleeing and begging for mercy are scripted as the acts of cowards and sissies. Non-violence is a stance born out of weakness. The suppression of Martin Luther King's philosophy in Mississippi Burning leaves only cowardice as an explanation for the otherwise puzzling passivity of African-Americans targeted by the Klan. So strongly ingrained is this message that Americans from all walks of life are tempted to stop and brawl, rather then turn the other cheek, when insulted.
The television violence we observed perpetuated by good guys was justified since it was aimed at "bad" people. The worse the bad guy, the more justified and more intense the violence. Likewise, violence against "good" people is never justified. This rationalization sends out a message to viewers that their violence is o.k. so long as their enemy is wicked, or in some way can be perceived as less then human. Genocide has its roots in the same logic. This analogy is especially alarming when one looks at how television programs, particularly police shows, scapegoat the poor (especially minorities) as recipients for `justified' violence.
Effective wartime propaganda builds support for the war effort by demonizing the enemy. An excellent example is the U.S. media's treatment of Saddam Hussein who went from friend to foe (actually to devil incarnate) in the course of less then one year. The campaign effectively engineered public opinion, rallying the nation behind a war that public opinion polls showed as unpopular just prior to its start. Once Saddam Hussein and Iraq were properly demonized, the American public celebrated the real life orgy of violence that followed. Even the techno-massacre of fleeing Iraqis on a highway (them sissies) went without question.
The random demonization of television characters representing different societal groups could have similar effects. Unlike wartime propaganda, however, television violence is not necessarily engineered to produce a specific result other then holding the viewer's attention through the commercials. Hence, the actual results are chaotic and unpredictable. TV violence creates psychological entropy.
The "justified" violence that we recorded falls into the above category. Its purpose is to entertain. The complex hierarchies of American society have disempowered and isolated almost everyone. Most people's lives are simultaneously dull, fearful and restricted. Identification with practitioners of TV violence gives them a temporary high. Their rage, having "no plain targets," can vent on TV's bad guys. Humans seek passionate experience. Mediated passion offers freedom from the "cold metropolitan manner" that pervades nonvirtual life. Violence, like love making, is one of the ultimate expressions of passion. Portraying violence and sex is thus television's way of responding to the privacy and blase-ness for which it is in part responsible. Violence, however, is more socially acceptable for television viewing, then is love making. Hence, by process of elimination, we have an excess of violence to meet a demand from passion deprived consumers. In essence, television violence, like television sexploitation, is a cheap substitute for genuine creativity. Sex and violence are old stand-bys which can always be exploited in place of a quality script or talented actors.
As necessary as violence is for cheap television thrills, unjustified violence, being violence which does not punish an evil victim, is still taboo. Hence, Television script writers must create `acceptable' violence. The result, as we observed, is righteous violence, as practiced by good guys. This is the same violence that sends out the most dangerous signals to young viewers.
Further complicating the situation is the reality that the good guy/bad guy roles scripted by television writers are not always perceived by viewers as intended. Young people will often identify not with the good guy, whose lifestyle, language and appearances are alien, but with the bad guy, who looks, acts and speaks like them and their neighbors. Many schoolchildren do not echo the now dated aspirations of Mayberry's kids, or Walley and Beaver Cleavers neighbors, in wanting to be firemen etc. when they "grow up." Many contemporary children proudly declare their hope to be a "player, a pimp or a gangsta." Others simply want to live to grow up.
Contemporary standards of "socially responsible" television mandate, however, that players pimps and gangstas are mostly caught and punished. Usually they are apprehended because they are overpowered or have surrendered; because they didn't employ violence and force as effectively as their adversaries. The message is still the same no matter who the viewer identifies with: the team with the most force wins. For those who identify with and feel the frustration of the losers, the message is not to be caught defenseless again..
