Monday, June 13, 2005

They pack the 9, they fire it at prime time

The second slice of half baked philosophy pie
(The same warning applies.)

Last night’s episode of Doctor Who, Bad Wolf, presented a very odd sight. Actually, it presented a number of very odd sights but I’m just interested in one at the moment. It was the sight of the Doctor carrying a large and powerful looking gun. Fans of previous series will probably have experienced a slight sense of shock. I know I did. Doctor Who doesn’t use a gun, period (as our great leader might say). Anyway, it struck me that there were probably lots of younger viewers who were comforted when he picked up the weapon and completely baffled when he discarded it again. In fact, there are probably a lot of viewers who find the idea of a hero without a gun unsettling. Voila, instant cue for another woolly headed exploration of human nature and the conflicts involved in being a liberal leftie in the modern world.

Here’s my “opinion in a pot” regarding guns and violence: it’s bad, m’kay. I wouldn’t say I was a pacifist exactly. I think there are some occasions where violence is the only option. [Insert standard “I’d like to think I’d have fought against Hitler” argument here.] In my woolly headed way, I believe that we ought to constantly work towards a world where violence is never an option. I also think that violence rarely (if ever) provides a lasting solution to a problem. So that’s my starting point. Let’s see how it develops.

OK, I’m going to relate a conversation I had a wee while ago with the mother of a young child. In truth I can’t remember who I had this conversation with so I’m not being needlessly evasive when I refer to her as A.Mum. I think we might have been in a toy shop. The content of the conversation stuck in head. Paraphrasing:
Me: “I’ll never understand why parents allow their young children to play with toy guns. It doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me.”
A.Mum: “I know what you mean. It isn’t easy to resist when they’ve got their heart set on something though.”
Me: “I suppose it’s one of those occasions when parents have to set a line which just can’t be crossed.”
A.Mum: “The thing is that if they don’t have toy guns then they’ll just use pretend guns made out of sticks or whatever they can find.”
Me: “Hmm…”

Now, I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a genetic predisposition towards pretending to own a gun. It seems that what is described above can only be accounted for in terms of nurture. I’m going to assume that A.Mum isn’t teaching her children about guns. There must be external influence acting on children which causes them to like playing with toy guns. It isn’t too much of a leap to conclude that this external influence comes from television and other forms of media. This is especially true in Britain (and many other countries) where the chances of a child coming into contact with a real gun are close to zero. So, it seems rational to assume that the media is nurturing in children a desire to play with toy guns.

This, in itself, might not be a huge problem. It’s only pretending with toy guns after all. I believe there is a problem and it relates to context. In almost all cases, television and cinema violence is portrayed as the solution to whatever problem is being addressed. Much of my thinking here is based on a chapter in the book Why Do People Hate America (which isn’t quite what the title suggests and, I’d suggest, is almost certainly worth reading). The book uses the illustration of the traditional cowboy film where every problem can be resolved with an accurately fired bullet. The gun is the ultimate symbol of justice and the good guys are always the best shot. This idea is pervasive throughout the TV and cinema output of the US and pretty much everywhere else. This is why I tend to laugh at the idea that Hollywood is full of bleeding heart liberals. If that were true, there’d be a lot less people getting shot in the films they produce (I know there are some exceptions, The Shawshank Redemption being a fine example).

I like to use Star Trek as an illustration because it’s often presented as a liberal and optimistic vision of the future, (and because Gene Roddenberry originally pitched it as “Wagon Train to the Stars”). The point is that Star Trek (especially TOS, with NG being possibly the least guilty) conforms to the traditional media stereotype portrayal of violence as the answer to problems. For all its liberal credentials, the Star Trek universe cannot escape the fact that many episodes are concluded through the judicious application of violence by the Enterprise crew. How often do the Enterprise crew beam down to a planet intentionally unarmed? Basically never (unless there is some pressing reason why they must leave there weapons behind). By default, they have weapons. By default, weapons are required. There isn’t anything liberal or optimistic about this state of affairs.

And that’s why Doctor Who stands out as being so different. He doesn’t own a gun, he never uses a gun, and he almost never becomes involved in violence. It’s worth reflecting on how many other “hero’s” you can apply this to. I can’t think of many. When the Doctor bursts into the room holding a gun, he almost immediately passes it to the people he is supposed to be threatening. He wants information and he asks for it. He attempts to understand the situation facing him. That’s the key for the Doctor, communication and comprehension (of course there’s no reasoning with the enemy who appeared at the end of Bad Wolf but this is already becoming the Sci-Fi post so lets just leave that for now). And I think it’s important that the Doctor shows that there are other ways to solve difficult problems. He is a role model of another sort. Children with sonic screwdrivers running around pretending to fix stuff sounds like a good idea to me. Children whose first instinct is to try to understand why something is the way it is. Children who want to see the best in people.

The problem is, as I’ve already said, the Doctor is very much a minority hero. The “shoot first” hero is far more pervasive and is influencing children to a greater degree. I’d argue that this is partly the reason why society continues to display violent tendencies. Children are constantly bombarded with the message that violence can always be justified if you believe you are right, that violence has few negative effects, and that violence can solve all sorts of problems. To me, this is not good.

What is the answer then? The obvious one is greater censorship of the media. I’m not a great fan of censorship. What about artistic expression? What about freedom of speech? Who decides what is acceptable (and who decides who decides)? I believe I have the right to choose for myself. I’m afraid I can’t offer a solution (perhaps I should have mentioned that in the introduction, sorry). I’d like to see more positive role models on TV and in films, especially for children, but I’m not sure how to make it happen. Perhaps consumer power can do it. Perhaps if we all took the time to reflect on the messages children receive through the universal babysitter, the media would have to respond in a more responsible way. Any thoughts?

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