Thursday, April 30, 2015

When Does Violence Go "Too Far"?

In 25 years of teaching speech, there have been only two speeches that I wish I hadn't heard, not because the speeches were all that bad, but because the subject matter really disturbed me. In both cases, the problem was violence. The first speech was a detailed discussion of different methods of torture throughout history, and the second was a persuasive speech against wearing fur in which the student used a video of small animals being skinned alive because it's easier to skin them when they are struggling. (Still haunts me....) I don't know if I'm hyper-sensitive to violence because I have such an empathetic mind (I think I talked about that in a recent post), but certain types of violence really, really bother me.

I came across a couple of passages of such violence while reading Nancy Dane's latest novel, A Reasonable Doubt, over the weekend. The novel is a continuation of Dane's series about the Civil War in Arkansas; this book picks up the lives of the characters several years later, during the period of Reconstruction. It's a violent period of time. Government is corrupt, especially local government, and tempers flare over injustice. Local officials are murdered in both Johnson County (the setting for the story) and Pope County (the neighboring county). Ms. Dane does meticulous research for her novels, so I'm sure these murders happened, along with the popular designation of "bloody Clarksville" for the town in the novel. The defeated former Confederate soldiers are frustrated in their efforts to have any measure of control in politics or business, and frequently, that frustration boils to the surface in violence of some kind - whether it is simply threatening someone or actually shooting and killing someone.

But there were two specific acts of violence in the story that disturbed me. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) The first is when two very corrupt officials come out to levy an exorbitant tax on Bill Tanner's (the hero of the story) sawmill operation. Bill is understandably upset, and he attacks one of the officials, knocking him to the ground and beating/kicking him. (I hope I have those details right; I've loaned my copy of the novel to a friend who is reading them aloud to her husband.) The other official pulls out a derringer and grazes Bill's arm. What comes next is the part that bothers me. Bill grabs the official, pulls him over to the fire, and brands him with the poker. Then, for good measure, he also brands the other official (the one he had beaten/kicked before - named Harvey, for later reference).

The second incident comes at the end of the book. Abigail (Bill's love interest) is being threatened by Harvey, who also claims to have kidnapped her son. Harvey wants Bill's stash of money from the sawmill business, and it's clear he is a pretty nasty character who will do whatever it takes to get the money. After a bit of a chase scene, Abigail and Harvey end up by the chopping block, where Abigail grabs the axe and disables Harvey with a couple of chops to his arm and leg. He's not really a threat to her at that point, but Abigail raises the axe again, and as Harvey is pleading for his life, sinks it into his skull.

OK. Both of those acts are pretty high on the "bother me" scale, I guess because the victim of the violence is suffering and pleading. But what really bothered me, more than the violence itself, was the attitude of the characters toward committing the violence. Keep in mind that the two characters who did the branding (Bill) and the skull-smashing (Abigail) are the protagonists of the story. Those acts are pretty despicable things for protagonists to have done, even to nasty antagonists. When I read the scene about the branding, I expected Bill to be somewhat remorseful after the fact, realizing that his temper and his frustration got the best of him and that he needed to listen to his better nature and keep his violent tendencies in check. But that's not what happened. Instead, Bill tells Abigail he should have killed Harvey instead of simply branding him. Bill's attitude is that the best way to deal with a problem like Harvey is the "final solution" - to eliminate the problem by ensuring Harvey can never bother him again. At no point does Bill show any remorse. Even when he's on trial for assaulting Harvey, Bill isn't sorry for what he's done, only that he may have to go to jail for what he's done. In Dane's earlier novels, I liked Bill. I don't think I like him very much anymore.

Bill's attitude rubs off on Abigail. When she witnesses the branding incident from the kitchen window, she is appalled and for some time resists her growing attraction to Bill. How can she love a man who is so readily and easily so violent? But when her own "moment of truth" comes and she's standing over a wounded man who is pleading for his life, she adopts Bill's solution to the problem - she brings the axe down so Harvey will no longer be a threat.

Sure, Harvey is a nasty character who kidnapped and threatened Abigail and her son and who was trying to steal Bill's hard-earned money. Did he deserve what he got? Maybe. Probably. But I just find it hard to relate to protagonists who choose to view and dispense violence as the best solution to their problems.

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