October 2, 2011

Getting Medieval

Before we begin with what I hope will be a new and more effective format for these little cerebral exercises, I have two things I want to say while they are still topical and fresh in my mind

1) The Fort Tryon Park Medieval Festival was today, and it was a spectacular event.  Another wonderfully open-minded gathering of oddities and quirks that blend (almost) seamlessly together for the sake of the enjoyment of life.  I know that sounds wierd coming from me, but that really is the kind of stuff I live for: the simple open-minded enjoyment of life.  See my earlier post about DragonCon for more about this if you're interested.  Still, props to the Washington Heights crew for putting together another successful festival.  Keep up the good work, boys and girls.

2) Today was the last day of one of my most inspirational TV personalities (although he would never call himself such).  My tendancy to rant and rave about minor social hiccups or little stupidities of modern life have all had their roots, at some level, in his work.  His sense of humor, intelligence, wit, and mastery of the written and spoken word make him one of the best things to ever appear on TV.  Although he will not be gone from the show forever, the fact that I can no longer expect to see him when all the "serious" stuff is said and done makes the world just a bit less entertaining.  I speak of course, of the infamous Andy Rooney of CBS's 60 Minutes.  I salute his illustrious career and wish him well. 

Now then...the new format.

Since it's been suggested tht I offer questions explicitly, that's just what I'll do.  I'll begin these posts (with some probable exceptions) with a question.  It is this question that I hope you will all seek to answer with your comments, but the manner in which it is done (i.e. whether you want to address it vis-a-vis my own take on it or from a completely different perspective) is entirely up to you.  I'll obviously welcome commentary on my own perspective if you should feel inclined to offer, but don't feel limited by that.   So, on to the question at hand - it's a doozy. 

Why do we find violence so appealing?

Well, let's unpack that question just a bit by first asking "Do we find violence appealing?".  Short answer: Yes, as a spieces we seem to be drawn to acts of violence.  Long answer: Whether committing or simply witnessing violence, it seems wholly ingrained in us to find catharsis through violence.  Look at the vast majority of popular movies, tv, games, books, and sports and you'll find that they all somehow hinge on violent behavior.

Since these are short-form explorations of ideas and theories, I won't waste time providing examples (plus I'm pretty sure you can do that all on your own just by thinking for more than 2.5 seconds), and I'll cut to the chase.  I believe we find violence so appealing for two primary reasons: Simplicity and Certainty.  Keep in mind that these ideas all boil down to opinion and are, as previously stated, short-form so I won't be providing muc in the way of "hard evidence" for my claims, but I will try to bring my experience to bear on the subject matter. 

Let's start with Simplicity.  We live in an incredibly complicated universe.  How complicated?  We just found out that neutrinos can move faster than light and we'd previously believed nothing could move any faster.  Why we believed this is unimportant.  What is important is that this changes decades (if not centuries) of physics.  One little observation changes it all.  That's pretty complicated.  But complicating that is the fact that we have to communicate all this complexity within the comparatively primitive (but no less complex) medium of language. 

Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.  Ever been struggling for the right words to explain a situation?  Did you ever say the wrong (or not) word and suddenly nobody knows what you're talking about anymore?  Language is a remarkable tool, but ultimately useless.  Those of you who have ever heard me say that "everything I tell you is a lie" will be familiar with this notion of words as inappropriate for commmunicating "truth" since no sound can convey all the reality of a thought properly.  As an example, when we speak of "happiness" we are trying to convey something that cannot be so hastily summed up in a few syllables.  The feeling's "truth" is in the multitude of its expressions, not in this meager collection of sounds forme in the throat.  It is not "happiness" anymore than the smile or the warmth of a hug is "happiness".  Language cannot convey meaning alone. 

How does this relate to violence, you ask?  Well, in a way, violence bypasses the inconvenience of inaccurate language.  Imagine this: You are trying to explain to someone why they should take a seat.  They refuse.  You try a new explanation using different and, presumably, better language.  They don't get it.  You try a third time to explain to them why taking a seat is the correct thing to do under the circumstances, and they continue to stand.  By now, your frustration, impotence, and even anger are building up a good head of steam.  It is at this point, where language has failed us completely, do we consider violence.  This is not to say "beating the person senseless", but simply taking them by the shoulders and forcing them into the seat.  Where language and the "civilized method" have failed, physical force has prevailed and give you what you want and them what they need.  Part of you might say "why didn't I just do that to begin with? That was so much easier!"  Of course it was...it was simpler that way.  You got your message accross clearly, succinctly, and with no further confusion: "take a seat" as only physical force can communicate.

