Training Violent Behaviors: Media and the Message of Desensitization

 I had the opportunity to read a fascinating and very thought provoking book this past week called, “Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice and the Domination System.” The basic idea of the book is taken from Walter Wink’s idea of the “powers and principalities” which consist of the “spiritual dynamics at work in the institutions and social systems that shape our lives.” Wink’s well known line goes, “The Powers are good; the Powers are fallen the Powers must be redeemed.”

The book, a compilation of various Anabaptist scholars, seeks to tease out wink’s main ideas and delve into many areas of society and practice and challenges how we can think and engage the powers of our society in the manner of Jesus. There are a number of standout essays done by authors such as Nancey Murphy, Ray Gingerich, Glen Stassen and Daniel Liechty.

Daniel Liechty’s article titled, “Principalities and Powers: A Social-Scientific Perspective,” grabbed my attention because of its short discussion on violence in the media; something that reminded me of my earlier post about the Left-Behind video game I reported on – Left Behind Eternal Forces – Violence for Christians.

In the article I commented that,

Other than having the characters in the game say things like “Praise the Lord??? after killing people, and referring to the UN as a tool of Satan, the game battles against the “Antichrist’s Global Community Peacemakers,??? a very interesting title to unpack. The army of Christ is violently plotting to kill the “peacemakers??? of the Antichrist, hmmm….I wonder what these guys think of the Christian Peace traditions…?

Although I haven’t heard just yet what the makers of the game think of people who oppose violence, I did discover something equally puzzling.

Liechty writes, in Transforming the Powers, that the media is not a neutral force,

“The media more than anything else determines and transmits our cultural images of good and evil. In the grips of the profit-making system (itself an obvious fetish), the media, hiding behind a chimera of objectivity, spew into our environment a constant and daily does of glamorized violence and killing, aimed not at adults, but rather, what is surely criminal, at our children and teenagers (p. 48).”

His point above seems almost so obvious that I need not quote him at length, but then again his comment reminds me of Jaques Ellul’s constant criticisms of Technology and the propaganda of the media and Ellul’s earlier criticisms seem to have fallen by the wayside.  The point I wanted to make concerns that last line where media focuses on “our children and teenagers.” This brings us back to the violence we often find in video games today, and worse yet in “Christian (I am using this term so very loosely)” video games such as Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

Liechty explains that violence is being taught to our children in ways similar to those employed in military development. He refers to the book, “On Killing” by Lt. Col. David Grossman. In his book Grossman, a military psychologist for many years, writes about his job to “increase fire ratio” among the soldiers he worked with, and explains that it was the job of the psychologist to “break down the natural inhibitions humans have in regard to killing other humans.”

They in turn established methods of accomplishing these tasks such as, “methods of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, desensitization, and role modeling (p.49).” What shook Grossman, and grabbed my attention, was his realization these methods are used in American media, “violence entertainment,” as he calls it. Grossman then argues that through media, but especially video games,

“The culture is exposing and subjecting its children, from early age upward, to essentially the same kinds of conditioning techniques being used in the military to break down new recruits’ inhibitions to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger. Combine that fact with the availability of weapons, and we have a clear recipe for disaster among our teens and young people today (49).”

Ultimately, we must be aware that every aspect of media is propaganda of one sort or another. It appeals to our our fears, or desires, things we want and things we know we need and gives us evaluative tools in overcoming those needs and fears. It direct us toward its own message, or product, and in doing it points us away from the Gospel. It is in this instance, when media turns us toward itself as the answer – when it becomes our ideology – that we need to engage in redeeming the practices of that “power-structure.”   And if Grossman is right, not only do the Peace Churches have something to think about, but so do others who support military activity but aren’t ready for their adolescents to be trained in such a way.

A couple other reviews on “Transforming the Powers.”

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16 responses to “Training Violent Behaviors: Media and the Message of Desensitization”

  1. Walter Wink didn’t initiate these ideas. He extends a conversation started by Berkhof and Stringfellow. Wink’s innovation is the notion that the powers themselves may be redeemable.

    As for the media. Have your considered Noam Chomsky? Not a Christian, but a brilliant analyst. National film Board (Canada) did a very good documentary on his ideas called Manufacturing Consent. Its a bit dated. But still very good starting point for discussions on how media bias manufactures a culture ready to go to war for all the wrong reasons.

  2. Hi David, yes you are right Wink didn’t create those ideas, thanks for clarifying what I meant. In fact the idea goes all the way back to the NT, and Yoder has a lot about the powers as well. I think Wink often gets cited because he has the most systematic and extensive reseach out of all those mentioned.

    I haven’t checked out Chomsky but this sounds like something that would be worth checking into.

  3. I dunno. I think you can say the media is training kids to be violent only if you assume that they are not violent naturally. I remember in journalism school I took a course called Communication and Children, where the professor both pointed out that there is plenty of reason to believe that watching violent entertainment encourages kids to be violent, but on the other hand you can also detect many ways that our society trains them to restrain violence.

