Friday, January 26, 2007

Violence -- Don't We Love It?

We’re constantly being told we live in a violent society. Like so much received wisdom, that may not be quite the case. And crime writers, who may be criticized for adding to the problem by writing about mayhem and murder, should get the facts.

In pre-industrial England and the early American colonies you didn’t travel on the roads at night because of highway robbers, brigands and footpads. [What a great word, footpads.] Today, I would think nothing of getting in the car and driving alone two hundred miles into central Michigan in the night. In Chicago, I walk almost everywhere I go.

The murder rate in England can be calculated quite accurately back as far as 1200, using court records. We may think of this as an agrarian Eden, but in fact murder rates up to 1800 were 21 per 100,000. The current rate in the U.K. is 1.4 per 100,000 and the U.S. is around 4. There are some studies that conclude rates in the U.K. before 1800 were over the 21 per 100,000 figures.

In hunter-gatherer societies, over half the deaths may have been murder. Societies varied, of course, but some guesstimates place deaths at 32 per cent from illness, 15 per cent accident, and all the rest, 53 per cent, murder.

I won’t belabor this, much as I’d like to.

Yes, we have crime in the U.S. And too many guns. And there are unsafe places. But for most people, going to the evening PTA meeting, walking to work, jogging in the park, picking up groceries, whatever, violence is very, very rare by any historical perspective.

Maybe we have a gut-realization of that. Maybe we realize instinctively that we are generally safe, even coddled, and maybe our primitive hunter-gatherer brain feels there’s something a little bit askew about this. Could that be why we love violent movies and TV? Could that be why we read crime novels and why some of us are even lucky enough to write them?

Maybe violence in fiction isn’t all bad. Well-written violence in fiction may even remind us how ugly real violence is. And maybe it’s cathartic as well.

Barbara D'Amato


Michael Dymmoch said...

The truth is almost always more complicated and less newsworthy than the made-up stuff.

Facts are--I think--Konrad Lorenz made all the pertinent points decades ago in On Aggression, and those who forget the lessons of history do, truely, repeat them.

My dad grew up using guns. He'd never have considered using one on a human being. The beast is us. Now. No maybe about it. Unless we face the fact, we'll never change it.

Barbara D'Amato said...

You're so right, Michael.
And Lorenz is well worth reading today. Despite all the research since, he really holds up.

The Home Office said...

Great post, Barbara. What I write is often funny, and, being crome ficiton, is also sometimes violent. The two are never combined to trivialize the violence. It's here, and we have to live with it. As writers, I feel we need to deal with it in a realiztic fashion. It should never be trivialized. Violence always hurts, even when reading it.

Sean Chercover said...

Great post Barbara, and comment, Michael. Good points.

In 2005, there were 537 murders in New York City (and the five boroughs).

In 1990, there were slightly more than 2,000 in the same area.

In the course of a typical year during the Great Depression, there were over 2,000 in the Bowery alone.

The fact is, we are becoming increasingly safe. And it amazes me that, the safer we become, the more in danger we feel.

We're an odd species.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Home Office and Sean--

Thank you for the responses. I agree with H.O. that you shouldn't trivialize the effects of violence. Good fiction can make the evils of it immediate.

Sean's statistics are well worth keeping in mind. We live in an unusually safe society. Why is it that, as he says, "the safer we become, the more in danger we feel?" Is it as simple as -- more television coverage makes it seem cloer to us?

The Home Office said...

Re: Sean's comment and Barbara's response. I think media coverage has a great deal to do with it. I also think that as we become in fact safer, the loss of life becomes more tragic to us, and therefore something to be more feared. In a world where everyone might know, or be aware of, someone who had been murdered, the commonplace nature of it might serve to somehow minimize the fear. Murder's contemporary rarity makes it a much bigger deal when it happens, and there fore scarier.

On the other hand, maybe we're just all becoming weenies. I've been wrong before.

Maryann Mercer said...

Good words, Barbara. Not sure how much safer we are these days, but it amazes me how I can watch the news, as well as the fictional crime shows, with less of a reaction than when I read the scenes of violence in the pages of a good thriller or mystery. Imagination certainly plays a part, but I wonder if we haven't seen so much that violence becomes an accepted part of daily life. We only react to it on a grand scale, or when our brains have to create the pictures to match the words we see on the page.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Maryann. Good point. I'm interested that you find violence in print more affecting than violence on TV. I wonder how many people feel that way.