This problem of violent media is not new. In 1910 the Ohio Humane Society found 40% of the movies they viewed to be unacceptable for children's eyes because of sex and violence. Sex and violence in the media, however, predated motion pictures, having been around since the advent of the printed word. The difference with television violence is that never before has any form of media so permeated an entire culture. We, as a nation do not simply watch television; aside from employment, it is our number one waking pastime. Ninety five percent of the American population watches some television every day. The average American home has its television on for nearly 8 hours every day. The television is omnipresent and we view it passively.
We retain the images we see on television alongside the visual memories from our own experiences. In effect, we have "become the first culture to have substituted secondary, mediated versions of experience for direct experience of the world." Once images are inside our heads, our minds do not clearly differentiate between the image derived from actual experience, and the image gleaned from the television screen. Hence, with the same ease, we recall pictures of our grandmothers knitting, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Shwartzenegger as the Terminator, our favorite high school teacher, Rosie the waitress with the Bounty paper towel, Mr. Whipple, and a few thousand righteous killings.
When we seek to recall conflict resolutions we have experienced or witnessed, we have at our disposal countless images of glorified television violence - complete with the violent hero getting rewarded with sex, money or power - and a smattering of images of teachers, priests or possibly parents lecturing us on the futility of violence. The younger we are and the fewer real life experiences we have survived, the more prominence our televised images have.
We also have stored in our brains images of fools, cowards, liars, thieves and drug addicts cowering in fear, running away, or shamelessly pleading as they try to avoid violence. These are all losers, reminders of how we can be chewed up and spit out if we make the wrong move. Our minds' eye is polluted with their images as well.
In short, TV shows assume and perhaps teach that nonviolence is a loser's response, while violence is efficient and, for a good cause, appropriate. If children learn brand names from commercials, the assumption on which the TV industry rests, then they may learn these simple erroneous lessons too. A comprehensive media literacy program might temper the impact of TV's glorification of violence as a solution to social problems. Much like an anti-drug program, media literacy programs should discuss the dangers of the media buzz. Children, starting at an early age, should be taught to deconstruct programs as they view them. They should learn to analyze violent episodes and discuss alternative strategies for conflict resolution. They need to understand why the script writers choose violence to beef up their fictional drama, and why those same writers, in real life, would probably choose a more intelligent strategy.
Television writers themselves are beginning to attempt to do this; their attempts, however, seem more likely to produce good feelings among TV executive, then they will results. One recent episode of South Central, for example, ended with the cast lining up to deliver an anti-violence anti-gun message. For many viewers, however, the well meaning message was lost; it had no pizazz - it was a boring presentation. Viewers will likely remember the respect the star earned twice during the show when he brandished his piece before a cowering adversary. Hence the challenge for media literacy campaigns is to be more real then television.
It is too easy, however, to blame real life violence on televised violence alone. A study by Brandon Centerwall, published in the Journal of the American Medial Association compared the increase in murder rates in the United States and Canada following the introduction of television. From 1945 until 1970 the murder rates in both countries rose dramatically, at almost an identical rate, as television ownership increased at identical rates. Couple this with the fact that the American Medical Association and a host of other similarly respected groups have linked screen violence to actual societal violence, and many critics see a clearly emerging culprit.
By blaming televised violence for real life violence, however, television is getting off the hook too easy. The medium itself is as much at fault as is its content. Just as wide spread automobile ownership contributed to the growth of suburbs and the eventual destruction of inner cities, television restructured our entire society. It lead to the destruction of community, with people sitting alone in their own private environments instead of passing time with their neighbors or going to community events. Families stopped talking with each other, rearranged their furniture into a semi-circle around the TV, and gave their full attention to the tube. Even when neighbors visit, the TV often stays on and TV topics rather than community concerns dominate conversations. Television cushioned and facilitated the erosion of traditional social ties. As William Graham Summer pointed out long ago, it is violence within the "we" group that members find hard to justify, not violence against outsiders. TV shrinks that group and thus increases the field of potential violence. Hence, we still may have seen a similar increase in violence due to the destruction of community and the rise of individual isolation, even if television restricted itself to showing the progressive programming that television apologists often cite.
