Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Putting Violence In Its Place

What is Violence?

Really, just exactly what is violence?  Not what does the word mean, but what is the phenomenon of Violence?

Most fiction these days has some sex, some violence, and sometimes sexy violence, but for the most part Romance and Violence just don't mix.  Why?

What is it about Violence that is antithetical to the mood of Romance?

Well, then, what exactly is Romance? 

Or put another way, what does violence have in common with romance? 

Isn't that a heretical thought?

The first thing that comes to mind is of course domestic violence.

People who live in the same space (dare I say "together?") develop a close personal relationship where they learn how to "push each others buttons."  It's so easy to take out your anger at a workplace situation on your domestic co-residents.

I'm saying "co-residents" because I'm including in domestic violence all the kinds of violence that happen between domestic partners, significant others, part-time cohabitants, AND spouses and their children.  Parents spank children, or yell at them, intimidate etc.  Children "turn on" their parents in their teens and try to break free.

All these criss-crossing tension leads to verbal abuse, violence against women, violence against children (for just being childish), even domestic tensions carried into the workplace creating workplace violence. 

Now look at the pairs of kinds of people I've mentioned who get into violent exchanges.  It's the same list that LOVE EACH OTHER.

Children love parents.  Parents love children.  Men love women and vice versa.

People you work with, you bond with.  Someone comes along and starts bad-mouthing a person who has helped you through a rough patch at work -- you will intervene if you've got a spine and any sense of morality.  You bond with people in all kinds of situations. 

The tighter the bond, the more energy is released when the bond breaks. 

That released energy CAN (shouldn't, but can) express itself as violence.

Romance creates bonds, but violence doesn't break such an annealed bond.

Violence can't break a romance -- but violence is one possible way the energy bound up in a romantic bond CAN come flowing out when that bond breaks.

Maybe we should look at Romance as stored energy.  If so, violence is released energy.

But even if that's true -- or true in special cases -- there's another way to look at both the question, "What is violence?" and "What is Romance?" and find the same answer to each question.

What is violence?  It's a problem-solving activity - an attempt to FIX SOMETHING that isn't working right. 

What is Romance?  It's a problem-solving activity - an attempt to FIX SOMETHING that isn't working right. 

The "something" that is seen as "the problem" may actually be the same something!

In Violence applied to solve a problem, very often the problem is something of the form "LISTEN TO ME DAMMIT!"

Violence is often the attempt to get someone to do something -- or not do something,  or at least not do that something again.

In other words, violence is an attempt to communicate.

In Romance applied to solve a problem, very often the problem is something of the form "I HEAR YOU!" 

We fall in love when we resonate to another person's emotions, and feeling the reality of that other person's very existence makes us real to ourselves.  Romance, (dating, candle-lit dinners, walks on the beach at night) is an activity of communication.

Violence and Romance are both attempts to communicate something having to do with the fact that your life has been effected by the actions or reactions of another person.

Workplace Violence, and domestic violence too, are so very often attempts to get someone else to understand how you feel and why you are important in the overall scheme of things.

The PROBLEM violence is used to solve is the same problem Romance solves -- "I want you to understand what I mean when I tell you how I feel."

Very often, when the mentally deranged grab guns and shoot up a crowded public place, it is an attempt to shout loudly enough to be heard, "I MATTER! PAY ATTENTION!"

And isn't that the bottom line in Romance? 

But in Romance, the dialog takes place quietly, with an exchange of glances, a smile, an invitation out to lunch, a proffered cup of coffee, a dozen little favors chosen carefully after close study of the other person's preferences.  It's all about saying "You matter, and I'm paying attention."


Violence and Romance are both activities which attempt to solve a problem in communication. 

"All's Fair in Love And War." 

"The Battle of the Sexes."

Think about it.  It's all about communication.  And it's hard to make the case that what's being communicated is really so very different! 

If an incident of mass killing erupts into the News and becomes a focus of news coverage for days, that incident becomes an Overton Window -- a window of opportunity for people who want to "control things" to push public opinion in the direction that benefits the few rather than the many.

Pundits and Politicians call for a ban on assault weapons, or handguns, or whatever object was used to kill a lot of people, as if making it hard to obtain the means of communicating will make people stop wanting to communicate. 

Why do people grab a gun, a machete, or a rock and inflict damage on others?

Is it because nobody would listen to them?  Not usually.  It's more likely, I think, that the person who is yelling out their message does not FEEL that they've been heard.  They may have been heard, but if they don't feel it, it may as well not have happened. 

That's the key point for a Romance writer to grab hold of.  It's all about "What does he see in her?  What does she see in him?  What does he think she sees in him?  What does she think he sees in her?" 

Without closing the feedback loop, the problem can't be solved.

In life, we don't want to be heard -- we want to KNOW we've been heard.

So both Romance and Violence are actions undertaken to solve a problem.

Success at solving that problem gives us strength to go out and deal with "life" on many other levels.

That's why we read Romance, and write it.  We need to feel successful at solving a problem, so we can go solve another.

And that's why people play violent videogames.  Or read "Action" novels, or watch action TV or movies. 

The presence of violence on TV or in games doesn't cause people to go out and shoot up their workplace or a theater.  I'll bet one day they'll prove it's really the opposite -- that engaging in vicarious violence actually prevents violent behavior (in the sane).

But almost everyone I know has noticed the non-stop, wall to wall, violence in entertainment, becoming more graphic by the year, and can't see how that doesn't cause people to behave in a more callous or violent manner.

I don't think the presence of violence causes people to commit violence.

If it did, imagine how many perfectly HAPPY MARRIAGES we'd have among Romance readers!  If satisfying sex in fiction caused people to change their sexual behavior so that they, too, had nothing but satisfying sex -- well, there wouldn't be any sexually deprived people left in the world.

No, fiction doesn't CAUSE people to model their behavior after that of fictional characters. 

But who among us can't point to a work of fiction that affected them in their youth?

Many have pursued a career in science because of Star Trek.  Many have found the courage to take a chance -- go adventuring -- when inspired by heroic fiction.  Others have taken trips around the world and other adventures after reading about far away places with strange sounding names. 

These actions are taken after thoughtfully processing information garnered through both fiction and non-fiction.  These actions which originate perhaps in a bit of fiction found in early youth become implemented in life after pondering alternatives.

And there's the key concept - alternatives.

Consider what TV, film and videogames have become -- distilled and concentrated sex and violence, because sex and violence sells.

Ask yourself whether it's the presence of the fictional sex and violence that  causes customers to go out and become promiscuous or shoot up their colleagues at work.  Or if maybe it isn't the presence of violence, but the absence of any OTHER successful problem solving technique that leads some isolated individuals to believe there exists no other way to solve their problem.

Is our social problem the presence of violence or the absence of other successful problem solving techniques?

In real life, violence doesn't solve the problem of being misunderstood.  Romance doesn't, either -- in fact I'd say their success rate in real life is about equal. 

There are, however, a number of social-interactive techniques that are tried-and-true methods of solving this essential, core problem -- knowing you've been heard, taken seriously, taken into account, and in fact have prevailed at least sometimes.

We don't need less violence (or less Romance) in our fiction.  We need other alternative methods of solving the problem sprinkled into our fiction so we have choices to ponder.

You might want to read this older post that nails this question of communication on a more esoteric level:

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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