How Much Is Too Much?: Violence

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"I worry that we're all getting a little desensitized [to violence]."

- Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy


          Turn on your television and flip through a few channels, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll encounter violence, whether it’s on the nightly news, a sci-fi show, a war movie, or a documentary. Images of violence and death surround us with our ease of access to movies, videos, raw footage, and images.

         But what about in books, where the violence is not presented visually but can be described in nearly equal detail? Should we shy away from books like The Hunger Games that do not balk at presenting violence in a disturbingly realistic manner? Is it worrisome that children and teens all over the nation read books such as The Hunger GamesHarry PotterThe Inheritance Cycle, and others that attempt to convey the true nature and horrors of war and suffering to people often as young as ten?

         How much is too much?

         I don’t have kids, but I know that parents’ views on what their children should be allowed to read vary immensely. I won’t attempt to give any parents reading this advice on what their children should and shouldn’t read. I’m only going to say what I’ve found to be true about violence in books after my nineteen years of life. So here we go!

Constantly reading books containing graphic violence does desensitize you to it.

           In Suzanne Collins’s world of Panem, twenty-four tributes (aged 12 to 18) are selected from its districts every year and forced into an arena for a televised fight to the death. Some teenagers gleefully kill their competition while others struggle just to survive. At various points in the trilogy, teens are stabbed, injected with lethal venom, attacked and killed by genetically engineered dogs, and killed in bombings. The result? A distressing look at the consequences of war and the frightening, almost savage enjoyment of a death match between young people. Is our culture turning into one similar to the Capitol, who glorifies violence and suffering to the point that it no longer affects them?

          I say we are.

          If you stroll through the young adult section of any given Barnes and Noble, you’ll typically see dark covers with either a) warriors, b) vampires / supernatural creatures, c) people wearing far fewer clothes than they should, or d) all of the above. In any one of these books, particularly the ones with warriors / supernatural creatures, you will likely find one or more deaths, stabbings, bombings, physical abuse, general war violence, or otherwise. And teens love these books. Granted, most of them portray said violent occurrences accurately—the author will describe in graphic detail what happens to a body when its stabbed or caught in an explosion. And many won’t shy away from explaining (once more, in explicit detail) the process of being raped or sexually abused in some way (The Pillars of the Earth, for example).

         As a reader, I prefer realism, as I’m sure most others do. If you’re going to write about a topic, do your research and write it accurately to the best of your ability.  

That being said, I don’t want to put down a book and feel as though just got attacked or raped.

        And I’m sure every parent out there doesn’t want his or her young son or daughter to come away from a book feeling that way, either. It’s not healthy, and it will not make them more compassionate when they are confronted with real-like tragedies. Teens that are exposed to such realistic violence, particularly when the scenes are described in a painstakingly lifelike manner, will grow accustomed to it after a time. Movies and books with graphic scenes of death, suffering, torture, and rape don’t affect me as much as they used to. Why? Because I’ve become desensitized to it because I am constantly being bombarded with these things.

       I sat through American Sniper and didn’t bat an eye. And I consider myself an empathetic person. I haven’t been exposed to very much violence in my life—I avoid it intentionally, if I can. But it’s there, and I’m not the only teen deeply affected by our culture’s willingness to present reality in detail that is often unnecessary.

If we can, as writers, effectively portray the horrors of war, pain, and suffering without mentally scarring our young readers, why wouldn’t we? 

       I read The Lord of the Rings when I was eight. I adored those books from the moment I pulled The Two Towers from my school library shelf. Tolkien didn’t write these books while living in our modern world, where teenagers play Grand Theft AutoWorld of Warcraft, and similar video games with enthusiasm and kids sneak into R-rated movies. As such, The Lord of the Rings is not particularly heavy on violent descriptions. Tolkien artfully portrays a world burdened with the tyrannical rule of a despot and a terrible war—and he doesn’t need blood spurting from chests and limbs being hacked off to do it. People die, people are imprisoned, and nations suffer, but the audience can appreciate their misery without having to read descriptions of graphic gore.

      Similarly, books that deal with issues of rape and abortion, such as Francine Rivers’s The Atonement Child, attempt to portray these subjects delicately. We are told, not shown, that Dynah Carey is raped in a park. We are told nothing about the attack itself, nor what she felt while she was being raped, nor anything about her attacker. On a similar note, even in the movie Hick (which I reviewed here), Luli’s rape is not shown, and your heart breaks all the more for this little girl because you know what is about to happen to her.   

Sometimes, what we don’t see makes the scene more powerful.

       However, the Bible itself doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions either—in fact, some of the most violent acts I’ve ever read about have been found in the Bible. Just browse through the Old Testament or read about Armageddon (or even what Christ endured on the cross), and you’ll see what I mean. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Job, the ten plagues, even the Flood—not exactly the happy, bright little stories we tell the toddlers in Sunday School, hmm? The Bible gives us a very full picture of the true depravity of man and the redemption that can be found in Jesus if we repent from our wicked ways and accept His gift of mercy and salvation.

       So how does that apply to us as Christian readers today?

I would advise you to examine the author’s intentions for including scenes of graphic violence.

       If the scene serves only to glorify a character’s prowess in battle or is there because the author felt like flexing his or her descriptive muscles, those are not sufficient reasons. Exposing people to explicit violence simply because you can is irresponsible and unloving, particularly if your audience will be mostly teens, children, and young people.

     But if the scenes are written with genuine sensitivity towards the character experiencing it and the reader, I suggest that these can help us grow. If—as in the case of The Atonement Child, some sections of The Hunger Games, and the Bible—the characters undergo a realistic transformation after experiencing said violence and learn, grow, and become stronger from it, then it was a vital scene.  If the audience is given hope that they, too, can overcome similar obstacles or can more fully appreciate the ordeal of someone they have never met, it was a vital scene. If a book explores the struggles of someone with PTSD, inclusions of violence (even in flashbacks) can break the hearts of the audience for this character and invite compassion. On the other hand, if a book’s hero is an emotionless warrior who suffers no repercussions from ruthlessly killing multiple people, the audience will come away with an unrealistic view of both violence and the people who commit it.

All that to say—use discretion and ask yourself why an author may have included graphic violence. If you can’t come up with a solid reason, maybe you should set it aside.