Don't get me started...

I can hardly bear to do this but I'm going to write about screen violence and its consequences. As someone who shies from articles on this subject like a mustang from a rattlesnake it might seem perverse to tip another wagonload on to the slag heap of opinion, but there is a reason. Because, when it comes to this subject there isn't just one slag heap but two - rival spoil heaps of certitude, stacked up by those hostile to television and those defending it. More has been added in the last week with the publication of "new" research by David Gauntlett and a swift response from the Paul Johnson Institute of Moral Panic. This is an attempt to start a small cairn between them.

My weariness with the debate stems from the great swirl of nonsense that surrounds it. One contributor to the Gauntlett row, for example, writes to point out triumphantly that, by the logic of the alarmists, natural history programmes should be censored, because wildlife films contain scenes of great violence. This is simply fatuous. The likelihood of coming across a pack of blood-drenched second years, gnawing on the tattered ribs of a pre-schooler, is manifestly remote; the actuality of young children practising Power Ranger martial arts movements on each other is not. The difference between the two kinds of violence is that one moves in the realm of human culture - a man-made environment to which it necessarily contributes - and the other does not.

The elementary mistake of the alarmists is to imagine that without depicted violence of some kind children would grow up in benign passivity, sweetly combing each other's hair and saying "No, no - you first" when their hands collide over a toy. The imitation argument is a red herring because children must have something to imitate in order to play their way towards an understanding of the world. That play will always involve conflict and it may be better, rather than worse, if they are able to formally place their aggression within a fictional framework.

But it is also a red herring in a way less comfortable to the defenders of television freedom. Set aside for a moment the manifest absurdity of denying any detrimental effect for television - an argument that logically excludes any beneficial effect too and depicts the medium as merely an all-pervading inert gas. Most sensible defenders admit that television must have consequences in the world and that not all of them will be good. But then, like a lawyer unsure of his client, they take refuge in reasonable doubt. "There is no reliable proof of a causal connection between television violence and social disorder" they proclaim, standing on a barricade of footnotes and sociological cross-reference. Well, so what? Are we to measure our responsibilities solely in terms of statistics? There must be other reasons besides raw causality that would argue for discrimination about what is shown and other ways besides simple bad example that exploitative violence might coarsen a society.

I don't mean to advance a censor's charter here - I don't believe it's a basic human right not to be offended and I want television to reflect the indigestibility of life, rather than offer us an artificially sweetened slurry. I would far rather show Pulp Fiction on television, with its darkly comic insistence on the consequences of violence, than Sylvester Stallone's The Specialist, a piece of popular entertainment which is genuinely psychotic in its representation of violence as a stylish shortcut to a desired end. (Pulp Fiction, incidentally, contains a knowing joke about bad influences - one of its hired killers lovingly quotes from Ezekial before casually shooting a man in the head.)

But it remains the case that a decent culture always interrogates its own imagination, will always have a sense of guilt. What would it be like to live in a society that never fretted about such things, a society that thought anything could be depicted without qualm or anxiety? In the end it may be that it matters less what we show than the ways in which we talk about it afterwards. Which is why, tedious as it is, the whole churning, circular debate will have to continue. The continued attempts to land a knock-out, conclusive blow are not just doomed to failure, they fail to see that ending the argument would involve a larger loss.

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