Trying to Tell the Truth about Violence: Some Difficulties
Robert Knox Dentan
Professor in the Department of American Studies and Anthropology, State University of New York/University at Buffalo; HFG grantee; author of The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya.
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The Pornography of Violence

[This is] the central dilemma of all efforts at witnessing. In the midst of a massacre, in the face of torture, in the eye of a hurricane, in the aftermath of an earthquake, or even, say, when horror looms apparently more gently in memories that won't recede and so come pouring forth in the late-night quiet of a kitchen. . . . do you the observer, stay behind the lens of the camera, switch on the tape recorder, keep pen in hand? Are there limits—of respect, piety, pathos—that should not be crossed, even to leave a record? But if you can't stop the horror, shouldn't you at least document it? (Behar 1996:2)

I don't know much about pornography but I do watch the news, so I have a clue. (Cain 1999:1)

American popular culture increasingly revolves around cruelty (see, e.g., Matthews 1997, 1998; Nuruddin Farah 1996; Seltzer 1997; Weiss 1995). Mass media highlight violence, particularly against children, linking condemnation to constant obsessive replays. More abstract cruelties receive social acclaim: Both major political parties hailed balancing the federal budget and impoverishing over a million children as a great victory for children; CEOs who "downsize" breadwinners, again impoverishing children, become rich.

Fearfulness and moralizing aside, Americans practice and approve of violence. Widespread approval of violence in other spheres of life cannot help but influence what goes on in the family [within which most American violence occurs]. Moreover, there is evidence to show it is a circular process: the violence occurring in the family is one of the things that make for a violence-approving society in other spheres of life. (Straus 1974:61 and citations therein)

The glorification of violence, the "pornography of violence," which we decent folks condemn, requires perverse and obsessive denial and repression of the real effects of violent action.... [W]e know it pricks our interest and that, neurotically almost, we work obsessively, impossibly, to avoid contaminating ourselves. (Redding 1998:13-14)

This pervasive mystifying ambivalence makes talking about violence a tricky job. Trickiest of all is the issue of cruelty to children, perhaps the most disquieting type of cruelty. Let's be clear about the facts. Slavers—there are still lots of them—target children. In war, combatants focus on children. Micaela, 11, who survived the massacre at Acteal, Chiapas, on 22 December 1997, told Christina Eber, a mutual friend, that the killers cried "Destroy the seed!" (cf. Abramson 1998; Nordstrom 1997:5). American media are awash in images and stories of cruelty to children. That means they're popular enough to sell soap. Simultaneously, people who try to understand it and represent it accurately may be accused of peddling pornography. The ambivalence of Americans is almost as disquieting as the cruelties themselves.

In response, Academe shies away in denial of violence. Where the media reflect and generate a "pathologic compulsion to look at scenes of torture and murder" (Huppauf 1997:4), academic writing swallows it up. The result resembles the Human Relations Area Files handbook for categorizing ethnographic information (Murdock et al. 1982): 283 Cordage, 567 Slavery, 615 Phratries, 715 Military Vehicles. Everything evens out emotionally, disappears into "professional" detachment (Bloch 1998; Dentan 1995, 1997; Nordstrom 1997:16-20; Ortner 1995). Reality becomes fog.

What does "pornography of violence" mean? You'd think something like "emotionally arousing material that focusses on doing harm to people in a way that, perhaps tacitly, seems to condone that behavior in order to gratify the author or reader" (paraphrasing Russell 1993:3-12). It would present victims as dehumanized commodities, and be itself a commodity, coarsening people's sensibilities and implicitly encouraging violence (ibid., 15-21). If the objects of cruelty were "people of color," this representation might reflect or promote racism (Nuruddin Farah 1996; cf. Dentan 1997).

But "academic debates...often privilege the textual and find 'pornography' in texts many others would consider too dreary to read" (Wicke 1991:75). Teaching about violence becomes suspect. You lay yourself open to all sorts of accusations, by colleagues and students alike, although the chance that a scholarly lecture is going to titillate potential consumers of the pornography of violence seems "minimal" ( Russell 1993:xii).

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