It is possible, however, to overstate this standard criticism. As one critic notes, the recent flood of televised murder trials has spurred many Americans to discuss questions of law and constitutional issues:
Television, long blamed for eroding Americans' sense of community, is increasingly assuming the functions of the institutions it helped destroy. And the television courtroom, with its grisly diagrams and drooping flags, appears to provide one of the new forums where Americans come to find one another.... [T]elevision has created not so much a global village as a global front stoop. Instead of gossiping about our neighbors, about whom we know less and less, we gossip about national figures, about whom we know more and more. The color set in the den has so successfully replaced the sewing circle and the hamburger joint that we are now trying to get from the television that which television caused us to give up.
Whether that effort will be successful remains questionable.
Still, American TV alone does not account for nonvirtual violence. While most of the industrial world, for instance, watches American made television shows (by one estimate, more than 50% of the television watched outside of the U.S. consists of re-runs of American shows), few face a violence problem as serious as ours. Japan, for example, is the only country in the world whose citizens watch more television than Americans. They complement it with a strong dose of violent and pornographic comic books, snuff movies etc., yet their per capita rates of rape and murder are minuscule compared to ours. Belize, on the other hand, is experiencing a surge in violent crime which government leaders blame directly on the new popularity of television and the import of American TV shows. Moreover, the statistics on how much American TV people in other countries watch are somewhat misleading, since, in many countries where the government controls the media - Malaysia and China, for example - censors routinely cut out almost all the sex and a lot of the gaudier violence. What is clear is that it is a combination of factors, and not television alone, which ultimately accounts for the direction of a society.
An interesting case in point is Canada, a country with a close cultural affinity to the United States. Statistics Canada recently reported that the overall crime rate did not increase from 1988 to 1993, a period where the United States had a noticeable increase in violent crime. Canadians watch most of the same movies as Americans and share a good deal of television programming. The two countries differ however, in their media coverage of, and government response to, world events. While the U.S. media, for example, celebrated the `victory' in the Persian Gulf, Canadian media provided coverage that was somewhat more balanced and less jingoistic. While Americans endured the national embarrassment of George Bush's Hitleresque superbowl Gulf War half-time show, Canadians were treated to a more open discourse and debate on the merits of using force in the Gulf. Gulf war coverage in the U.S., much like the prime time television programs we studied, celebrated the image of an all powerful good guy achieving victory through violence. Hence, the orgy of violence which plagued U.S. cities following the Gulf war, like the increase in violence during the VietNam war, should have come as no surprise.
The fact that the burden of this violence has fallen disproportionately upon impoverished communities should also not come as a surprise. Due to a lack of other alternatives, low income children and young adults watch more television then their wealthy counterparts. These are, according to Todd Gitlin, "children who have the least stable families, the fewest life prospects, the most violent environments, and the greatest potential for race and class resentment." He adds, that "they are the ones most exposed to not only images of violence but to the glaring contrast between the things available in their own lives and the things available in the programs and commercials of television." Television violence, and as we are proposing, the celebration of violent conflict resolution, works in concert with other social conditions to produce actual violence. Hence, middle class Japanese are less likely to be affected by mediated violence then their poorer counterparts in Belize City.
Television violence in general and the promotion of violent conflict resolution on television in particular are contributing to the growth of real life violence in America. It is imperative, however, to remember that this mediated violence is only contributing to the problem and is not its sole cause. TV violence must operate in concert with other factors to produce real violence. In condemning television for producing a violent country, we are letting other aspects of our society off the hook too easily. Poverty and the unjust distribution of wealth, for example, are major ingredients in the violent stew of America. Yet, we gather in the New York Hilton at $175 per night, as the brochure reads, "close to Fifth Avenue shopping" with dry saunas and massages, to ruminate about how Hollywood is ruining our society. The irony should not slip by us. As scholars and political leaders, we must look not only at the message and the medium, but at the environment in which it is received. Combating our epidemic of violence demands action on many fronts.