A man gets into a violent fight in 1914. In the midst of the brawl, he receives a deep cut in his upper cheek. This is before the invention of penicillin and sulfa drugs (Encyclopaedia Brittanica). He has never heard of such a thing as antibiotics. The cut becomes infected, and develops a severe fever. His eye is lost to sepsis. He comes close to losing his life…from a cut. In the same situation a hundred years later, losing the eye would be unimaginable…much less loss of life.
The violent altercations from which such once-common injuries come—bar fights and other such casual violence—are seldom seen except in rough neighborhoods and on television. When they are encountered, the people involved simply go to the nearest emergency room to get stitches and antibiotics. There is seldom a mortal consequence. Older generations have been heard to say that Americans are more violent than we have ever been, citing the prevalence of school shootings and spree killings as evidence of moral decay.
On the other hand, day-to-day, one-on-one violence is much less common now than it was one hundred years ago. Upon analysis it seems that violence has changed more in type than in quantity. From what is seen in the news, such sprees often to occur in unreal-seeming bursts rather than being experienced in person as a part of everyday life. Depending on class, violence today does not seem as prevalent or as ‘real’ as it did in previous generations.
Current generations may see violence only through video games and movies, making ‘fake’ violence socially acceptable where a fist-fight is no longer; when violence does occur, it is more often seen in shocking bursts of reality rather than being a part of the daily fabric of life. Class and socioeconomics are major factors in the visibility of violence. In south-central Los Angeles, residents are more likely to have seen real scenarios such as drive-by shootings, gang-related violence, and domestic abuse on a relatively regular basis.
Statistically however, in Beverley Hills just fourteen miles away, there is more danger of litigation in response to violence. A person in such an area can both afford a lawyer to sue someone who hit them, and has more to lose if they are the perpetrator. Upper class areas are not known for drive-bys or initiation beatings. In such middle–to-upper class areas where there are funds for lawsuits, daily violence is an exception rather than a norm, and therefore violence is known more from media such as television, movies, and video games than from personal experience, as may be the case in an area with higher daily crime rates.
Because of this difference, violence may not be as ‘real’ to some as it is to others. For example, school shootings in inner city areas are more often seen when one student shoots another over a grudge or for economic reasons, such as gang-related turf wars, whereas more mass school shootings have been perpetrated by white middle class and upper class individuals than by the working class (Keating, Washington Post. com). This is evident when looking at summaries of the most recent mass shooters in the LA Times (Maloy, latimes. om). This statistical skew may be due in part to the kind of violence familiar to the middle and upper classes in the United States. Americans as a whole view a great deal of violence in our day-to-day lives—as much or more than did past generations—but much of the violence that we view is not real but created for entertainment. People who are now in their seventies or older more often saw death by disease and accident, or in a knife or fist-fight or in war.
They would have experienced a great deal less violence on television in its early years, in the 1950’s, and might never have imagined seeing the kind of gratuitous displays of beatings and shootings seen now in films, much less in un-heard-of video games. In some cases, this kind of now-familiar ‘fake’ violence might be the only violence seen by people who do not live in lower economic classes. Being constantly surrounded by television shows, music, movies, and even books telling stories revolving around a fight or action scene is different than seeing beatings and shootings occurring in person.
This was not always the case. In past societies, both realities were common, such as in Ancient Rome where citizens were entertained by the spectacle of gladiators from the slave class fighting to the death in the ‘circus’ of large coliseums. That violence was much more real than watching the same thing on television, but it is still a great deal less personal and immediate than being shot or punched in the face. In fact, the reason the Romans invented the ‘circus’ concept was to keep citizens pacified with cheap food and violent spectacles.
This reduced the amount of violence and the possibilities for revolt in its citizens (Plebians, PBS. org). Similar to Ancient Rome, modern Americans of the middle class are more likely to view crime footage on the news, starring lower classes perpetrating violence on one another, than to commit violence on people in their own class themselves; to enjoy shows such as Ultimate Fighting Champion rather than the rarely televised martial arts competitions which work on points systems rather than bloody knockouts.
This fact makes real violence seem distant and unreal, so that even wars and tragic bursts of violence such as the recent string of mass shootings in Seattle Pacific University and in California are more of a media spectacle than a personal affront to someone watching them on television. The reality of death seems less tangible to the TV viewer of such a massacre than it does to the person whose family member has been shot. Violence is by definition a great deal less ‘real’ when it is not immediately linked to mortality.
Fights and injuries had greater consequences in past generations before modern medicine and antibiotics such as penicillin were common (Markel, PBS. org). A person could die from a scratch, and that was likely to have made people take violence more seriously as a fatal situation. Before antibiotics and antiseptic practices, people saw death on a regular basis and were very aware of their mortality. Today people can just go to the emergency room if they are injured in a fight.
Because of this fact, even people who see daily violence in American society are less constantly reminded of their mortality than people were one hundred years ago. This fact has a lot more to do with the changes to violent behavior in the U. S. than litigation has had. The average working class American does not abstain from violence for fear of litigation because most working class people do not have the means to hire a lawyer. Americans in the last fifty years, however, have been aware of greater access to doctors and hospitals than their ancestors.
This fact has had the consequence of making people behave more recklessly with regard to inviting or causing injury. A person who takes for granted that they can access medical care in an emergency, if at a price, is more likely to take the violence that causes injury less seriously. Another way in which current generations can take mortality less seriously, and in which the quality of violence had changed, is in war. It might seem to be the case that violence could never be more ‘real’ than in a war, but even the way in which wars are waged has changed drastically in the last few generations.
In comparing the way the first and second World Wars were fought to how they are fought with technology now, war is a great deal less personal. Previous generations of soldiers fought in open fields with bunkers, trenches, and foxholes dug for cover. They shot people directly in front of them, and killed people with grenades and bayonets. Current warfare is waged often with unmanned drones that are piloted from computers continents away, or with intercontinental ballistic missiles launched miles away from the target.
Guns even have greater ranges. Because of these technologies, fewer soldiers are lost to combat, but soldiers also are less often face-to-face with the people they are killing. When killing by remote control, mass violence can look the same as a computer game. Technology therefore has both saved lives and made violence easier to perpetrate, and has been shown to desensitize humans by making the results of violence less real and more constantly portrayed from an emotional distance.
It has also been over 150 years since a war has been fought on United States soil, making war an experience in which only military personnel are likely to have firsthand knowledge. In the U. S. today, it is more common to play a video game or to type quadrants into a computer than to harm or kill a person face-to-face. All of these factors—recklessness, medical technology, media portrayals of violence—may contribute to the fact that American violence takes place more commonly in either lower class neighborhoods struggling with economic issues, or in shocking bursts such as in mass shootings which were less common a century ago.
A person who has never actually seen a real death or never been physically harmed might not realize how emotionally damaging death can be until they have committed such a crime, and the prevalence of media depictions of violence likely plays a part in the way the majority of Americans seem to treat violence as if it does not affect them personally…until it does.
And when it does, Americans today are less likely to know how to deal with the event compared to one hundred years ago. Violence has always been a part of human life, but how and when it happens, changes with the years. It is less likely that there is more violence now than there was in previous generations. The type of violence people see has changed.