Originally posted on Modern Mythology
Violent or taboo media has long been blamed for a variety of societal woes. The first-person video game Doom was blamed for the Columbine High School massacre, as was Marilyn Manson. Dungeons & Dragons was blamed for a variety of events, ranging from teen suicides to murder. More recently, in 2014, the Slender Man “creepypasta” (scary stories shared on the Internet) was blamed for influencing two 12-year-old girls into luring a friend out into the wood and stabbing her nineteen times. The girl luckily survived.
Studies on violent video game use and violent crime — which has seen disproportionate attention from the mainstream compared to other forms of violent media — do not usually bear evidence of causal links. Whether it’s getting into fights or mass-shootings, many criminologists have called the ‘link’ between games and crime a ‘myth’.
In any literal sense this is true. Neither Hamlet nor SVU are likely to in themselves create any murderers. However, the ties between mass-media and other forms of social influence can not be so easily brushed away. In 1976, George Gerbner and Larry Gross (both professors of communication) developed the ‘Cultural Indicators Project’ which started as a study commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson for the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The project would go on to produce what is called the “Cultivation Theory” of mass-media communication — specifically the long-term effects of heavy viewing of television.
Cultivation theory sought to understand in what ways, if any, television impacted people. The original project headed by Gerbner and Gross came about from socio-political friction between conservatives and the companies which profited from televised media. They wanted people who were neutral, who had no political or monetary motivations to head the project due to fear of bias. While the project would unearth numerous social-psychical relationships between the consumption of mass-media and individual behavioral and ideological leanings, one phenomena they discovered stands out as especially relevant in the day and age of the Internet: a phenomena Gerbner would coin as “Mean world syndrome”.
Mean world syndrome is the phenomena by which consumers of violence related mass-media are shown to think the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Perhaps our media doesn’t cause us to act so much as it helps us construct the myths we use to make sense of the world. While definitive causative responsibility has not been proven, a direct correlation between heavy consumption of violence related media and pessimistic views and opinions of the world (in regards to the world being unsafe, uncaring, full of violent and predatory people, etc) has been shown to exist. To what extent the media makes people fearful, and to what extent fearful people are more likely to pursue solitary activities remains unknown.
Many of us have seen the end result of a nervous-wreck of a parent bombarding their children with tales of terror followed up with a moral to the story, their child always jumping at shadows, the anxieties of the parent thoroughly communicated. The pulse raises, we’re outraged, we’re terrified: we’re engaged. Game of Thrones or the News, take your pick.
Humans are designed to respond to bad news. We hear that someone has been stealing from unlocked vehicles in the neighborhood, so we lock our cars. We are told about a certain person in our apartment building who is a bit of a creep, and we keep it in mind. We react to receiving news of violence and mayhem. With the advent of certain technological innovations (e.g. printing press, radio, television and Internet), the speed and frequency of news increased exponentially. The rate at which people could be influenced and propagandized likewise increased.
Edward Bernays, father of modern public relations and nephew of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, might have spoken truly when he wrote, in his 1928 book Propaganda, that “Human desires are the steam which makes the social machine work”, however it was Aristophanes — comic playwright of ancient Athens — who said “You [demagogues] are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good; in the same way it’s only in troubled times that you line your pockets”.
While Aristophanes may have been referring to the politeuma (regime) of Athens, the sentiment applies just as well to fear-mongering media outlets of the current age.
Tapping into the unconscious desires of humanity may sell your products, but kicking up their worries and neurosis gets them watching long enough to be advertised to. Click-bait makes frequent use of this tactic, and marketers have known that ploys which cause emotions like terror and outrage are a highly effective advertising technique. Reactions cascade, and soon you’ve managed to alter the behavior of thousands, if not millions, of people. These days, all it takes is a meme.
It doesn’t matter that violent crime has steadily decreased all around the United States, for example. Chicago, a city often mentioned in the news for its above-average (for the United States) murder rate, has not seen any substantial increase over the last decade even though it now appears to be a focus for certain political maneuvers. The reason for the Chicagoan focus? Probably has something to do with the fact that while Chicago accounted for nearly half of national crime rate increases — note the emphasis on “crime rate increases”, distinguished from overall crime — most other cities showed historic lows.
