This article is part of a series written by guest contributors exploring how to incorporate humanist values into their everyday lives. The opinions expressed in this article may not necessarily express those of Foundation Beyond Belief, its staff, or donors.
Humanists abhor violence. We protest against it. We would never intentionally harm anyone.
But did you see that kickass scene with the horses in the new John Wick movie where that dude goes headfirst into a wall? And the guns!
Within three weeks of its release, “John Wick: Chapter 3: ‒ Parabellum,” the newest installment in the over-the-top, violence-as-art series starring Keanu Reeves, earned more than $125 million at U.S. theaters.
Critics had a field day reviewing Parabellum. A sampling:
“burns ultraviolence candle at both ends”
“many fine recreational-sadism qualities”
“a Costco-sized dose of brutal action violence”
Were humanists among those paying to see this “heinous yet nimble festival of death?” Probably … okay, undoubtedly.
I’m not here to judge. If you saw the new John Wick movie and enjoyed it, good for you. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO HELL, right?
How do you decide what to watch?
Still, each of us has a responsibility to consider the consequences of our entertainment choices. From the Humanist Manifesto III: “Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence.”
That begs the question: What’s the relationship between media violence and real violence? Look online, and you’ll find lots of studies with varying facts, approaches and conclusions.
We’ve all heard this one: An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18. So, what happens to those kids? A study by University of Michigan researchers that followed 329 children over 15 years (1977-1992) concluded that men who watched lots of high TV-violence as kids were significantly more likely to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their spouses, to have shoved a person who insulted them, and to have been convicted of a crime.
From the same study: “Women who were high TV-violence viewers as children were more likely to have thrown something at their spouses, to have responded to someone who made them mad by shoving, punching, beating or choking the person, to have committed some type of criminal act, and to have committed a moving traffic violation.” Those results came in an era when TV violence was defined by “Starsky and Hutch,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and “Roadrunner” cartoons.
“While many scholars do seem to agree that there is evidence that media violence—whether that of film, TV, or video games—increases aggression, they disagree about its impact on violent or criminal behavior,” wrote Nickie Phillips, in an analysis titled “Violence, Media Effects, and Criminology.”
What if it were proven beyond a doubt that media violence encourages real-world violence, and everyone on the planet acknowledged that fact? Would our species stop producing and enjoying violent entertainment? I’m betting not.
Media violence in the era of school shootings
I love escapism as much as the next moviegoer. Still, I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy pretend violence when there’s so much real violence—with real consequences—all around. I’m not alone. In Esquire magazine, reviewer Matt Miller explains in “I Couldn't Bring Myself to Enjoy John Wick: Chapter 3” how a school shooting influenced his thinking.
I won’t be going to John Wick 3, 4 or 5. These days I regularly turn down movie invitations for films that I know will surpass my violence threshold. And I’ve stopped feeling like a wimp for telling my friends that.
It’s interesting, though. Last year I couldn’t wait to see “Anna and the Apocalypse,” an R-rated zombie holiday musical with a high body count. A friend declined my invitation because he doesn’t like violent movies. “But, c’mon man, they’re zombies … and it’s a musical. Don’t be such a …. oh, never mind.” I guess we’re all humanists in the making.