Book Review – Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment by Harold Schechter

Savage Pastimes is an interesting little book that my esteemed associate, Skippy, loaned me recently.

Written by Harold Schechter, whose body of work consists mostly of books about serial killers, Savage Pastimes looks at the issue of whether modern violent media (i.e. video games and movies) are corrupting influences.

He approaches the question by looking at popular culture down through history, from the festival atmosphere of public executions in the middle ages, to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the horror comics of the 1940’s, to TV westerns in more recent decades.

His conclusion is interesting, but not altogether surprising.  I’ll get to that shortly, but before I do, I need to throw out some anecdotes.

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s.  The first TV show other than Sesame Street that I can solidly anchor in time1 is an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker that aired in the fall of 1974 – I would have been 5.  The episode in question involved an alien that sucked the bone marrow out of its victims – wholesome family entertainment indeed.  Mom and Dad had no particular problem with my little brother and I watching Kolchak.  However, we were shielded from cartoons like Spider-Man, because they were too violent.  Also banned at various points were Speed Racer and Ultraman.  Mixed messages, much?

Even while we were kept from watching the cool shows, we were allowed, even encouraged, to run around the yard with cap guns.  To this day, I have scars from accidentally self-inflicted cuts from hunting knives I was probably way too young to safely handle.  These knives came from a local flea market, where my brother and I purchased quite a few copies of the old EC horror comics.

When I was around 12, and we finally got cable TV, the main screening criteria for the movies that we could watch were how much nudity and sex were depicted, not how much violence.  When we were lobbying to watch The Howling, a werewolf film with a dizzying amount of gore for a mainstream film in 1981, the issue my folks had wasn’t with Robert Picardo’s2 character digging a bullet out of his head, it was with about 20 seconds worth of Elisabeth Brooks’ full frontal nudity – breasts being more damaging than dripping brain matter, apparently.

When my closest brother and I were in high school, and my youngest brother was around 5 (the same age when I was watching Kolchack), we’d rent all manner of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and watch them together.  We all turned out more or less OK.

More recently, my son (13 as of this writing) is quite an accomplished player of pretty much the entire Call of Duty series.  He’s also enjoyed such fine films as Predator and The Expendables with me.  Nevertheless, he’s one of the most compassionate and gentle kids that I know.

So, considering my personal experiences, I wasn’t surprised when Schechter declared that violence in popular culture really doesn’t drive the crime rate up, or turn young consumers of such media into depraved killers.  I was surprised, when I thought back about it, how much violence there was in media that I ravenously consumed as a child.  (Schechter points out numerous instances of this – we as people tend to view our own experiences through a lens of nostalgia.)

What Schechter does well in Savage Pastimes is to clear off that lens, and remind the reader that there has been violence in media for as long as there has been media.  The book is worth reading for this alone.

What Schechter doesn’t do as well3, in my view, is dig into why popular culture is such an easy target for the sanctimonious to attack.  There are a lot of possible answers, I think, ranging from a sincere, but possibly misinformed, desire to make things “better”, to a purely financial interest.  It would have been interesting to look at different groups to see where they were coming from.  Perhaps in another book.

Overall, I think Savage Pastimes is an interesting and fairly quick read that gives the reader relevant historical background and demonstrates the need for a clear and objective assessment of modern media rather than taking the easy route of knee-jerk reactionism.

-Jay

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1I remember other shows, but I can’t tie them to a particular age or time.

2Later to portray the Emergency Medical Hologram on Star Trek: Voyager…

3Schechter also veers dangerously close to sexism a few times with the implication that socially constructed gender roles are the natural, default behaviors of boys and girls.  He’d have been better not to go there and stick with the general argument.

That’s Offensive!

(The following post, or parts of it, have been bouncing around in my head for a couple of weeks.  It hasn’t come together the way I hoped it would, so I’m putting it out there in the hope of sparking some comment discussion.)

Through some odd coincidence, I’ve recently had the opportunity to be on both sides of the offended/not offended table.

a couple of weeks back, I rented a copy of a movie that’s likely to become a cult favorite – Hobo with a Shotgun.

