Sometimes you say violence is viewed as monstrous and your character would be viewed with caution by real life bystanders but on the other hand, you also highlight blood sport and how the masses can be entertained by violence. So what causes people to perceive violence differently?
The simple answer would be to say, “Different kinds of violence are different.” It’s a little reductive, but when you change the circumstances around violence, you radically alter how it will be perceived.
There’s at least three major things parts to this: Structure, distance, and context.
Sports fighting is very different from real violence in a number of ways. I’m generalizing a little. For example: underground fight clubs aren’t going to follow the same rules as UFC, however there are some basic tenets to how you structure sport fighting.
The purpose behind sports fights is to present entertainment. The violence needs to be drawn out and slowed down so that the audience can actually see what’s happening. This is also true for violence on films. How many movies have you watched where the characters find themselves engaged in protracted slug fests?
Professional wrestling is a wonderful example of this. Before anyone asks: Yes, professional wrestling is semi-choreographed. The wrestlers are working together. It’s a performance, and their goal isn’t to hurt one another, though injuries do happen. However, they’re able to present a simulacrum of combat in front of a live audience. It’s slow, telegraphed, easy to watch, and easy to follow. This isn’t how real violence works; it’s romanticized, packaged, and presented for consumption.
Stepping back from that, even in things like UFC or boxing, the rules slow things down, and help the audience watch the fight. These rules serve to protect the fighters. Each one represents a significant investment, and the goal is to keep them alive and in fighting shape after their bouts.
Fencing is a good example of a sport that struggles with a more realistic understanding of violence. Even if you know what you’re seeing, it’s difficult to spectate. Fencing bouts are extremely fast. The foils have adapted to be safe for use, and the fencers move at a speed appropriate for their weapon, which is to say, “too fast to see.” Fencing has become utterly dependent on electronic scoring. It’s an amazing sport, but it struggles to get attention because it’s nearly impossible to understand what’s happening in the moment.
On the surface it may sound like I’m saying that practical combatants simply move faster. That’s not entirely accurate, practical combat tends to focus on techniques and movements that minimize motion and avoid telegraphing. So, even if an individual strike is only marginally faster, your brain has a harder time parsing what’s happened. The other part of this is that practical combat focuses on neutralizing the foe as quickly as possible, this means that it will be over in far fewer strikes.
The idea that the person next to you in line at McDonald’s was just killed in less time than it took you to read this sentence should be terrifying. and you’re still not sure what happened. This is not the violence that TV prepared you for.
Incidentally, I’ve been focusing on hand-to-hand here, but adding weapons only ramps the speed up. Add a blade or a gun and someone will be dead or dying before you realize what’s happening.
When you go and watch boxers, there’s structure. There’s a referee. The fighters are brought out. You know what’s coming. You know who these people are. You’re here for this.
When you’re walking down the street, and suddenly all you’re sure of is that the guy over there just executed someone in the street, and there’s blood everywhere. Things are a little different.
That’s the second thing. When you go to a sporting event, you’re up in the audience. You’re watching the fight from a safe distance. Even if you’re ringside, there’s still the ring itself. Sometimes it’s just some ropes delineating you from the fight, other times it’s chain link. Either way, the fight is happening, “over there.” Even when you can say you saw it live, it’s still happening at a safe distance.
In the real world, there’s no ring. There’s no tangible barrier between you and the carnage. It’s not something you’re observing, you’re part of it.
When we’re talking about firearms, this gets worse. Firearms are (basically) line of sight weapons. Additionally, bullets penetrate soft tissue, and can ricochet off of hard surfaces. If someone starts shooting in a crowded space, you are in real danger of taking a bullet unless you can put some solid cover between you and the shooter. More than that, a lot of things you’re prepped to think of as cover, like furniture, interior walls, or cars, are not. Hide behind a car, and you can still end up taking a bullet. This isn’t the gunfight tempo that TV, Movies, and video games promised.
The violence isn’t happening in some safe environment. It’s not on the other side of a barrier. It’s not safely in a fantasy world on your TV. It’s right here.
The third part is something that has been sprinkled through all of this, it’s context. In a sporting event you’re already primed to understand what’s going on. You know that a fight is going to happen. You know who the participants are, at least in concept, even if you’re not familiar with the fighters as individuals. There’s even fully developed rituals to how the fight starts, when it pauses, when it’s over, and how the winner will be recognized. At every step along the way, you’ve been told what’s happening, either by the actions themselves, or from someone explaining them to you. Sport fighting, even blood sport, has rules, and as an audience member you’re cued into them.
As a bystander, real world violence has none of that context. It happens, and you’re left to your own devices to figure out what happened. Again, all you’re sure is that something happened which you were not prepared for.
It’s one thing to watch a prize fighter victoriously limping out of the ring. It’s entirely different when the person standing next to you is spattered in the still warm blood of their victim.