Letter: Which came first, the video or the violence?

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The Independent Online
Sir: Gary Slapper criticises me (Letters, 2 April) for describing attempts to link video nasties and violence as a fad. He quotes the Child's Play videos, and talks of crimes 'committed by people apparently influenced by what they had watched on screen'.

Unfortunately, he makes the same mistake as do all those who have sought for years to prove an unequivocal connection between screen images and senseless acts of violence: assuming that such acts can be reduced to a single simple cause and that all other possible influences (family breakdown, childhood experience, poverty, homelessness) can be minimised or discarded.

To make that link work for any single act of violence, its proponents have to eliminate two equally plausible explanations: first, that the individuals concerned might have committed a similar act of violence even without seeing a particular film or video. And, second, that their liking for violence predisposed them to watch video nasties as well as act violently. The second, in particular, is a perfectly feasible explanation in many of the high-profile cases of the last few years.

A historical perspective is vital here. Throughout history, every new cultural form has been blamed for acts of violence. It happened with theatre in the 18th century, with music hall at the end of the last century, with cinema, with rock'n'roll, and, most recently, with computer games. The same allegations will no doubt be levelled at virtual reality.

This is a difficult line to hold in an atmosphere that loves to blame the media for society's ills. As an individual - and as a father - I abhor some of the violence contained in films such as Child's Play, and I share Clare Short's concern for the health of our cultural environment. But as a social scientist, I know the difference between authentic and fallacious social research findings, and the problems of so-called 'effects' studies. No one has yet produced a convincing study to demonstrate categorically the 'effect' of violent videos on human behaviour. This includes the Nottingham University psychologists, who have not carried out new research but seem quite simply to have changed their minds. One of them said during a radio interview that it was 'common sense' that a link should exist when the use of videos was so widespread.

This is the language of political pressure groups and tabloid editorials, not the language of scholarship. And it is dangerous because it absolves politicians from having to think about the connection between their own social policies and the increase in violent behaviour. Academics are quite entitled to hold personal opinions, but they should not confuse them with rigorous social scientific inquiry.

Yours faithfully,

STEVEN BARNETT

London, N1

3 April

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