Violence or entertainment?

A new book on our cultural obsession with violence finds kids' TV and Quentin Tarantino movies inseparable from the Roman spectacles.

By Dwight Garner
May 21, 1998 7:58PM (UTC)
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Is media violence desensitizing our children? Should filmmakers be
held responsible for copycat crimes? Is there a place for censorship in
our society?

Sissela Bok isn't alone in asking these difficult questions. But
here's why she's worth paying attention to: She explores the potential
answers with more nuance and intellectual grace than anyone out there
right now. Bok's new book, "Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment"
(Addison-Wesley), not only probes our long-standing obsession with
violent images, but sets the debate within a remarkably broad cultural
framework. For her, discussions of children's television habits or
Quentin Tarantino movies are inseparable from discussions of Goethe,
Rousseau and the Roman spectacles. She ranges freely across Western
civilization, and in the process raises the bar on our public discourse.


Bok, who teaches at Harvard and is the wife of former Harvard
president Derek Bok, has long been interested in how societies, and
individuals, make moral decisions. It's a subject she's explored in
earlier books such as "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life"
and "Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation." Bok, who
spoke with Salon in a hotel cafe on Manhattan's Upper East Side, held
forth on a variety of topics -- including the boom in crime reporting on
television news, whether artists can be both socially responsible
and creatively free and the potential uses (and misuses) of
the Internet.

What's the "Mayhem Index"?

The Mayhem Index is a computation of the amount of coverage, on local
news stations, of disaster, murder, assassination, war, earthquakes.
It's a way of comparing different news stations. Some of them, as
everybody knows, rely on very little else for news coverage.


Crime coverage is soaring, yet crime statistics are down. What's
going on?

It's a curious thing. In the last three years or so, as violence has
gone down in many -- but not all -- parts of the country, the Mayhem
Index has risen at times by over 700 percent. I think trials such as
O.J. Simpson's have something to do with that index. But even now, if
you take the recent killings in Arkansas, in Jonesboro, the amount of
coverage given to that is quite extraordinary.

What about these live chase scenes we're seeing now, particularly
in California, that are filmed from helicopters? There was that instance
a few weeks ago where a man committed suicide on live TV, and some
stations cut away from kids' programming to show it.


That certainly shocked a lot of people. A man had gotten onto the
highway, and he had more or less stopped traffic. He said he was going
to set fire to his truck, which I think he did. Then it turned out he
also said he had bombs in the truck, he was calling 911 -- and all of a
sudden he did actually commit suicide. Meanwhile, several stations had
interrupted children's programming with what they call "breaking news,"
and they did not pull away in time. A lot of people felt that this was
just one more way in which children are shortchanged. And it's also not
at all clear why anybody needed to see that.

Do you see any correlation between these kind of televised
manhunts and, say, the Roman spectacles? There's kind of a blood chase
going on.


Well, when I wrote my book I was very interested in looking back at
the Romans, because the ancient Romans really were the prototype for a
culture of violence -- it was a very warlike society. They had the
gladiatorial games, they had wild beast hunts in their amphitheaters,
beasts imported from all over the Roman Empire. And this was done to
please the viewers, really -- for the thrill and pleasure of viewers.
That was what interested me in writing the book. It does seem to me that
there is a link to what's happening today.

In your book, you quote a critic who suggests that these
spectacles were a way for the Romans to absorb all the violence in their
society. Can something similar be said of all the violent entertainment
and media today -- that it's a healthy absorption?

I don't agree that it worked that way among the Romans, and I also
don't think it works that way today. There's been a lot of research done
on this. In the 1950s and '60s, a few researchers thought that maybe if
young boys saw moderately violent programs -- and that's all there was
at the time -- they would be less violent. They'd somehow work things
out. This has not been supported by more recent research. And I think a
lot of people simply don't realize how unique the situation is for
viewers today. There's never been a time when you could see so much
graphic violence any hour of the night or day in our own homes.


Are our children becoming desensitized to violence?

I think so. I don't always like the word "desensitize," although
it's one I use too. I think it can numb them -- it can bring a kind of
coldness of the heart. To some extent it's very natural. We all shield
ourselves against extremes of violence or anything else, and children do
too. But when they get used to seeing so many murders, rapes and forms
of torture, they can end up being more callous. What's different now
from even five or six years ago is that, because children also have
all these video games that are extremely graphic and very violent, they
can replay the most violent experiences. And what this means is that
they can expose themselves, the ones that want to, to a lot more
violence than kids could even five or 10 years ago.

Let me ask about movies. When it comes to film violence, directors
like to say: "People know that what's on the screen is fake." Isn't this
true? Or is your argument that it's different for kids?


I was out in Los Angeles recently, and I was having a debate with
Oliver Stone, the director of "Natural
Born Killers."
He specifically
said, "Parents have got to teach their children that movies are not
real." He said it over and over. And I had to argue that small children
simply cannot make that distinction. It's not something that parents can
just "teach" their children. In fact, a lot of adolescents -- and a lot
of adults -- have trouble sometimes distinguishing movies and reality.
We really need to try to understand the difference, but we can't expect
children to be able to make that distinction.

To what degree should filmmakers -- and Oliver Stone is a perfect
example -- be held responsible for acts of violence committed in the
wake of their films? I'm talking here about copycat violence.

The responsibility, I think, is something they should feel
themselves. I don't think we should point to them and say that a
particular murder, for instance, would not have taken place if it hadn't
been for their movie or their poem or anything else. I often think of
the 18th century German writer Goethe, who wrote "The Sorrows of Young
Werther." Young Werther committed suicide, and there was an epidemic of
suicides across Europe by readers of that novel. The very idea of trying
to eliminate that work just goes to show why we mustn't try. I've been
very interested in a comment by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. He was
writing about Northern Ireland, and he said that for writers there it
was very important to exercise responsibility, because things they write
can unleash more violence. He specifically asked, "How can you be
socially responsible and creatively free?" I think that a great artist
can do that. It's harder for others.

