Conflict Pornography

July 13, 2008 | By | 13 Replies More

Conflict: competitive or opposing action of incompatibles: antagonistic state or action.

Pornography: (3): the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.

What else could it be, other than conflict pornography, when a major media source unnecessarily frames a story in such a way as to concoct a “conflict” in order to arouse a quick intense emotion reaction in its readers? That’s exactly what Newsweek did this week with its cover story: Lincoln vs. Darwin: Who Matters More?

I can imagine what the Newsweek Editors were really thinking: Americans get easily bored unless there is conflict. Even concocted or unnecessary conflicts will do the trick. Let’s turn Lincoln against Darwin to sell more advertising. Just as we’ve turned every election into a horse race rather than a sober choice. Let’s conjure up conflicts everywhere so that Americans don’t get distracted and thus turn away to watch one of the dozens of sports contests playing at every hour of the day. Let’s frame all of our stories as conflicts so that Americans don’t run off and watch any of innumerable movies where violent conflict appears to be the plot itself, rather than a means to a higher end.

Americans can’t help themselves when there is a conflict to behold. The corporate media knows that Americans are war-mongers. They know that when we are troubled, we are always relieved to know that we can go to war. As we’ve repeatedly done in Latin America. After all, war is movement. War is doing something. Not going to war is nothing. War is conflict. All movement is progress. Therefore, War is progress. Peace is boring. Darwin is boring. Lincoln is boring. But Lincoln versus Darwin is a conflict and thus it is interesting. Just like attacking Iran is more interesting because it is laden with conflict rather than peaceful resolution based on compromise.

Therefore, let’s not have any more stories based on resolved conflict. Let’s not herald two great men. Let’s pit them against each other. Just like we’ve done with God versus Allah. Or gays versus straights. Or Blacks versus Whites. Or Liberals versus Conservatives.

Human animals are rigged to give immediate and sustained attention to conflict. We need to be more aware of our propensity because we are so easily manipulated by those who choose to frame their communications as conflict when, in reality, other frames are much more appropriate. Because we are so vulnerable to apparent conflict, manipulative news media can make irrelevant things look relevant and un-compelling things look compelling. The news media all too often feeds our base craving for stories full of conflict. For a lot of evidence, just check out your local TV news. Huge issues involving the survival of the American way of life (exhaustion of resources, overpopulation and white collar systemic fraud) are overlooked. Rather, we get massive doses of the local crime report and sports. A bit of conflict will make just about any story look compelling.

But our yearning for conflict is addictive, just like our yearning for sweets, fatty or sugary foods, drugs, physical possessions and (for some of us) indiscriminate sex. These cravings run deep in human animals. We need to be made more aware of them, so that we don’t pursue warped priorities.  We could know more about them if we studied Darwin, even if we don’t worry about whether he was more important than Lincoln.  If we take that time to know more about the biology of human animals, maybe we wouldn’t run around getting mesmerized by conflict pornography.


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Category: American Culture, Entertainment, Language, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    There is no bigger high for many people than a "terrorist attack." Glenn Greenwald nails it.

    "[M]any people are addicted to the excitement and fear of Terrorist melodramas. They crave some of that awesome 9/12 energy, where we overnight became The Greatest Generation and — unified and resolute — rose to the challenge of a Towering, Evil Enemy."

    Many people in the media work overtime to spin small scale attacks such as the recent attempt to blow up an airplane into a large-scale attack on America requiring President Obama to abandon every other part of his agenda and race back to Washington from his vacation in Hawaii:

    "Obama reacted as though this is exactly what it actually is: a lame, failed attempt to kill people by a fractured band of criminals. It's not the Cuban Missile Crisis or the attack on Pearl Harbor, as disappointing and unfulfilling as it is to accept that. It merits analysis, investigation and possibly policy changes by the responsible government agencies — not a bright-red-alert, bell-ringing, siren-sounding government-wide emergency that venerates Al Qaeda into a threat so profound that the President can't even be away from Washington lest they get us all."

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Proof that networks seek out conflict to drive ratings, even in the absence of news value: the fact that Liz Cheney is constantly being picked as a guest on news shows. She has no qualifications for appearing other than 1) being the daughter of a former vice president and 2) her willingness to spout wild accusations and unsupported opinions that stir up conflict.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Today, I learned the term “Warnography,” apparently coined by Gorbachov.

    See this interview of Jeremy Scahill.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, I’ve used “conflict pornography (with attribution)” to describe the frames used by Faux News, MSM and the “Benghazi crisis.” I hope that has gotten you more traffic because the concept is a real contribution to media analysis.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    “What is real is the toll that fake outrage takes. Psychologists call it the “narcotizing dysfunction,” essentially that thinking and chattering about something eventually gets confused and equated with doing something about it. Of course it doesn’t—but after enough blog posts we delude ourselves into believing we’ve made a difference.
    Tim Kreider, a political cartoonist, explained this temptation well a few years ago in an op-ed, “Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure.””


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