Which means, of course Chicago was emphasized, because the idea of increasing murder rates is scary and fear gets people’s attention. You can’t enrapture with tales of decreasing crime rates. They might appreciate the fact, but nobody tunes into the local news for hours on end because ‘everything is fine’. Like really fine, not meme fine.
The fact you’re more likely to die from a car accident or heart-disease (“American Disconnect: The Loose Binding Between Dread & Danger”) doesn’t get the same effect as showing you scenes of violent murders, rare as they may be.
For the record, I’m not telling us this “the best of all possible worlds.” There are obviously major issues, assholes going around shitting up the place, and so forth. But I know first hand how consuming mass-media can sway opinions. Let me explain, by getting anecdotal as fuck.
When I was a child, I grew up in the woods. Rural and poor, cut off from major cities by sheer distance. The New England few people seem to talk about, outside of upper-middle class seaside townships, away from tourists traps and attractions. Inland, isolated and insular. The only culture or news that came to me was via television, books, and gossip. Thankfully I was a heavy reader, and the gossip was light. It would be a long time before I got anything even resembling Internet access.
When the 9/11 attacks occurred my mother was driven into what can only be called a nervous breakdown, though I apply that term in retrospect. There was talk of duct-tape and plastic sheeting, in case the terrorists attacked with dirty bombs. Attacked where? Anywhere, anytime. The household fell under a general sense of duress and fear.
I was thrust into a world of non-stop Fox News. My mother, who was a stay-at-home mom, would sit on the couch watching Fox News from the morning until bedtime, only switching to other channels from time to time. The words ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ or even mention of political parties was non-existent in my childhood home.
Even so, it charged my thought. Local news was no better, often showcasing the worst of our area, though indeed the crime rate was exceptionally low. Living out in the forest, cut off from the country which was so often discussed and dissected through a “Fox News” lens, I accrued… baggage. By the time I was a young adult I was convinced that people were shit and cruel and that we were better off as a society stomping out the ones who wouldn’t conform and act civilized.
Fear has a way of getting someone to value the kathestos, the status quo. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, as a young adult, far after the Fox News childhood years, I left behind the life I had and began to hitch-hike and walk across the United States. I slept outside. I met random people, from all over. I had some bad encounters, but by-and-large they were positive or totally neutral. It might not be a saving grace that the vast majority of people were at worst apathetic toward me, but the actual number of violent or scary encounters were extremely low. I was threatened a few times, sure. Mostly by police officers ousting me from some place I had camped out. (You have to be rich enough to sleep in this country.) There was the occasional drugged out wingnut, the rare ‘looking for a fight’ guy. For the most part I got by simply by keeping to myself, and my asocial predispositions probably helped. Neutrality may not be the spark of humanity you were looking for, but neutral, apathetic humanity is different from the image painted by many of a world red in tooth and claw, full of predators and bullies around every corner looking to break you and steal your life.
At the end of the day, most people just didn’t give a fuck one way or the other that I even existed.
But then again, approaching reality through the Meanworld lens is not dissimilar to other forms of snake-oil psychological appeasements. It might be pessimistic, but we should ask ourselves; what is so terrifying, so undesirable that a world full of relentlessly evil bastards is preferable?
It’s not comforting to dissolve the illusion of Meanworld with talk of apathetic masses. The passionless and meek are capable of allowing monstrous atrocity, never lifting their heads for fear of losing their necks. In fact, you could say that this view is almost more depressing — that the apathetic are intrinsically necessary for grand scale injustice, and not merely a byproduct. That they outnumber the vicious and cruel is barely a consolation.
Knowing the difference between extant danger and fear-as-advertising-medium may be the only way to save ourselves from Meanworld, to at least use violent media as inoculant and release valve while at the same time balancing it with narratives that broaden our view of the true complexity and ambiguity of the world. Extrication is perhaps of critical importance if we are to perceive the world clearly enough to have any effect upon it.
He is one of the active participants in the Fallen Cycle mythos, a transmedia project that includes comics, music, podcasts, novels and more.
Learn more at Fallencycle.com