You draw a distinction between catharsis in art and lingering on
violence for its own sake. Do those lines ever cross?


We all, certainly, need to see works that are violent. We need, for
example, to think about the "Iliad" or Shakespearean plays, and there
are so many other works of art that can help us deal with violence.
"Schindler's List" is another. That is very different from saying that
we want to see the killing and the torture and the murder for the thrill
or the enjoyment that it gives us. I don't think anyone goes to
"Schindler's List" to enjoy the violence. Or at least they shouldn't. I
say that because I read in the newspapers that some adolescents
did think it was very funny. And that was a problem with them,
not with the film. But again, that goes to show that one should not
expose these things to people who are not ready. Children, for instance,
shouldn't go to that film. Steven Spielberg himself said in an interview
that he wouldn't want his small children to see it, but he hoped that by
the time they came into junior high that they would be more capable of
dealing with it.

How much should a society worry about its art being unpalatable
for children? Don't parents have the responsibility to keep their kids
away from things they shouldn't see? Are you calling for a kind of
preemptive censorship on the part of artists?

I don't think we can have recourse to censorship in our society. I
think it's wrong in every way. I also think it won't work anymore, in
the day of the Internet and so many other channels. This does mean that
people have to exercise more responsibility. And I think there's a
movement afoot among those in the entertainment industry to ask, "What
kind of responsibility should we exercise?" But it is up to viewers
themselves to be selective, and for parents to be selective for their
children. The V-chip is only one of many new technologies that are going
to be useful, I think, for consumers to make that kind of choice.

Can irony work as a shield in movies, to underscore the notion
that the violence isn't real? I'm thinking about a filmmaker like


Well, the people who enjoy his films definitely say that they can
enjoy them because of the irony and distance. I don't think that works
for a lot of people, and I think that striving for ironic distance with
respect to seeing human suffering can itself be numbing and
desensitizing. It is something we have to watch out for whether we're
grown-ups or children. We all have too little sympathy as it is for other
human beings.

Another thing artists say, when accused of producing very violent
work, is: "I'm just reflecting what's out there. Why pick on me, when
you should focus on curing society's ills?"

The question of whether films reflect society or the reverse is
important, and certainly some very great films do. I don't think that
the most sadistic films do, and I would say that "Natural Born Killers"
is a film that does not reflect society the way it is. When Oliver Stone
talks about that film he says that it was meant as a satire on society
-- not so much just reflecting it. I also would argue, however, that it
is important to work at the underlying social problems. Some films do
that very well, whether they are talking about child abduction or child
abuse -- they do reflect social problems we need to think about. There
are other films that really are there to make us more or less enjoy
what's going on. And I think that's very different.

At the end of your book you talk about a few societies you think
are making progress on some of these issues, specifically Canada and
Norway. What are they doing that we should emulate?


All over the world now, because of the spread of media, there are
people who are quite concerned about what's going on. I chose to talk in
my book about two societies, Canada and Norway, where they've had a much
more serious public debate -- there's much more focus on the parents,
the teachers, the journalists, and on how the entertainment industry and
the government can work together in terms of figuring out ways in which
you can preserve every liberty for artists and actors and others and at
the same time be much more concerned with the public and with children.
For instance, many countries now have what they call "watershed hours,"
where the industry itself decides they're not going to have certain
kinds of violence before, say, 9 o'clock. In some countries, the
government decides that. But it is important for parents to have a way
of knowing that they can let their children watch at a particular time
and that the most grotesque things will not come on then. I also think
that the new technologies that we are seeing will matter a lot. One
thing that I mention in my book is that, because of the Internet, there
are now Web sites for people who are concerned about these issues, so
that parents, teachers and others can link up as they never could before
to put up a much more united front. In the past, consumers were more or
less victimized by quite a united front of producers of violence. Now
the consumers themselves can take a stand collectively. I think that
will make a difference.

Since you brought it up, does the Internet raise new issues in
terms of violent entertainment?

Well, the Internet certainly does raise concerns for parents. At the
same time, the Internet is very liberating because of all the access it
provides for people to seek out ways to control their own life. You can
have all kinds of screening programs for the Internet -- whatever it is
that you don't particularly want to see, it's going to be possible for
you to shut out. Let's say you don't want to see anything about some
totally innocuous thing like stamp collecting. Well, you don't have to
see that. At the same time, the Internet now brings predators into the
home. Children obviously have to be taught from the very beginning that
you don't just talk to anyone you encounter on the Internet. That's
new. Ten years ago, that's one thing that parents didn't have to tell
kids. Now they do.

You describe parents as being more fearful for their children, and
children are fearful, too, because of all the violence they've seen.
They think the world's a scary place. Has it become a vicious circle --
parents are keeping their kids inside to protect them, and so the kids
are watching more TV and simply getting more frightened?

It is a vicious circle to some extent. Because all the violence on
the screen contributes to making people much more afraid than they
really need to be. Life is not that scary. A lot of parents tell
their children to stay in, especially if there's nobody at home. As I
understand it, there are 5 million latchkey children in America --
children who come home from school with no adult there. So parents
naturally say, "Stay at home." They're not there to see what the
children watch, so the children can watch anything they want. If they
watch a lot of violence then they will be more fearful and it can be a
kind of vicious circle. More media violence, more fear. You stay indoors
more, watch more, still greater fear, more media violence.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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