Does violence in media cause violence in real life?
Lupe Fiasco thinks so. The Chicago-bred rapper recently took to Twitter to air his views on the subject, and the results are predictably mixed.
He raises interesting questions, of course. The man has proven himself a thoughtful and socially engaged artist, whose unique upbringing informs an uncommonly broad worldview. But violence in media is clearly a topic more complex than the opinions of one person. And in Lupe’s case, his argument misses some key points.
He begins by writing: “Violent music (and all violent media) effectively says its ‘ok’ to be violent. It provides positive reinforcement for negative actions. If you rap and make violent music then own up to it. Stop hiding behind ‘art imitating life’ as a way to evade the guilt.”
Lupe goes on to claim that violent art “creates the atmosphere that violence is an acceptable means to an end,” and that “to not even acknowledge the possibility that violent music has even the most minute effect on violence in the world is frankly bullshit … Agree or disagree doesnt really matter at this point honestly.”
To be fair, he acknowledges the legitimacy of arguments claiming music isn’t the sole cause of violence in society: “My hood aint been safe in 25 years … but dont sit there and act like high ass inner city murder rates are just falling from the sky for absolutely no reason… everything plays a part…EVERYTHING.”
Photo Credit: The Smoking Section
He’s right about this. So many factors contribute to inner city homicide that it’s arguably fair to cite “everything” as its cause. But when we examine the material reality of what precipitates violence, it becomes clear that media is far from the first place where blame should be directed.
The fact is, no definitive scientific evidence indicates that violence in media causes real life violence. This is not to discount the role media plays in shaping social environments. It’s hard to imagine a child who grows up absorbing violent (or racist, or misogynistic) imagery all the time, and not having these subjects “normalized” in her perspective.
But Lupe’s argument that violent media “effectively says its ‘ok’ to be violent” ignores art’s capacity for criticism. It’s possible, if maybe uncommon, for media to present violence in a critically engaged or even negative manner: presence alone does not mean condoning.
More importantly, Lupe skirts the material and institutional realities that give violence its impact. Poverty, police repression, unemployment, racism, sexism, and other oppressive institutions are not media products. If media promotes and enables them, it is only through its capacity as a loudspeaker for pre-existing structures.
Should the media be examined critically because of this? Yes. Should it be held accountable for the ideas it promotes? Of course.
But all too often we point the finger at the media because of its high visibility. It’s everywhere all the time, so it’s an easy target. And each time there’s a highly publicized attack on how media enables these oppressive structures, it seems there’s a missed opportunity to address the actual material issues at stake.
I say that to say this: if you live in a violent society, is it more productive to attack the media, which shows and discusses violence … or the poverty, gun availability, substance abuse, and stunted access to quality education, job opportunities, and real estate that materially affect human lives?
It’s up for debate. But these are questions Americans need to start asking themselves more regularly.