Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Musings on Violence

I was employed by what was called "the world's most dangerous publisher" for twelve years.  During that time, I worked very closely with firearms experts, martial artists, self-defense gurus, knife-fighting instructors, and other individuals with specialized skills relating to violence in almost all of its various forms.  Part of my employment also included becoming intimately familiar with the publisher's extensive library of books and videos, as well as trade magazines like Guns & Ammo, Black Belt, and Soldier of Fortune.

I learned all kinds of interesting things, like the difference between cover and concealment; how the physiological effects of imminent danger change your perception of time; and how to build a forge in the dirt with a plastic trash bag, PVC pipe, and a section of railroad.  Over time, what I discovered wasn't something explicitly taught, but absorbed over a period of years: everything I thought I knew about violence was wrong.

Like many of you, most of what I knew about violence was what I'd picked up through media representations of violence, not the real thing.  As it does with so many things, entertainment media gets it completely wrong.  The reason for this is, in part, because the writers, directors, and actors of your favorite TV shows and movies don't know any more about how to handle a real firearm than anyone else.

Here's an example: in the early 1940's, Col. Rex Applegate developed what was called "The School for Spies and Assassins" for the OSS, the forerunner to today's CIA.  One of the things that Applegate found most difficult when teaching young spies how to point shoot (fire a handgun accurately at relatively close distances without using the sights) was getting them to stop jerking the gun like Tom Mix and Roy Rogers in the westerns.  These young spies, you see, had seen the cowboys in the movies shooting like that, so they emulated them at Applegate's firing range.  If those men had already been so influenced by what they'd seen at the movies, how badly skewed do you think our own perceptions of violence must be today?

Real-world violence is short, brutal, messy, and unspeakably ugly.  These things are extremely difficult to portray accurately in entertainment media, including books.  What I attempted to do in The Blessed Man and the Witch was describe violence in more realistic terms so that the characters would behave as actual people do when facing the unspeakable.  I don't glorify it, but instead use it to build suspense and horror.

The massive disconnect between the pirouetting gunmen in a John Woo film and the awful savagery of a real-world ambush is the chief reason why I don't watch overly violent movies or television shows anymore.  I don't begrudge anyone else his entertainments, nor do I sit on high and point a judgmental finger.  My only intent here is to help you understand that what's on screen (and, in many cases, on the pages) has nothing to do with what actually happens in a violent encounter.  But you probably knew that already.

With that in mind, here's a personal defense tip: being aware of your surroundings, avoiding dangerous people and/or areas, and being fit enough to run for a city block or so will get you out of most jams.  A person interested in victimizing you doesn't want a fight, he wants a victory.  So who is he going to go after, someone visibly alert and ready, or someone with his face buried in a cellphone, not paying attention?

TL;DR: There's a difference between violent movies and real life violence.


Belinda said...

Nice article. There most certainly is a difference between what you see on TV and video games vs real life. Thanks for reminding me of that.

David Dubrow said...

Hi, Belinda:

Thank you for reading and commenting. I know it's a pretty obvious point about real violence vs. media representations of violence, but the gulf between the two is a lot wider than most of us would like to think.

DVBerkom said...

Absolutely true, but readers don't always want the truth. They're reading for escapism, to pass the time, etc. While I work at being as realistic as possible, I also skim over the truly brutal, since my readers generally don't enjoy horror.

David Dubrow said...

Hi, DV:

I entirely understand; it's great that you've identified your market and are writing for it. People generally read fiction to escape, yes, and my intent here is not to advocate for more brutal depictions of violence in print.

It's interesting that you used the term "horror" within this context, because it shows a certain identification of genre lines. Where does a murder mystery or cop procedural become horror: at brutally specific descriptions of disembowelment, or the body count, or what?

Thanks for writing and getting me to think about these things a bit.