We never stop hearing about how Americans are so bloodthirsty when it comes to crime policy, how black-and-white our moral view of crime is, and in short how we're all one step away from an Iranian criminal justice system. I've gone through the General Social Survey data and found, not surprisingly, that in reality those hardline attitudes track the homicide rate and so have been plummeting since the mid-1990s.
But before looking at charts based on social science data, which will be up tomorrow, let's consider a more qualitative sign from popular culture that attitudes have shifted strongly away from the war-on-crime mindset of more violent times. This way we can spot a similar change in attitudes in other times and places, where quantitative survey data are not available.
During the golden age of horror movies (the mid-'70s through the late '80s or early '90s), the killers are not given any "backstory" at all. They come from who knows where, and God knows how they got the way they are. Any attempt to flash back to a troubled childhood or implicate a rough labor market (or other set of "social forces") would have been read by audiences as a callous rationalization of their murderous behavior.
This uncertainty about the causal process that gave us the maniac killer adds to the overall sense of dread and humility about frightening problems that may lie beyond the powers of human beings to end. You give it your best shot and hope for the best -- though more often than not the killer gets up again, murders some more people, and returns to wreak further havoc in the sequel.
Earlier, when the society was still relatively naive about crazy and evil people, the consensus among social scientists was that crime was a social dysfunction, or perhaps the result of childhood psychological trauma. This supposedly complex view of the world yielded the moronically simplistic cure of the Great Society era -- throw a bunch of money at poor people, and they'll stop going crazy and killing each other. Or if they had the wrong kind of parenting, hand them over to a shrink to be fixed up.
This social determinism view was not confined to crimes that could at least plausibly be explained this way, such as the proverbial thief who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Even the most sick and twisted criminals such as serial killers were portrayed as monsters who we should feel sorry for -- just look at how they had to grow up.
The most infamous example of this is the end of the movie Psycho, where the full backstory of this demented monster is explained at length, and with plenty of Freudian psychobabble laid on extra thick. And with all of the shots of Mrs. Bates shouting at her timid little son, they might as well say it straight up: you'd turn out that way, too, if you had that domineering old bitch for a mother. He wasn't an evil person -- just the product of a noxious upbringing. You should imagine yourself in his shoes and feel sorry for him.
After the crime rate peaked in 1992, we lost our memories of how horrific killers can be, and this opened the way for sympathetic portrayals of serial killers. Documentaries of Ed Gein, David Berkowitz, etc., now routinely focus on their stressful childhoods in order to soften the audience for the heavy news that, by the way, this guy hunted people down and carved them up like game animals.
Somewhere around the early 2000s, whatever residual memories we had of serial killers had vanished. It became de rigueur in horror movie remakes to provide the humanizing backstory of the psychotic killers, including the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, in total contrast to the originals where the killers come from outside the human race, and so whose behavior defies explanation. Even brand-new series, like the Saw movies, have labored to explain how the sick fucks got that way. I mean, you aren't going to hold it against that bitter Jigsaw nerd, are you? -- after all, he was a cancer victim, and besides he's only trying to teach the sheeple to unplug themselves from the Matrix and appreciate life, those ungrateful non-cancer-having bunch of shits.
Sociopaths rely on the gullibility of their would-be victims in order to thrive, and it's clear from horror movies of the past 10 years that we have been a lot more willing to listen to the story of where they're coming from, instead of not giving a damn and just trying to waste them before they kill one of us again.
Like I said, the social survey data support this conclusion, but this one may be more worth bearing in mind since it is easier to spot in other settings where opinion surveys are lacking. Once this pattern becomes common, it won't be too long before the society is hit by another crime wave: it's a clear signal that they've let their defenses down around exploiters.
I thought there were backstories in the original Halloween & Friday the 13th movies. Jason is the more sympathetic one since he's a retard, while Michael Myers snapped for unexplainable reasons as a child and later escapes from his mental institution.ReplyDelete
The funny thing is that your world view isn't too different from the ones the Saw movies espouse. The main difference is that you seem to regard criminals as being unambiguously bad, whereas Saw movies regard them as being good guys who were twisted by horrible experiences. Otherwise, your world view is effectively the same.ReplyDelete
"...he's only trying to teach the sheeple to unplug themselves from the Matrix and appreciate life, those ungrateful non-cancer-having bunch of shits."
