Violence in media and power

I’ve never been into superhero-themed media. As a kid, I would buy comic books: X-Men and Spawn most prominently, but I never really read them. For some reason, I always found them boring to actually read. I bought them mostly to copy the drawings and learn to draw (I’m still in the process of un-learning some bad drawing tropes I picked up in that time). I also liked the idea of being into them.

As I got older, this kinda stayed the same. I saw the first Avengers movie, because it seemed like you kind of had to, and I’ve seen a couple of the Captain America and Iron Man movies, and most of the previous Spider Man movies, and… meh? I still just wasn’t enjoying these things. Even when the jokes were good, or when I could appreciate some visual elements, there’s just this overall feeling of, “who cares”?

With all that said, I’ve seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse four times in the theater now (I’ve never done that before, or even seen the same movie three times in the theater before), and I still wanna go watch it again. It might be my favorite movie.


Back in 2015, I wrote a piece for Polygon about violence in games and other media, and the way that it encourages dehumanization (I wrote a couple of articles for my own site on the topic as well, here and here). My position has never been that “videogame violence causes real-world violence”, but rather that our relationship with violence, with war, with weaponry, was and is unhealthy. I still think all of this is true. But leaving this statement there without talking about other important social and political dynamics, I’ve come to realize, is kind of harmful.

I want to elaborate on something game designer Anna Anthropy said on Twitter recently in a thread about Undertale and Deltarune. I haven’t played Deltarune yet, but it seems like it takes a similar approach to violence as its 2015 predecessor. Undertale was important and notable for the way that it subverted and criticized violent tropes in videogames. That was, and still is, a conversation that needed to happen. But on its own, that is insufficient. As Anna puts it:

The meaning of words is created via usage, not by a prescription. But we can also take a critical look at the way words like “violence” could be defined in ways that are doing certain specific things, things which we may or may not like. No one person has the power to redefine “violence”, but a number of people like myself writing about this issue and otherwise encouraging people to think about how they use the word could eventually lead to a change in how the word is used.

We currently use the word “violence” to primarily mean things like, someone punching someone in the face, or someone shooting another person. Interestingly, we don’t usually call it violence when a drone drops a bomb on a bunch of people. Although we’d all grant that such a thing is violence, the word “violence” is not likely to be used to describe such an event in a news story about it, for example.

We also do not use the word “violence” to describe more structural conditions or events which result in many people suffering or being killed. Private health insurance companies’ numerous methods of pricing people out of healthcare or outright kicking people off their rolls does not get called “violence”. Harsh criminal justice laws and law enforcement policies that target vulnerable populations are not usually described as “violence”.

Think about the word “terrorism” and how it gets used, or conspicuously not used. We tend to associate the word with political violence committed by Muslims, or other groups which have less power than that of a country. If the United States engages in political violence, even political violence that is meant to terrify people, this still does not get branded “terrorism” in the mainstream parlance. It seems that our usage of the word “terrorism” is actively protecting the powerful while being critical of the less-powerful. And our use of violence is doing a similar thing.


Why do we care about violence in the first place? I think it’s that we understand that there are power dynamics in the world: some people have things that other people want, and there are going to be some power-transfers: someone must have some power taken away (i.e. a serial killer may need to be kept away from the population); someone must have some power given to them (i.e. someone will be given a job as a teacher, or appointed as a judge to a court). Often times—arguably every time—this can be looked at as a direct transfer of power (in the form of wealth, privilege, role, etc) from one individual to another.

So in this world where these transactions must be made, most of us would say that we want a less violent world, that we want to use verbal and other forms of communication to find compromises and find more productive, peaceful methods. Violence is often associated with a “might makes right”, zero-sum style of power-transfer, and I think that we are right to value a more compassionate, careful, and also a less-costly, and more reversible type of discourse.

Think about how policing policies such as stop and frisk, or recent refugee policies of ICE, and how they relate to transfers of power.

We do not all share equal amounts of power in society. We’re living in an era of near (or arguably) unprecedented wealth inequality. Some groups of people are treated better or worse than others.

Words Can’t Really Hurt Me

Jonathan Haidt is one of many guys out there on Twitter and the podcast circuit complaining about this “redefining” (as though words just got defined once) of the word “violence”. In a piece in The Atlantic, he admits that words can actually hurt people, but that that “isn’t violence”. He doesn’t explain why it isn’t violence; he just gives a couple of milder versions of harmful speech and asks us if those, too, are violence.

