Let’s open those neural floodgates!
—Nicki Brand, Videodrome
Joan Smith writes, in “Speaking Up for Corpses,” “There are men for whom female terror, experienced at a safe distance, carries an erotic charge.” As one of these men myself, I would—for obvious reasons—feel more comfortable amending the above statement, and saying that there are men who are aware of the erotic charge that results from vicariously experiencing (or causing) female terror. And then, there are those men who, through denial, ignorance, fear or saintly purity (this last seems the least likely) are blissfully unaware of this sadistic streak in themselves. Then, among those of us (men) who are aware of this streak, and don’t mind admitting it, there are varying degrees to which we accept it, fight it, strive to understand or overcome it, indulge it or, God forbid, act upon it. Personally, while I’m in my confessional mode, I can say that I have never in my life come that close to striking a woman, much less terrorizing or brutalizing one, and I can honestly add that (be it virtue or sentimentality) I am incapable of killing an insect—one that’s minding its own business at least—without feeling pangs of regret. So—am I a violent person? Am I an evil, sick, depraved, and aberrant man? The moral majority and legions of decency would say, Yes, and resoundingly. But am I to be judged for my thoughts or by my actions? And if judged I am to be—who exactly is to judge me? Who among us is fit to cast the first stone?
I have come to accept, over the years, that imagination is not action, and that the rules and laws are different for thought than for deed, and that those who would most quickly judge another (either for his fanstasies or his acts) are generally those most reluctant to judge themselves, or even to look too closely at their own feelings—for fear of what they might find there. The easiest way to deal with the unpleasant truths about our society is to condemn them as “evil.” The easiest way to live with unpleasant truths about oneself is simply to ignore them, to whitewash them over with positive affirmations about decency and goodliness. Both these “methods” are based on cowardice—they depend on avoidance of the issue through self-deception, and in fact, they serve to reinforce the problem. The more “evil” the other guy is, the safer we can feel about our own souls (we’re pure enough to judge other people, obviously); the more decent and wholesome we pretend to be, on the other hand, the more we can puff ourselves up and point our fingers at the corruption around us. Society—decent, god-fearing society, that is—is made up of such fakers: it’s very maintenance depends upon fraudulence and facades. And so there’s nothing more terrifying, more dangerous, more “immoral,” to these pseudo-saints, these self-appointed guardians of the good and the right, than the possibility of evil being something common to us all. The slightest doubt in the immaculacy of their moral front and the whole thing collapses. And so the notions of compassion, of understanding, of tolerance, charity towards “sinners,” and the moral freedom which such charity implies, become unthinkable. And yet these qualities or virtues or concepts are the blood and soul—and the vocation—of every artist worthy of his station. To enhance our awareness as to the nature of life means being human, which is being fallible, which is succumbing to temptation once in a while, which is sin—the whole, murky question of evil.
A film that causes us, or at least helps us, to identify with a killer—whether to increase our compassion for evil or merely to diminish our pity for the victims—is not an immoral work, but a deeply moral one. For it forces us to assume responsibility for this evil (instead of simply feeling pity for the victim), which is the first, essential step towards understanding it, and perhaps, in time, correcting it. At the very least, it may force us to question our eagerness to judge and condemn what we cannot understand; and maybe, just maybe, it will cause us to pause in our moral outrage for a moment, and lay down our stones.
Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion.
—David Cronenberg, Cronenberg on Cronenberg
In the above interview from Chris Rodley’s book, Cronenberg continues:
Suppressing everything one might think of as potentially dangerous, explosive or provocative would not prevent a true psychotic from finding something that will trigger his own particular psychosis. For those of us who are normal, and who understand the difference between reality and fantasy, play, illusion—as most children do—there is enough distance and balance. It’s innate. . . . It’s an endless struggle between those who are basically fearful and mistrustful of human nature—and they have ample proof that their version of humanity is right—and those who feel that a truly free society is possible, somewhere. It’s conceivable that in the near future there won’t be anything approaching a free society anywhere. That’s more than possible. Which is why I resist, in any small way I can, any attempts . . . to increase censorship.
Marx wrote somewhere that the fight against capitalism begins with “the weapons of criticism and the criticism of weapons.” If so, then the triumph of totalitarianism begins with the censorship of crime and the crime of censorship. One wonders about the mass hysteria of the so-called “moral majority” over the “dangers” of violent movies and their effects on children; how they cry out to protect the little ones from “exposure” to such evil, corrupting material, such vile and pernicious images. Where is all this hysteria leading? Is it really motivated by a simple—if misguided—urge to protect the innocent; or is it that old wolf in sheep’s clothing again, crying “wolf,” in order to distract the sheep’s attention from its own lascivious designs? To blame the world’s ills and the corruption of our children on a handful of “nasty” movies seems to me to go beyond mere idiocy, and to approach dangerously close to totalitarian thinking.