Doesn't this summarize how much better movies, music, sex, community, women and the like were when we had Jigsaws about? All we need to do is unleash criminals on the public to rape, murder and mug us so that we can appreciate the better things in life!
"I thought there were backstories in the original Halloween & Friday the 13th movies."ReplyDelete
I'm referring to backstories that try to explain how the killer "got that way," how his powers work (e.g., why he can't be killed, etc.). The original Halloween doesn't try to explain how Michael Myers became a psychopath -- he started that way from an early age.
For Friday the 13th, most people don't even remember the one killer who did have something of an explainable motive -- namely, Mrs. Voorhies in the first one, getting revenge on the camp counselors whose lust-blinded neglect led them to let her son die.
Same with Nightmare on Elm Street. There's a brief mention that Freddie was a child molester and killer who the parents torched after the legal process failed to put him away, suggesting that he's coming back to get revenge on their children.
Still, that motive never comes across in his actions. He doesn't ever appear like someone seeking what they see as just revenge against an unjust punishment. He's just a crazy, thrill-killing weirdo. And plus his supernatural powers are never given a backstory.
"All we need to do is unleash criminals on the public to rape, murder and mug us so that we can appreciate the better things in life!"ReplyDelete
Actually it's entirely different -- Jigsaw has the hubris to believe he can personally effect this change, that he can lead the cave-dwellers out into the sunlight.
My point-of-view is the opposite -- that the swell of violence has to appear to come from nowhere in particular, from no individual in particular, but rather that it's this general and pervasive creeping of evil into our world.
I do think there's such as thing as too safe of a world, and wish we lived in a somewhat more violent world -- maybe like what we saw during the last wave, which on an absolute level was still about a two orders of magnitude lower than circa 1600 in England.
But it has to happen as part of the natural cycle up and down, since no deliberate individual or cadre could cause enough of a shock to convince people that the change was widespread and will last for the foreseeable future, a challenge they'll have to adapt their lives to.
To get a little more specific, Jigsaw's "tests" are fleeting, as horrific as they are. To the person involved, they will seem like a really bizarre exception to the otherwise safe life they've been leading and will continue to lead after the test.ReplyDelete
It won't yield an enduring change in the person's mindset or worldview -- it was just a terrible fluke. That's how we responded to the fluke of September 11th: freaking out for awhile at first, then not caring and even forgetting who Bin Laden was within several years.
Unlike these isolated and short-lived tests, the danger I'm talking about is long-lasting -- for decades -- and seems to be coming in from all over.
And the other huge difference is what he and I see as the positive changes that result from an encounter with violence.ReplyDelete
Jigsaw, embodying the zeitgeist of falling-crime times, looks to the epiphany, a reflection on how much an individual is worth to themselves.
My focus is just the opposite: pervasive, enduring violence causes isolated individuals to band together as a group or community, like the Dream Warriors from Nightmare part 3, or the platoon in Predator or Aliens.
And the end result is not an epiphany or realization of how special and precious each of us is to ourselves -- it's the actions rather than the thoughts that matter. They are what bind us together, let us show our loyalty, feel proud that we've managed to end a problem or at least (and more typically) keep it at bay.
It's the difference between what Greg Cochran calls "heroes of achievement" like Ben Franklin vs. "heroes of suffering" like Rosa Parks. It's no coincidence that recent horror and action movies are referred to as "torture porn" -- audiences want to see them suffer in isolation, not band together and achieve a goal.
I stand corrected, then. It is not enough for thefts to occur randomly, for a few women to be raped and for some people to die every now and then. It is best for the carnage to be ongoing, for more people to see their lives ruined. It is best that the people band together, but let's hope their efforts are in vain.ReplyDelete
"It is best for the carnage to be ongoing, for more people to see their lives ruined."ReplyDelete
You're failing to distinguish between the absolute level and the trend. Everything I talk about is how our perception relates to the trend in the violence level -- up or down.
