Before we begin, I would like the reader to ask themselves one basic question:
When is violence acceptable?
The easy answer is that it depends. We’ve all got different thresholds. For some, no amount of violence could ever be considered acceptable. For others, the definition depends on one’s upbringing, socialization, and inherent moral values. It depends on what someone considers "evil," or the level of violence one is willing to employ to defeat it. One person's revenge against a childhood tormentor is another person's violent assault. Depending on the perspective, a plucky young hero rising up against an evil empire could also be a terrorist trying to destroy a cherished homeland and way of life.
In reality, violence is almost always complicated. It's often hard to know who the "good guy" and the "bad guy" is, especially when both sides of a conflict are truly convinced of their own righteousness. But what about when it isn't real? When violence is removed from its messy real-world morals and consequences?
What happens when it's just a fun little story on a fun little screen?
Suddenly, violence becomes simple. Obvious. Moral. A child could tell you who to root for. A superhero fights against the evil alien forces to save the world from darkness. A cop shoots up the bad guy holding a bunch of innocent people hostage. A little nerd finally has enough of his schoolyard bully and punches him in the nose. A woman in a bar kicks the ass of her potential rapist. We all laughed along when the Avengers wiped the floor with Loki and his merry band of alien scum. We all cheered on Django when he cast off his chains, brutally dispensing of Monsieur Calvin Candie and every other overseer on that plantation. We cheered even louder when Luke Skywalker and the rebels blew up the Death Star, in spite of the thousands of innocent maintenance and tech workers who no doubt got vaporized along with the Stormtroopers.
Now, this isn’t to say that all fictional violence is simple. Far from it. Art is our primary way of understanding violence without enacting it. It’s the safest method we have to work through the complex ethical issues surrounding the human struggle.
The question is, why are we, as a society, so quick to glorify—nay, deify—violence in fiction, yet vilify or erase that same violence in reality? Even when the situations and contexts are the same?
Kill Bill's Beatrix Kiddo is applauded for killing the titular abusive partner. In reality, she'd likely be imprisoned for longer than the abuser himself. Django lighting up his effete enslaver brings whoops and hollers, while Fredrick Douglass beating the shit out of his overseer to claim his freedom is conveniently left out of modern "educational" retellings. Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance are met with universal adulation (and even some medals!) when they destroy the Death Star, yet the Viet Kong—on which the Rebels are based—are almost universally maligned in the States.
"Hang on," says the devil's advocate, "In what reality do a bunch of alien invaders appear out of nowhere, subjugate the population, take all their resources, and start torturing and killing people indiscriminately? If that actually happened, of course you'd need to kill them to stop them! We wouldn't condemn that."
Interesting. You might want to ask any of the millions of conquered and colonized peoples currently living under brutally repressive imperial regimes what they'd have to say about that. Correct me if I'm wrong, but "civility" and "rule of law" seem to take societal precedence over "destroying the alien invaders who kill, torture, and enslave your people." Look no further than the imprisonment, societal ostracism, and murder of thousands that dared to fight back against their oppressors around the world. Many of whom, I guarantee, you've looked upon with scorn. I know I have.
We’re so quick to condemn violence from marginalized people undergoing real and brutal oppression—the BLM protests being one of the more recent examples—yet applaud that exact same violence when it’s fictional, like when Katniss Everdeen galvanized the Districts to fight against the Capitol in The Hunger Games.
When it's all real—suddenly it's not so simple.
It's so much easier to just tell a story. It's why the misinformation the media constantly feeds us so often employs the "good guy/bad guy" narrative we see in the movies. It's much easier for Russia to convince its soldiers to level Ukraine when they think they're killing Nazis. It's much easier for Imperial British colonists to say they're simply "civilizing savages" when they rape and enslave half the world. It's much easier for conservatives to strip away basic rights and protections from their fellow American citizens when their "enemies" are remorseless pedophiles, groomers, and baby-killers. You can't call violence righteous unless the person you're inflicting it on is seen as irredeemably evil.
“Then there’s no situation where violence is acceptable, because there’s no universal definition of good or evil. It’s only the story we tell.”
Sure, that’s a convenient solution. It’s also a total cop-out. Moral relativism aside, objective facts still exist. What happens when there IS someone (or something) irredeemably, cartoonishly evil? An evil where violence is not only acceptable, but required, to stop it?
Cyntoia Brown didn't liberate herself from sex-trafficking by sitting around waiting to escape. She killed her captor. Fredrick Douglass didn't ask politely to be freed. He beat any master who laid a hand on him. The end of slavery didn't come from The Emancipation Proclamation. It came on the backs of hundreds of thousands of dead Union soldiers and thousands more "freed" slaves who revolted against the masters who didn’t abide by Lincoln’s order. The Nazis didn't just go away because we told them to. It took nearly every major world power to defeat them, with tens of millions of lives lost. These aren’t stories. These are facts. Real events that happened.
Believe me, I'd love to live in a world without violence. Non-violence should be the first and most important goal for any conflict. But peace is not always possible. Abusers, tyrants, and predators are not always held accountable for their actions. Voting for a democratic representative does not always guarantee our rights and freedoms. We cannot always politely ask evil to step aside for the greater good. We do not live in a world of rainbows and unicorns.
So, I’m going to ask the question again:
When is violence acceptable?
*Feature image by Erica Guilane-Nachez (Adobe)