    I think that we tend not to see what we assume is normal. If you think the normal state of humanity is to be peaceful, all the violence in the media will leap out at you, while if you assume that violence is the normal state, then you won’t notice the violence so much as the messages about when and what kind of violence is appropriate. I think that even peace churches have to recognize the distinctions between different kinds of violence, if for no other reason that the God of the Old Testament clearly does.

    That said, I think that the upshot of all this today is that our society’s attitude toward violence is awfully confused. Witness Star Trek, which is supposed to be imagining a time when humans have evolved beyond war but which is somehow full of shooting.

  4. Camassia, I do see your point and agree that there are nuances to be involved in taking this position. However Grossman’s argument set forth the notion that soliders had inherent inhabitions to killing people, and those inhabitions needed to be broken down, and thus the methods of doing so mentioned above.

    I too take this stance, that people inherently don’t try to slay one another. The idea of total depravity of the human nature is unhelpful and in my traditions perspective unbiblical. Its just the notion that’s led our modern society down the tragic moral state that we find ourselves in, because it suggests that the human mind is incapable of assertaining any positive notion from or about God.

    Rather I think our rejection of God, understood as sin, leaves open the possibility and even the predisposition to revenge for my own sake, but the Light/seed of God remains as a crucial aspect of the created order. Thus, It seems to me that violence and murder come when we reject God’s light and follow darkness, we do not begin in total darkness we choose it.

    Thus it’s extremely important to recognize those things which nurture the proper dispositions (those which take us toward God’s Holy Spirit), and which things do not (those that takes us away from it).

    Sidenote: I am not so sure I am suggesting that the normal state of humanity is “peaceful” though that’s what it ought to be. I am just suggesting that the normal state of humanity is much less than violence and murder.

  5. I think both Camassia and Grossman are correct about aspects of human nature. But, I think the inherent violence is a more primitive basic response of “fight or flight” when faced with perceived danger. Hence, even children can resort to aggressive behaviors. But, I suspect that humans also naturally protect and assist those important to them. Thus, the army has to “train” or “condition” people to kill (of course some of that “resistance” can be attributed to social norms and mores that prohibit such behaviors within society).

    I agree with Grossman that the mass media’s reliance on violence (particularly to draw viewers to news programs or to move a story along in a drama or cartoon) do de-sensitize people especially children. The research I’m familiar with shows that children are at least desensitized to others acting aggressively or to its impact on those who are the object of that aggression.

    I’m liking these posts, Wess.

  6. Joe thanks for the comment, and I agree that both Camassia’s and Grossman’s perspectives can fit given your account.

    It’s also interesting to hear about your research and find that it too correlates even though you’re coming at it from a different field.

  7. There are several Chomsky books on our shelves, not that I’ve read them all, ahem, but Chris has. One of them, from 1996, is called Powers & Prospects: Reflections on human nature and the social order. Manufacturing Consent is also a book, as is Deterring Democracy. He is technically a linguist, but also a very sharp analyst and critic of politics and ethics. Highly recommended.

  8. I’m interested in your comments about Jacques Ellul, I read “Anarchy and Christianity” in High School and I have wanted to re-read his work recently. I would love there to be more open discussion about anarcho-xianity in our community, typically when i bring it up i’m pretty brutally shot down without much consideration.

    “Changing the Powers” sounds really interesting to me since it conflicts with my instinct/biblical interpretation that power other than God’s is inherrantly evil.

  9. I think we need to be careful to distinguish what the specific persons and institutions that comprise the media intend and what the media as a “power” (in the sense meant by the Bible, Wink, Foucault, and, I think, Chomsky) actually does. I am hesitant to assign to the media a knowing conspiracy to indoctrinate youth into the ways of violence. There are far too many journalists and other media figures dedicated to reducing violence for this to be the case. Nevertheless, we all to some degree or another work in complicit alliance with the great power of violence, and it is in this sense that what we, perhaps unfairly, term “media” can be said to participate in indoctrination. Foucault describes this as “acephalic” power, power that has no one central source, but is the accumulation of smaller powers.

    The point of all this is to caution us in our discussion regarding whatever role the “media” plays in indoctrination into violence. Surely, violence is the de facto master of civilizations and, surely, a great majority of the media outlets participate. But a good step towards redeeming “media” is to dehemogenize our discussion and work to disentangle specific media from the structures of violence.

    This being said – and to pick up Seth’s thread – the first priority for Christian communities (and any other peace community)should be to look at ourselves. How do our specific media habits encourage violence? How do our media practices teach a different path? Ultimately, I believe, this is an anarchist position, because it has no stake in upholding the institutional status quo. We do interact with that status quo insofar as we seek its redemption. But such interaction can never dissuade us from pursuing an internal community life free from the trappings of violence.

  10. Jamie – thanks for commenting.

    I think your point about the distinguishing of the power of media and those within the structure of that power is good but personally I’d stress the interwoveness of the two more. It’s one of Ellul’s main points in his book on media called, “Propaganda” that media is all pervasive, and “total in scope.”