First invalid inference: Feldman Barrett used these empirical findings to advance a syllogism: “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.” It is logically true that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. But following this logic, the resulting inference should be merely that words can cause physical harm, not that words are violence. If you’re not convinced, just re-run the syllogism starting with “gossiping about a rival,” for example, or “giving one’s students a lot of homework.” Both practices can cause prolonged stress to others, but that doesn’t turn them into forms of violence.  

Haidt, “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words are Violence” (The Atlantic)

At no point in the rest of the article does he go into any more detail about why presenting trans students or students from other marginalized groups with a Milo Yiannopoulos talk at their school might be worthy of being called violence. Instead, he just goes right back to his standard anti-safe-space “kids need to be exposed to more racism, sexism, transphobia etc, so that they can become stronger in the face of it”. Nevermind that people in these marginalized groups—unlike Haidt himself—deal with plenty of this kind of hate and ostracism, even if they’re lucky enough to go to a school that gives them some safe spaces.

And that’s the thing. It’s really easy, when words can’t hurt you, to think that words can’t really hurt anyone. This is why we hear stuff like “people are choosing to be offended” and terms like “snowflake”. The reason stuff like racial or sexual slurs, or purposely misgendering trans people, or saying something terrible about Muslims hurts so much is that a lot of this stuff enjoys a weird level of cultural, social and institutional backing. When a white person uses the N-word, there is context behind that which is giving it a destructive power that it otherwise wouldn’t have. When someone misgenders or deadnames a trans person, it’s backed up by a society that largely doesn’t recognize their identity. I’m a straight, cisgender middle class white guy, so there isn’t really any equivalent you can hit me with that has the same power behind it. People who look like me run most of society and have largely set the terms of the debate for most of our lives. So yeah, for guys like Haidt and myself, the very idea that someone could be really hurt by speech sounds absurd (which is where the “some people choose to be offended” meme comes from).

When I was younger, I used to call myself a pacifist. I now understand better how, while that might be coming from a good place, it’s like… yeah, easy for me to say. My well-being, my freedom, my voting rights, my bodily autonomy, my physical safety—none of these are in question or likely to be in question anytime soon. Whereas these things are in question and under threat for women, immigrants, people of color, people in LGBT communities, and so on. And I also live in a pretty safe area, so it doesn’t mean much for me to speak out against violence in a general way.

I also think there’s a way that being “totally anti-violence” is kind of pro-status-quo, which, again: status quo is not so bad for me. The history of increasing human rights and equality has been messy and complicated. It hasn’t all been squeaky-clean non-violent protests, or sorted out by “debating ideas on their merits”. The history of advancing human rights involves some of those, but a whole spectrum of other activities ranging from peaceful sit-ins to disruptive marches to deplatforming to intimidation, all the way to, sometimes, violence.

And let’s not kid ourselves that violence isn’t already happening. State power uses violence all the time, but we just don’t use the word that way. Violence is part of the palette of human communication and tools for transferring power. It is a special one that we must be very careful to employ, but it’s not as special as many self-professed pacifists would like to believe it is.

Violence Glorification, Updated

So anyway, this article was really about Spider-Man all along!

I have to include at least a few lines about what a masterpiece this movie was. On every axis, it was visually beautiful and original, it was extremely efficient in its storytelling, the characters are memorable and I want a T-shirt of every one of them, the acting was fantastic, the jokes were the funniest I’ve seen in a movie. The mechanical gimmick of multiple dimensions played perfectly into the story itself and its controlling idea. It’s just amazing and I can’t say enough positive about it.

But another element is, when I watched this new Spider-Man film, I felt like, “this was what we needed superheroes for all along”. It’s like we had been developing this technology for a long time, and now, we’ve finally found a use for it. Power fantasy never made that much sense to me before. Elevating the less-privileged, telling them you, too, can be Spider-Man, was perhaps the ultimate purpose of comic book superheroes.

And similarly, maybe this is a place where violence glorification might actually make some sense, and not be a gross, distasteful choice. The real problem, perhaps, with the violence glorification of your typical action movie, is that it’s gratuitous. It’s glorifying violence for its own sake. It’s creating a straw villain just so that we can kill him, and I do think there’s something wrong with that, particularly when the lethal force is being administered by a rich white guy like Iron Man. (Really, Tony Stark isn’t already powerful enough? He has to have a flying invincible robot suit that gives him God-like physical powers? And they engineer some invading Evil Alien that forces me to have to root for this guy?)

I do think we need to be very thoughtful when it comes to violence. We should be more thoughtful about violence in media, whether it’s being glorified, and why it is being glorified or portrayed at all. The thing that I find useful it to take a step back and look at the bigger picture: who has what kinds of power in this situation? Are there kinds of “violence” that are taking place that aren’t being actively highlighted? Who benefits?