This then, brings me to my other point: Certainty.  We've already seen how language complicates matters, but the astute among you will no doubt have also realized that language leaves wiggle room where it might not intend.  Sometimes we choose our words so as to include room for interpretation.  Words like "sometime", "whatever", "something", etc. are deliberately used to convey a sense of fluidity of meaning that allows the listener to apply his/her own preference.  This is beneficial when it is part of the point, but more often than not, our language leaves us vulnerable to this interpretation without our desire or consent for it.  Did you ever try arranging something (meeting up, planning a weekend) and end up with one or more people involved doing something quite different from what you had expected?  Someone shows up late, someone else shows up at the wrong place/date...you know the drill.  This is the uncertainty of language at work.  Even with direct and blunt language, the room for interpretation remains.  Some people just don't use some words the same ways.  I, for one, take issue with the use of the words optimist and pessimist in pop culture as "people who see the best/worst in everything" since what they really are meant to convey is "people who assume this is the best/worst possible world".  Those two ideas are similar, but different in significant ways (which we'll discuss in another post - hold your thoughts). 

But where is the uncertainty in a quick shove ("move") or a slap on the wrist ("don't touch")?  There often isn't any.  Obviously the violence in question must be applied at the appropriate moment, but barring that possibility, there is less opportunity for uncertainty with physical force.  If we look at any major action movie, the final conflict always begins with a dialog in which the two combtatants (or more) come to the conclusion that there are no words that can change anything anymore.  The time for talk is over, and the time for action has begun.  Simple, clear, action now takes over the plot and the setting and we are allowed to simply "be in the moment" with our heroes (or villains - don't think I've ruled that possibility out!) as they settle their dispute in no uncertain terms.  How could they be uncertain...there are no terms.

This then, is the essence of why I believe we feel violence is cathartic.  We spend so much of our civilized life trying (often in vain) to find the right words, and the right expressions, only to find that we are still not understood.  This frustration builds slowly but surely and the result (I feel, anyway) is the need to relieve that tension.  For myself, games and movies do a great job.  I love violent games and movies for their ability to allow for comunication I don't usually have the opportunity to experience. 

This is not to say that I only love violence in my games or movies. Some of my favorite games and movies have nothing violent about them.  However, especially in the case of games, the ability to perform violent acts provides a sense of relief from the impotence that can be felt even by people who have real mastery of their language.  I don't think we'll ever be free of these desires, and I think it's naive to think humanity will ever "outgrow" this desire for physical conflict, but I do see why it needs to be controlled and chanelled properly.  Do not take this post as my endorcement of violent behavior.  I see nothing outright wrong with violence, but I also see why words are still superior.  After all, who wants to die over who gets the last piece of cake?  Not I, that's for sure. 

Well, I hope this little adventure into simplified complex thought has not left any of you with any surplus violence brewing within you.  If it is, I ask only that you find the words to express it in the comments.  I look forward to your thoughts....complex and uncertain though they might be. 

Until next week.

1 comment:

  1. Could you expound a little more on why words are superior, exactly, if all they ever do is obfuscate matters? (Case in point.) Avoidance of pain? Not all violence ends in death. ...then again, I may just be subconsciously yearning for the days of corporal punishment in schools. No, really... I mean take your seat.

    Aside from being sometimes unable to find the words to communicate what we want to, we're also often restricted by social sanctions and the complexity of situations from being able to say or do what we feel. Violence is an outlet for frustration in general, but especially for frustration that's social in origin and related to a feeling of relative powerlessness. What better way to confirm you have power than through a physical action which has an undeniable effect on its target?

    Admittedly, I tend to find the resolution of conflicts via brawl more disappointing than clear and somehow above the realm of language... but I've also rarely been in any position to win a physical fight.

    That said, I think one distinction worth making is that (as a society) we're drawn not as much to committing violence ourselves as to watching it enacted upon others-- be they gladiators, the opposing hockey team, or pixel-painted subterranean monsters. By removing ourselves from the fear of consequences (or other moral complications), we can enjoy it for what it is: a spectacle, a show of power (which we lack), and an opportunity for schadenfreude. There's also a righteousness to most of the violence we see (especially for entertainment) that carries a strong appeal to the parts of us that feel we've been slighted and yearn for revenge. We may know consciously that it's not worth taking out on real people, but entertainment industry violence has our emotional backs. ...or something like that.

    tl;dr Society makes us feel powerless; our brains know better, so let the ketchup flow.