Obviously you can’t stop crime by censorship, all you can do is limit the public’s exposure to it, and by extension, its awareness of it. In which case—seeing as how awareness is the only defense we have against crime, and seeing as how aberrational activity (or “evil”) is notoriously wont to thrive and bloom—like fungus—in the darkness of ignorance and denial, then this “protection” policy is worse than useless—it’s downright deadly. Censorship is crime, then, of the most pernicious and indefensible kind—crime against freedom, against truth, and our right to possess it, no matter how “harmful” it may be (and, as every poet knows, truth that’s worth its “salt” is the most dangerous thing there is).
It is impossible to protect children from certain cultural artifacts without, on the one hand, restricting and censoring the culture itself, and, on the other hand, restricting the behaviour—the freedom—not only of children but of adults as well. To go to such plainly fascistic extremes on the off-chance that a movie once in a while causes a crime would strike me as criminally insane, if it wasn’t part of an apparently all-too-sanely-motivated “madness” (though nonetheless criminal for that). How is it that these irate and indignant persons can get so worked up about a few bloody videos—or even a few savage crimes—and be apparently indifferent to the war, starvation and encroaching social tyranny which are an instrinsic part of this very order which they are striving to protect? Never mind that their measures look set to make such ideas as free speech and right-of-choice just faded memories of the past; how is it that these spokespeople can pretend to know, beyond any doubt, what no psychologist or social scientist in the field has been able to establish: namely, the exact manner and degree to which violence in the arts encourages, or even causes, real violence? And why is the question never raised as to the possibility of actual violence—as mediated through the news and other documentary programs—also having such effects? Or children’s cartoons; or Budweiser commercials? How come no one suggests banning TV itself, and going straight to the root of the problem?
The “video nasty” is the bugaboo beloved of the kind of partiarchal, literal-minded petty tyrants that thrive on expressions of moral outrage and the feelings of self-importance which they derive from them. It’s another scapegoat, and the skapegoat is like the patsy—it really doesn’t matter what it is, or does, or says, so long as it is there, available, for the sacrifice. It seems to me that those who “do battle with the devil” are really doing the devil’s work—pouring gasoline on the blaze, as it were. The indignation, the audacity, and the degree of arrogance which this interfering mob displays strikes me as a kind of violence itself, equally as reprehensible and as corrupting as the kind they claim to be opposing, as well as being every bit as “nasty.” In its own way it’s even nastier, because it hides its meanness and small-mindedness behind false smiles and troubled frowns, and words like “decency” and “innocence” and “morality.”
When a film like Child’s Play III or Natural Born Killers is somehow found—however tenuously and spuriously—to have some fleeting connection to a real-life crime, the media, like one single rabid beast, pounces upon the chosen scapegoat and proceeds to tear it to shreds, with all the slavering, sadistic relish of Hannibal Lecter. But when a film like The Lion King is established, more or less conclusively, to have incited, or at least inspired, a child to commit suicide, this same beast barely stirs from its slumber. The boy in question (the case is described in Karl French’s Screen Violence) was Imtiaz Ahmed, and wrote in his farewell note: “I am going to die because I want to be a Lion King. Mom and Dad please put The Lion King film in my grave with me.” He was found hanging from a tree near his home in Stoke on Trent, England; the parents honored his last wish. It doesn’t matter whether or not The Lion King really did drive a boy to kill himself (I’m every bit as inclined to doubt this as all the other claims)—the point is that the evidence here was far stronger than the evidence for any video nasty-related crime, but seeing as the proverbial scapegoat was not involved, and it would be pretty hard for the moral majority to get all puffed up and indignant over a Disney film without looking exactly like the facile dunderheads that they are, the mob kept quiet, and waited patiently for the next scapegoat to come along.
The hysteria over video nasties and movie violence in general is the worst kind of false alarm—it’s not only crying wolf (because when an actual case does come along, who will believe it?), but a deliberate attempt to blind the public to the true dangers facing them, dangers represented not by the forces of anarchy or artistic irresponsibilty, but by the forces of censorship and control. The “mob” wants to rule not only our actions and our decisions, but our thoughts and feelings and our desires also. They want to protect our own children from us, and in turn protect us from ourselves, from our own negligence or faulty judgment or bad taste, or whatever is they consider us guilty of.
The obvious question here is—who asked them to? The worst kind of tyrant is the tyrant that elects itself to rule. And the majority that declares itself to be moral simply because it is legion, the people’s own consensus of tyranny, amounts to nothing less than the rule of the mob.