Therefore there is no need for "carnage." As I've already said, during the last wave it was about 2 orders of magnitude safer than England circa 1600. We were in a different mindset only because the trend was steadily upward.
But sure, there is such a thing as too much violence, where people don't even have the time to band together.
Follow your logic through, though, and we should all throw our brains in vats behind well-guarded doors so that we minimize the absolute level of the threat to our security as much as possible. Any risk must be cut out. Have fun hiding under that rock.
"It is best that the people band together, but let's hope their efforts are in vain."
No, I clearly said you hope for the best, realizing that it may not work out that way. That's real life -- you don't always win, and in some areas you rarely win. You want a Hollywood ending where merely raising awareness and organizing will stop the problem.
Time to grow up and admit that we are not omniscient, so we can't always figure the solution out, and that we're not omnipotent, so that even if we did know, we're not always powerful enough to effect the change.
"Therefore there is no need for 'carnage.' As I've already said, during the last wave it was about 2 orders of magnitude safer than England circa 1600. We were in a different mindset only because the trend was steadily upward."ReplyDelete
Perhaps, but from whence comes these perceptions? As you've noted, the public's popular perceptions to rises in violence correspond to, well, rises in violence. So accordingly, from what I gather, there must be more robberies and muggings for there to be a difference in mindset. If there is no such violence at all, then there can be no upward swing possible.
"Follow your logic through, though, and we should all throw our brains in vats behind well-guarded doors so that we minimize the absolute level of the threat to our security as much as possible. Any risk must be cut out. Have fun hiding under that rock."
I never said any such thing. Ideally, people could go about their business without having to fear violence. Of course, this isn't an ideal world, but it is best to try to change the world for better, such as punishing criminals and considering criminal behavior to be shameful. I just don't see a dichotomy between social and dangerous cultures, and hunkered down and safe ones. If anything, compare American ghettos and how every sensible person has locked doors by 10:00, with downtown Tokyo or Dublin at night where the people can socialize until late, because they don't need to worry about being mugged. The difference is palpable.
"Time to grow up and admit that we are not omniscient, so we can't always figure the solution out, and that we're not omnipotent, so that even if we did know, we're not always powerful enough to effect the change."
How humble. I agree, but doesn't this sentiment also entail that we don't really know if increasing rates of violence lend for better cultures? And also, that if the violence rates shoot up again, that we'll have better art and livelier communities?
"So accordingly, from what I gather, there must be more robberies and muggings for there to be a difference in mindset."ReplyDelete
More danger than there is right now doesn't mean it will rise to the level of "carnage." You're like one of those helicopter parents who objects to letting their kids lead lives that are riskier than being a complete couch-potato, video game addict shut-in -- more risk? Heavens, think of the carnage if they rough-house and fall out of trees!
"I just don't see a dichotomy between social and dangerous cultures, and hunkered down and safe ones."
I covered that with anecdotes as well as data starting last year, so won't link to it here. But by any measure you look at, people become more isolated around 20 years ago. That in fact explains part of the decline in crime -- when fewer people are out and about, there are fewer people to prey on, fewer unattended cars to steal, etc.
"And also, that if the violence rates shoot up again, that we'll have better art and livelier communities?"
I've been covering that by looking across lots of crime waves, and the pattern is pretty striking. Not just the recent crime wave, but also 1900-1933, 1780-1830, 1580-1630, and the later 14th century.
"More danger than there is right now doesn't mean it will rise to the level of "carnage." You're like one of those helicopter parents who objects to letting their kids lead lives that are riskier than being a complete couch-potato, video game addict shut-in -- more risk? Heavens, think of the carnage if they rough-house and fall out of trees!"ReplyDelete
This is pretty laughable.
"But by any measure you look at, people become more isolated around 20 years ago. That in fact explains part of the decline in crime -- when fewer people are out and about, there are fewer people to prey on, fewer unattended cars to steal, etc."
