Violence, democracy and the mass media

It can hardly be denied that violence has a peculiarly vicarious allure in the modern mass media environment, regardless of whether we are talking ratings, book sales, ticket sales, clicks, or good old-fashioned circulation. Think James Patterson, the “world’s best-selling author”. Consider the amazing proliferation of “acronymy” crime dramas (CSI, NYPD, SVU, …) showing in primetime across the globe, the drooly critical praise for programs like The Sopranos and The Wire, and of course the Underbelly phenomenon in Australia. We might not “like” violence; indeed many or most of us despise it, but it sure does tend to get our attention. As notionally interesting as the latest deliberations of parliamentary sub-committee D31 are, we can’t expect our [yawn] elected representatives to seriously compete for our time and interest with this week’s fictional serial killer, can we?

The supremacy of violence (perhaps rivalled only by sex) as an attention magnet in today’s information-saturated world poses some serious questions of old-fashioned peaceful protest in the democratic tradition. Arundhati Roy, speaking to Stephen Moss in The Guardian about her ties to Maoist guerrillas in India, sums things up quite succinctly:

Does she condemn that violence? “I don’t condemn it anymore,” she says, “If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?”

Violence attracts audiences. When up to 500,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of London in opposition to the Conservative Government’s cuts agenda in March this year, most people outside the UK only heard about it because of the violent actions of a tiny minority of self-styled anarchists and thugs. And whilst peaceful protest has underpinned most of the populist movements of the so-called Arab Spring, violence has clearly had a role to play, from Mohamed Bouazizi’s defining act of self-immolation in Tunisia, through to the mortar attack on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s compound which looks likely to prove decisive in Yemen. The magnetism of violence has arguably even created a perverse imperative for protest movements to “bait” governments into responding disproportionately, in order to attract the attention of the “great and the good” and the global mass media. Only escalating violence forced the global community’s clumsy fist to swing in Libya, and sadly it appears that only comparatively violent escalations in places such as Bahrain and Syria are likely to provoke serious, co-ordinated global responses there.

It is a paradox that in the largely peaceful, meticulously ordered societies most of us live in today, individual acts of violence are proving to be as effective a tool for attracting attention as they have ever been. Perhaps in retrospect, following 9/11 and the culmination of a decade-long international obsession with Osama bin Laden, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.