Violence in Pursuit of Justice Is No Vice

By Jarvik, Laurence | Insight on the News, December 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Violence in Pursuit of Justice Is No Vice


Jarvik, Laurence, Insight on the News


Recently the Norwegian prime minister tried to blame a children's television program for the brutal murder of a 5-year-old girl by two other children, ages 5 and 6, in the city of Trondheim. Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers was taken off the air by Swedish television Harlem Bruntdland declared that free-market violence on television was responsible. Not negligent parents who failed to supervise the child's activities. Not the welfare state of which Bruntdland is the top official. Not the Scandinavian version of feminism, which has separated mothers from their children and caused a rising tide of illegitimacy. Not the decline in religious faith among Norwegians. Instead Bruntdland blamed American cartoons - made in Japan!

Of course, Bruntdland was wrong. Within a few weeks Scandinavian television returned the Power Rangers to the air, noting that there was no evidence to link the program to the murders. That the prime minister's wild accusation was taken seriously in the first place shows the reduced stature of commonsense arguments in public debate over violence on television.

No one would deny that what appears on television affects viewers. No one would deny that children should be protected from programming that is not age-appropriate. The best solution to the problem of television violence may be to reinforce the traditional institutions of church, family and neighborhood, which provide the moral armor against bad influences from other sectors of society. And such institutions depend on a moral order deeply rooted in faith rather than social science. Yet current debates over television often are conducted on a terrain that favors liberal social engineering.

This attitude reflects a view of the perfectibility of man, which tries to redefine crime, for example, as a medical problem rather than a moral failure, one of violence rather than of evil. But this view fails to make commonsense distinctions. There is good violence and there is bad violence. When Cain slew Abel, it did not have the same moral dimension as when David slew Goliath. Yet the social scientist would record both actions as "violent" in a content analysis of the Bible.

As Rene Girard commented regarding religious ritual in Violence and the Sacred: "The secret of the dual nature of violence still eludes men. Beneficial violence must be distinguished from harmful violence, and the former continually promoted at the expense of the latter. Ritual is nothing more than the regular exercise of `good' violence."

Recently, Masterpiece Theatre provided a secular example of such ritual when it aired "Dandelion Dead," the story of a serial poisoner who gets caught, tried, convicted and hanged. The hanging was the triumph of good over evil - a violent triumph. In fact, the violence of the hanging was greater than the violence of the poisonings. Yet the poisonings were the crime, and the hanging restored the moral order. Most commercial cop shows follow the same moral trajectory. For example, Law and Order is divided into two sections, and in each episode the depiction of a crime is followed by a trial of the accused. Murder She Wrote features at least a murder a week, yet how many of its prime-time audience (with an average age of 55) does Jessica Fletcher inspire to commit murder? Even the much criticized "woman in jeopardy" movie-of-the-week traditionally ends with the detection of the guilty party and the restoration of the moral order.

It would be impossible to impart moral lessons without depicting immorality. However, the amoral universe of the social engineer abhors depictions of aberrant behaviors. Since social science has no theology of free will, there is the assumption of a Pavlovian stimulus-response mechanism unmediated by moral choice. Therefore, any depiction of antisocial behavior is perceived as a threatening stimulus. Social science was given high status in the former Soviet Union, where dissidents were placed in mental hospitals, and conformity enforced with ruthless determination by secret police. …

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