Should another's pain be our fun? Violence: An author/philosopher explores its impact as a tool in entertainment.

Sun Journal

May 31, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch

Sissela Bok, a Distinguished Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, has just published her fourth book: "Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment." Bok, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, talked with reporter Arthur Hirsch about the book during a recent visit to Washington.

You devote quite a bit of attention in the book to the way Americans talk about media violence. Why is that?

So often in discussing the subject of entertainment violence I ran into very much the same questions over and over. Why should we be talking about the media? Why don't we talk about guns instead? That was one of them.

I felt, like many people who study the subject, of course we have to talk all about the factors: media, weapons, family breakdown, drugs, alcohol -- all kinds of influences on violence in our society. But in addition I also felt it's not just a matter of violence in the society. It's also a matter of what else happens to people who see a lot of entertainment violence.

So the reason I pay so much attention to the debate is that I want to get over, or get past, the immediate effort to stop the conversation.

I was very struck by how journalists in particular often wished you hadn't brought the subject up and thought of all kinds of reasons not to discuss it, including the First Amendment.

You're saying that the terms in which we are casting this conversation are part of the problem?

Yes, it is a problem. Very often in our country in particular, we bring up the question of the First Amendment and of free speech. And people argue, including people in the entertainment industry, that any sort of criticism at all is an assault on free speech. And that contributes to the powerlessness that many in the public feel.

Some would be all in favor of censorship. The many who are not worry that anything they do might constitute censorship. I think very strongly there are so many things that we as citizens can do about entertainment violence quite apart from imposing government censorship, which I very much would disapprove of and think would be wrong for our country.

What can people do?

That would start first of all with what individuals can do in their own lives, because they can't wait for cultural conditions to change in the society. They really have to, out of self-protection, decide how to deal with violence on the screen and in the media more generally.

Two things are happening. First of all, more technological innovations are coming in to allow people to screen out what they don't want in their home and what they don't want for their children. The V-chip is only one of those. There are going to be many others.

But then also we have so many other forms of entertainment. If we're thinking of small children, there are so many quite wonderful videos for them to see. There is a lot of good TV entertainment, too, though you really have to look carefully.

In addition, however, I argued in the book that it isn't possible always for families to carry out all the protection that they would ,, want. In many families both parents are working. Many children come home to a house without adults. So more is needed. That's where I think a number of organizations, community activities and forms of consumer pressure [can help]. There's a Swedish expression which means viewer power; there is such a thing as viewer power.

I wanted to argue in my book also that Americans can do a lot once they decide that a problem is important enough to join together. I use the example of drunken driving, where, for sure, there's more to be done. But we have cut back on deaths from drunken driving quite sharply. That shows that we can take action once we begin to think that there's a problem.

L What do we know about the effects of entertainment violence?

Kids are heavily exposed to media violence and a number of those, indeed, do go on to be more aggressive either immediately or later in life. And there are other effects. I talk about the great fear that so many people have from seeing so much that's frightening on television. And the callousness that comes quite naturally with being exposed to so much that's frightening. So we do know about that. We've studied that.

It seems to me that we can all, as grown-ups, decide what we want to do about this. But children haven't decided. Small children, they are being more or less acculturated to this, or indoctrinated, really, long before they can make that choice.

To me this seems almost the opposite of what we need in a democracy: namely, to give people the choice of how they want to live. Children are being denied that choice, and, in turn, are often being rendered less caring, less feeling, more callous, long before they consent to that.

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