I’d initially planned to write a review of it, figuring that Rutger Hauer as a shotgun-wielding hobo trying to clean up a corrupt town might be good for some Badgering.

The first, I don’t know, 20 minutes were pretty well what I expected.  Then it brought in some elements that seemed maybe a bit over the top, and ultimately went down some paths that I found to be grossly unnecessary and just vile.1

While I ultimately did finish Hobo, it came very close to earning a place on my list of Films That I Couldn’t Force Myself To Sit Through.  That list currently has one entry.2

Now, as it happened, fresh off of my encounter with Hobo, there was some mandatory training at work.

We get a lot of mandatory training, including training on avoiding and preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.  I’d been through this training a few weeks back, but some friends in another department were in a later session.  There are some videos that go along with the training, and they’re fairly graphic in content and language.

My session showed one of the three.  The other two were “suggested”, which I interpreted as meaning “optional”, so I took the “don’t watch them” option.

My friends saw a different one in their session, and chose to watch the others at their desks.

Now, the video they saw in their session was, according to them, useful and appropriate.  I have no reason to doubt them on that.

The video that they watched at their desks that I didn’t see, they both found inappropriately graphic – to the extent that someone watching similar material at work outside of the context of official training could well have been written up for it.  Again, I have no reason to doubt them on that.

The video that all three of us  saw is the interesting one.  When I watched it, I thought that it was somewhat raw and had some crude language in it, but didn’t find it unusually shocking.

They did, and they told me about it quite clearly.3

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that my knee-jerk reaction to their concerns was to think “it didn’t really bother me much, so it shouldn’t bother them.”

I hope that didn’t come out in my initial response to them, because if it did, I was a complete assclown.

The fact of the matter is that whether I found the video offensive or not is completely immaterial to whether or not they did.  That point took a few minutes to sink in, but part of the reason that it finally did was because my reaction to Hobo was still fresh in my mind.  I don’t get to declare my perspective to be the correct one simply because it happens to be mine.

As it turns out, the question of whether or not someone finds a particular video (for example)4 offensive isn’t even the interesting question.  Why someone finds a particular video offensive is more intriguing because discussion of those reasons offers opportunities for people to learn from one another.

It can be a tricky discussion to have, though, because of the all-too-common view that we have some right to not be offended, and if I dare question your offense, I’m guilty of violating that right.  Such discussions can easily collapse into arguments and personal attacks.

But you have no more right to not be offended than you have a right to drive around in a brand new red Corvette.  Neither do I.  Neither does anyone else.  That doesn’t mean that I have a right to go out of my way to offend you just for the sport of it, or that crudeness and vulgarity should be the norm.

I think that deliberate offensiveness can serve a purpose – witness the cigarette warnings used in Canada – because offensive things can stick in your head whereas milder approaches might not.  I also think that it’s sometimes a good idea to seek out things that you find offensive and try to understand the other perspective.5

Now, the thing that I’m having trouble with is this:  Given that certain things offend me (or you), just how much effort should I put into avoiding those things?  Should I go out of my way to avoid them?  Should I accept that some level of offensiveness is just a part of life and deal with it?  Should I develop a thicker skin?  What’s an acceptable daily allowance of offense?

Feedback wanted!

-Jay
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1It was suggested to me by a colleague that perhaps it was necessary to make the villains in the film extra-reprehensible in order to make a shotgun-toting vigilante vagrant into a more sympathetic character. That’s a good point.

2As distinct from the very long list of Films That I Have No Desire To Sit Through Again.  That list includes some excellent films, such as The Exorcist, and some not-so-excellent films, such as anything directed by Uwe Boll.

3If there’s one thing I can usually count on these two for, it’s brutal honesty.

4Or word.  Profanity can be a fun topic to discuss.  Odds are that you use a somewhat different vocabulary when you’re by yourself vice with a group of people, and a different vocabulary if you’re in a social situation vice a business setting.

5Politics and religion tend to be the heavy hitters in this scenario.  Remember that understanding another perspective doesn’t obligate you to agree with it.