Just Say, 'Squash It!'

December 21, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- If you are despairing, if you think it's impossible to change human behavior, Jay Winsten has a suggestion. Remember the egg industry.

He drops this hard-boiled thought into a conversation about spiraling violence in the cities and escalating hopelessness in the public attitude. The list of causes and cures for violence -- gun proliferation, family breakdown, job creation, housing, schools -- is long enough to seem insurmountable.

But Mr. Winsten, a former molecular biologist who became a public-health guru, has another list. It holds some of the success stories about efforts to change human behavior: Fewer eggs eaten. More seat belts worn. The decline of smoking. And, of course, the rise of the designated driver.

On the wall behind him a festive pink poster fairly explodes with the message: ''The Designated Driver is the Life of the Party.'' It's a reminder that this office at the Harvard School of Public Health has been control central for a careful media campaign against drunk driving.

For five years, a combined force from Harvard and Hollywood has worked through media messages to create a new social role: the designated driver. More than 140 references, story lines or public-service announcements on television have been built around this concept.

Mr. Winsten figures that this adds up to $100 million worth of messages -- or roughly the amount needed to introduce a new commercial product nationwide. But in this case, the new product is a social norm: the driver doesn't drink. It's one strong reason the number of alcohol-related fatalities has gone down from about 23,000 a year to about 17,000.

Now, however, those who see violence as a public-health catastrophe hope to use the same approach to change attitudes and behavior on the streets.

This project began when Mr. Winsten was handed a batch of letters penned by Chicago children for a bank that invited them to write about their neighborhood. Instead of cheery little notes about home and hearth, the children wrote bleak truths: ''I don't like my neighborhood much, because they shoot too much. They might shoot me. So, I stay in the house.''

Then, Mr. Winsten went to listen to groups of teen-age boys in the nearby Mission Hill district of Boston. These were not hard-core drug dealers and criminals. They were 15-, 16- and 17 year-olds who wore their fear like a damp T-shirt under a macho sweater. These were boys who fought because it was the thing to do.

''It's reached the point,'' says Mr. Winsten, ''that if two kids from different projects or neighborhoods look at each other the wrong way or bump into one another on the dance floor, it will escalate into violence.''

But in his focus groups, he listened hard to boys who had a method as well as a motive for backing off. At a point of confrontation, sometimes a leader would say, ''It's not worth it. Squash it.'' And they would.

It turned out that the words, ''Squash It'' were known and used in urban pockets across the country and even in the lingo of rap singers. And soon, if Mr. Winsten's group has its way, ''Squash It'' will become as familiar as designated driver.

What he wants to do is nothing less than to create a new norm that says it's smart to walk away from a fight.

In his finest fantasy, he imagines Michael Jordan on billboards saying, ''What goes around, comes around. Squash it.''

His same consortium of Harvard and Hollywood hopes as well to convince television producers, the very people now under attack for promoting violence, to write story lines for favorite programs that show kids deciding not to fight.

But this is a plan without illusions. Mr. Winsten readily acknowledges that violence is more embedded in the culture than alcohol. In a thousand classic movies a thousand peace-loving men are driven to violent confrontations at a thousand O.K. Corrals. When he asked the head of a Hollywood writers' group whether he could imagine a hero who had power without violence, the writer said no.

Moreover, the population of young males he wants to reach is the one which has been most resistant to other public-health messages. They are more likely to smoke and to drink. They do not worry about cholesterol in egg yolks.

But they do worry about violence. They do worry about dying. They do have a language for de-escalating confrontations.

What the media campaign can offer is a wedge, a way to intervene in violence without being overwhelmed by all the problems of urban America. One way to begin turning it around.

For those who prefer to greet the possibility of change with an expression of cynicism: Squash it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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