Certainly, Nolan's Batman movies are not short on violent content, which is making them a lightening rod for this kind of thinking. But has there ever been a link established between violent media and real life violence? No, there has not been.
My partner, Dr. Jeffery P. Dennis, is a sociologist and this happens to be a topic I get lectured on a lot, whether I want to or not. The point he loves to drive home is that consuming violent media is not a predictor of violent behavior.
Consider the following, he will often ask of me. In the 1940's through the 60's, television programming consisted primarily of Westerns, which also consistently promoted violence as a means of solving problems. The Western was ubiquitous and unavoidable. The generation which was raised on this programming would then go onto to become part of the most massive anti-war movement in U.S. history during the Vietnam conflict.
A counterpoint to this, Jeffery also points out, is the 1980's approach. As a result of criticism of violent content, television made a concentrated effort to purge violent content. The 80's saw the purge of violent Saturday morning cartoons and the rise of "nice" children's programming. Programs, such as the Care Bears, went out of their way to promote values such as tolerance and cooperation. This did not rub off very well on the children who saw it, as the year 1993 - 11 years after the Care Bears first aired - saw the highest rate of juvenile crime in the U.S.
In short, the message of the entertainment media via the Western (violence does solve problems) combined with the message sent by U.S. government (violence is necessary to solve our problems in Vietnam), was not enough to convince the throngs of college students to stop burning their draft cards, having love ins, or fleeing to Canada.
Meanwhile, the efforts in the 80's of television programming to promote peace, love, and understanding, did little to prevent the juvenile crime rate from peaking in 1993. What I'm getting at is, there is more evidence to support the idea that watching the Care Bears cause people to engage in violent acts, such as what happened in Aurora, Colorado, than there is to support the notion that watching violent media leads to violence.
My partner is not a fringe member of sociology either. Other researchers have also decried the notion that violent media consumption causes violence. In "It's Not the Media" by Dr. Karen Sternheimer, she states that:
Media violence enables American discussion about violence to avoid the
tough questions about actual violence: Why is it so closely associated with
poverty? How can we provide families with resources to cope in violent communities? By focusing so much energy on media violence, we avoid our responsibility to pressure politicians to create policies that address these difficult issues. To hear that "Washington (is) again taking on Hollywood" may feel good to the public and make it appear as though lawmakers are onto something, but real violence remains off the agenda. This tactic appeals to many middle-class constituents whose experience with violence is often limited. Economically disadvantaged people are most likely to experience real violence, but least likely to appear on politicians' radar. A national focus on media rather than real violence draws on existing fears and reinforces the view that popular culture, not public policy, leads to violence.
I would also like to point out that attempts to censor violence in media often generate peripheral targets. Both the Hays Code and the MPAA were ostensibly about censoring violence but both also contributed to the erasure of queer lives from Hollywood films. The Hays Code was very explicit in it's forbidding of "homosexual" behavior and characters. The MPAA, which was created to replace the Hays code, is well documented in it's pattern of assigning harsher ratings to films with queer content or contain positive depictions of female sexuality. This Film is Not Yet Rated is an excellent primer on the MPAA's hypocrisy.
As was pointed out in This Film is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA is notorious about assigning higher ratings in general for sex and nudity while ignoring violent content. The truly weird part of the MPAA's policies though, is the way that bloodless, non-consequential violence is typically let off the hook. Kirby Dick used the James Bond Goldeneye film, which featured lots of extras being gunned down to little effect, to illustrate this point.
Ultimately, maybe this gets at the heart of the issue. The news media loves to blame the entertainment industry for senseless acts of violence. But I would argue that the news media deserves a lot of criticism for it's sanitizing the devastating impacts of U.S. military interventions around the globe. This was not the case during Vietnam, when graphic footage was regularly broadcast into people's homes during the evening news program.
Perhaps this is what helped fuel the anti-war protests during Vietnam. That the heightened knowledge the protesters quite likely had of the consequences of violence - brought about thanks to violent depictions in both news and entertainment - made more people wish to take a stand against U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.
Therefore, I would argue that we should *not* be calling for less violence in media but for more. Rather than cries of censorship, we should be calling upon the news and entertainment media to make more of an effort to show the consequences of violence, no matter how disturbing or upsetting those consequences may be.
I will be honest, the efforts to erase violent media often feel more like an effort to shove the issue under the proverbial carpet. If we want to live in a more peaceful world, than perhaps we should stop pretending that the devastating impacts violent acts have on those who are subject to violence (be they physical, psychological, or sexual) do not exist.
Maybe we should spend less times chastising films such as The Dark Knight and focusing more energy on ensuring that the victims of violence can make their voices and stories be heard.