    From a book title “Interpretive Essays,” it says about Ellul’s point that, “Modern propaganda is sociological as well as political, and the bulk of current propaganda aims not at agitation for change but at the integration of individuals into the established order (110).”

    What I am getting at is the difficulty at which we can separate out the powers and those participating in them – the more we participate in the practices of a given structure, the more we take on the likeness and character of those practices.

    BUT – I agree with the rest of your points about dehemogenizing media, and putting into practice the specific kinds of activities that break the rules, or subvert them in ways that exemplify Christ’s reign and peace.

    In so doing this, we must continue to be aware of the great reality and dominance that media/propaganda plays in our society.

  11. Yeah, I agree with that. My main concern is that we tend to talk about the powers and the people and institutions that comprise the powers as if they are part of some conscious conspiracy. Undoubtedly my participation in violence makes me a part and parcel of the domination system or whatever you want to call it–but when we speak of things like the domination system I fear that we are postulating the existence of some sinister mind(s) plotting behind the scenes. My reference to Foucault’s idea about acephalic power was meant to indicate that I agree precisely with your point; what we refer to as the big powers are in fact the accumulation of a bunch of communities, individuals, and institutions acting innocently of their role in the bigger power scheme (for the most part). My point is that I get worried when we talk about “media” as if it’s some Wizard of Oz pulling strings behind the curtain. Let’s, as you agree, work on specific issues in the media with specific players in the media rather launching diatribes against “media.” Obviously, it is important to name the powers (in Wink’s phrase), but lets analyze , witness to, and transform them!

    I think this is what Yoder is trying to say when he talks about the shape of Christian witness taking concrete , specific forms. It does little good to walk into Congress and say, “stop the domination system!” but it might do some good to, say, ask for media protections, a rating system, etc. (And these are just examples, I’m not saying these are the best policies.) But, again, this cannot be our primary focus. Our primary focus needs to be in creating local communities that witness to the possibility of alternative media and interactions with media. Our policy recommendations can then be formulated from the experience of those communities.

  12. I’ve written quite a bit on the moral implications of the “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” game, not from a specifically Christian perspective but here are some pieces that might add this discussion:

    “Push The Prayer Button” –
    “What’s wrong with a video game that depicts a “defensive” religious war set in a real, contemporary US city that’s been recreated in loving detail – at least in terms of the physical features of the city – and which features game characters that look nothing like the real city residents they are supposed to depict and who do not bleed when they are killed, at close range, by assault weapons and whose corpses simply fade away from where they lie on the city streets ? What’s the big deal if the game is based on a bloodthirsty pop-culture series that’s been read by upwards of sixty million people ? So what if the game suggests that “secularism” is satanic and depicts a total war in which there can be no noncombatants ?

    So what if this game sidesteps the moral and religious injunctions against killing by enabling players to do rote penance, when the game characters they command kill, by repetitively pressing a “prayer button” on their gaming joysticks ?”

    “How Average Humans Can Be Conditioned To Carry Out Acts Of Mass Violence” : the title says it all. Selected research.

    “Recent research and scholarship suggests that ordinary humans have the capacity to carry out mass violence and that this capacity can be conditioned. Whitworth University professor James Waller, author of Becoming Evil : How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing has been one of the leaders in investigating the factors which seem to precede episodes of mass violence. Waller argues that the capacity for mass violence is a normal one and that it can be conditioned, or brought out, by various environmental factors including societal polarization and also the use of demonizing and dehumanizing language, and other forms of hate speech”

    ” Virtual religious, ethnic, and cultural cleansing in “Left Behind: Eternal Forces””

    ” “The conversion of socialized people into dedicated fighters is achieved not by altering their personality structures, aggressive drives or moral standards. Rather, it is accomplished by cognitively redefining the morality of killing so that it can be done free from self-censure. Through moral justification of violent means, people see themselves as fighting ruthless oppressors” – Albert Banduras

    The following analysis examines various ways by which – by accident or by design – the “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” video game serves to demonize and dehumanize, as depicted in the game, the population of New York City.”

    Bruce Wilson
    Co-Founder, with Frederick Clarkson,
    Talk To Action

  13. Type your commenThis statement is posted from an employee of Left Behind Games on behalf of Troy Lyndon, our Chief Executive Officer.

    There has been in incredible amount of MISINFORMATION published in the media and in online blogs here and elsewhere.

    Pacifist Christians and other groups are taking the game material out of context to support their own causes. There is NO “killing in the name of God??? and NO “convert or die???. There are NO “negative portrayals of Muslims??? and there are NO “points for killing???.

    Please play the game demo for yourself (to at least level 5 of 40) to get an accurate perspective, or listen to what CREDIBLE unbiased experts are saying after reviewing the game at

    Then, we’d love to hear your feedback as an informed player.

    The reality is that we’re receiving reports everyday of how this game is positively affecting lives by all who play it.

    Thank you for taking the time to be a responsible blogger.

    t here.