We Love Our Violence, Just Don’t Make it Too Real
Published originally as an answer to the following question for Vox Populi 15:
4. Are human blood sports moral? What if people wanted to have combat to the death as a spectator sport, and all participants agreed? What if the sport does not involve combat but rather a situation where a group goes against deadly obstacles, "Cube"-style? BLOODSPORT.mp3
This is one of the most difficult questions I’ve had to answer. It touches on some very controversial propositions: it highlights the basic tension between the values of individual rights, personal sacrifice, shared ownership of the socio-cultural environment, and balancing freedom of choice in entertainment with the desire to protect children from unsavory influences.
I think we have to look beyond our emotional and visceral reaction to seeing people hurting or killing each other. (The spectacle of human beings tearing each other apart is indeed degrading and revolting.)
But if we’re approaching this question on philosophical grounds, we cannot achieve clarity without a dispassionate consideration of the issues involved: Billions of people every year pay money to see violent films and play violent video games, where extremely graphic bloodsport is portrayed. Horror and martial arts films seem to be the worst ‘offenders.’ It seems that the more blood and the more violence there is, the higher the ticket sales. [One of the most violent, and characteristically one of the biggest box-office draws, was that Christian snuff film, "The Passion of the Christ."]
We know that violence sells, just as sex sells. We can see that given a choice, people always choose the more realistic portrayal. Boxing and extreme wrestling remain as big a draw as ever. The “many faces of death” films have been overwhelmingly popular. A visit to rotten.com, ogrish.com or any number of other sites yields a plethora of actual filmed deaths. Whether news footage of tragedies, or sporting deaths, or clips showing prisoners being killed, such as the Nicholas Berg beheading video, such clips are downloaded hundreds of millions of times. This wasn’t just because people had a clinical interest in the war on terror. There is a morbid fascination with actual death, that goes beyond any special effect. We should consider this, and try to understand why our civilization has a taboo against this sort of thing, while thriving on depictions of the exact same violence in every available media.
In many areas of life, we as a society champion the risking life and limb. The first and most obvious example would be, of course, the military. People sign up to serve, knowing quite well that they may come back in a body bag. We have firefighters and policemen who put themselves in harm’s way to serve the public. We have highly popular mock gladiatorial contests in the form of football and hockey games. With hockey, we can say with certainty that a primary attraction of the game is blood sport. A common bumper sticker or T-shirt says “Give Blood, Play Hockey.” When fights break out on the ice, hockey fans go wild. Yet, team management and the NHL all make attempts to distance themselves from the violence, and claim that the conduct is shameful and unsportsmanlike. This is politically correct bullshit. The fact is, the fans love a good brawl, and they love it even more because it’s not staged. So why the double standard? Why the contradiction? If this is what people want, why not give it to them?
Why do we allow our young men and women to go off to war to fight for country, [with their religion cheering them on], but we don’t allow people to fight for themselves? Let’s take a hypothetical example of a contest where two participants would fight to the death for a prize of say $1 million. Such a fight would dominate on pay-per-view, generating far more revenue than the prize payout. Well, you say, that would be abhorrent and besides, it’s against the law. And of course it is, but why? You have a situation where the losing participant’s family could be awarded 1/3 the purse, with the bulk going to the winner. So the losing family would receive $333,000, which is more than a lot of people carry in life insurance. If you have someone who trained their entire life is to be a combat fighter, they might be happy to risk death for that kind of money. People get killed over a lot less–all the time.
When a firefighter rescues a young child but dies of smoke inhalation, he’s considered a hero. But, like the prizefighter, all his family has is a box of ashes, and their life insurance money. Why is it we consider the public good higher than an individual’s good. I think it’s a legitimate question to ask. It really goes to the heart of the question of self-ownership. Does a person have the right to do whatever he or she wants with their life including end that life? I would say yes. If we hold self-ownership to be a guiding principle, we have no choice but to acknowledge this. The right to suicide is the most fundamental human right of all. No person is able to choose their circumstances of birth. So clearly it is a matter of human dignity that they should have the right to plan and decide the time and manner of their death.
Going forward from that, if a person chooses to participate in bloodsport, who are we as a society to say that that person does not have the right to risk their life? Clearly we encourage people to risk their lives in other ways all the time. I think it’s inconsistent and hypocritical. It shows just how deep the collectivism runs.
We would not want children below a certain age to watch these contests. But we have to understand the world we’re living in. Children of any age who can figure out how to get access to a computer can watch all manner of carnage and even sex with barnyard animals on the Internet. So the idea of protecting young people is pretty much of a lost cause anyway.
Legitimized bloodsport would just be another mode of entertainment. I know a lot of parents and conservatives would absolutely go ballistic at this idea. The Parents Television Council would certainly cry foul.They should consider, though, that even with all the televised violence, children in our century are more insulated from real death than at any other time in human history. Even adults rarely experience death first hand.
Society tells you you can and should lay your life down for your country, for your city, for your family. You’re encouraged, even expected to take a bullet for your wife or child. So why can you not risk your own life for prize money? I say there is no reason at all. Except for the conceit that we as humans are somehow better than the violent nature from which we evolved.