Well, if anything, those people were fed up with crime and decided to stay in doors. In places like Dublin, Tokyo and Munich, where there is very little fear of crime, there exist very social cultures. The Japanese are meticulously socialized, and that's a likely reason why their crime rates border on zero.
Similarly, Isaac Asimov recounted, "Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime."
So it's not so much that rising crime rates produce social cultures, it's that, at least in America, rising crime rates whittled away at America's social trust - how can you trust people when they rob from you? - and kept them in doors.
Admittedly, Latin America has a very pro-social culture from all the accounts I've read of it, though I haven't been to those places. The only exception I can think of is how Steve Sailer states that Mexican mansions tend to have high walls, out of fear of what the people below will rob from them. But that helps justify the point that no one is really omniscient in these matters, and that rising crime rates are one factor of many.
"In places like Dublin, Tokyo and Munich, where there is very little fear of crime, there exist very social cultures."ReplyDelete
Cross-sectional analyses don't tell us as much about causation as over-time analyses do. So look at the US over time, Ireland over time, West Germany over time. When there was a wave of violence -- like from 1900-1933 and from the '60s through the '80s (that was general throughout the West, not just American), they show the same rise in banding together and being out and about.
You don't sound like you've been to any of those cities, but next time you're there, ask people born around 1960 if their society was more out-and-about during the '70s and '80s or during the '90s and 2000s. Except Tokyo, which was outside the Western crime wave.
"So it's not so much that rising crime rates produce social cultures, it's that, at least in America, rising crime rates whittled away at America's social trust "
As I've detailed before, they feed into each other. Rising crime causes people to band together, but as people trust each other, they make it easier to get exploited by criminals as well as by false messiahs, so after a long while trust erodes.
You're missing the next phase of the trust-and-violence cycle, though: when violence has been plummeting for so long, people assume that the bad guys went away and that it's safe to be social again -- opening themselves up to predators all over again.
This is the last comment, since you keep trying to shift the goalposts just to prolong arguing.
Neither film really penetrated the popular culture (and perhaps that provides support for your view), but two of the greatest horror films in recent years -- Wolf Creek and The Strangers -- fit the 70s/80s lack-of-backstory mold quite well.ReplyDelete
Another way of interpreting the trend is that as the audience becomes more sophisticated about slasher tropes, a trend toward deconstruction or demystification follows in postmodern form. This happened with Westerns.
Interesting theory. However, "backstory" explanations might be thought of as attempts by later horror movie writers to create "deeper" (according to critics) explanations of why characters are who they are---an attempt at "gritty realism" that has been the hallmark of movies and TV shows, even fantasy ones.ReplyDelete
The famous older horror movies were trashed by critics as being lame teenage fun. Given a re-boot, writers are trying to prove why they should be taken "more seriously" by inserting fake character depth. But its not just horror movies.
Take something like Christopher Nolan's Batman series. Unlike the Superman movies of the 70s, Batman's enemies and powers are rooted in modest, human terms--Joker is just a psychopath, the Batmobile is just a heavy construction car, etc.
Or take the Star Wars prequels, where Lucas spends 3 movies explaining (or, rather trying to explain) how Darth Vader went from jedi to sith.
Nolan's Batman moves work because he had good scripts and good acting. Lucas's movies fail because he's a bad writer and a bad director for actors, and he's way more interested in effects than in stories.
The result is that Nolan's work got Ledger an Oscar and gave people a new appreciation for Batman, comic writers, and heroism (the Dark Knight, famously, is a semi-defense of Bush's war on terror). However, the result for Lucas was a cheapening of the entire Star Wars franchise and Vader in particular, and losing fans, prestige, and respect. He opened his original, previously untouchable Star Wars films to more and more severe criticsm, denigrating their reputation.
I guess what I'm saying is that the whole "backstory" of a villain in modern horror only works if done well. otherwise, you cheapen the franchise and the memories. I like psychological explanations for villains myself, but not if they claim a "blank state" or "natural state of human is innocent and good" mentality. Evil has to come from somewhere