Sissela Bok

Mayhem – Violence as Public Entertainment, Part I

VTR Date: March 4, 1998

Guest: Bok, Sissela


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sissela Bok, Part 1
Title: Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment
VTR: 3/4/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our subject today is Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. That’s the title of a profoundly important book just published by Addison Wesley. Its author, our guest today, is philosopher Sissela Bok, who has taught at Harvard and Brandeis, and who spent time as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, focusing on just what the good society must do about its children and media mayhem.

As in her brilliant volumes on Lying and Secrets, Dr. Bok indicates that our ways of dealing with such moral problems not only express but shape our character and, in turn, our lives. Dr. Bok is meticulously fair and balanced in summarizing both the historic and the self-serving contemporary rationalizations for violence as public entertainment for profit. She seems always to give the devil even more than its due, much to my own chagrin, at times, I’ll admit, whether it’s the long-repudiated catharsis theory, “violence in the media gets it out of our system,” or the banal excuses of Hollywood’s movie-making mayhem mavens. But ultimately, Dr. Bok tells it precisely, I believe, as it is. And, if you will, let me quote at some length from Mayhem.

“By now,” she writes, “the American entertainment industry produces and trades in violent programming on an ever-vaster scale. And it aims its products with increasing precision at children and adolescents. Never before have children been targeted as a lucrative market for entertainment violence and for toys, games, and paraphernalia associated with particular programs. Nor have marketing experts studied with such care the factors heightening the audience arousal that draws television viewers in and facilitates their acceptance of advertising messages. As the profitability,” she writes, “and the amount of violent entertainment grow, as technology is improved for presenting it more graphically and realistically, and as children are increasingly seen as targeted and at risk, public concerns deepen. However forceful the disagreements about the extent to which the allure of violence is inherent in the human species or, on the contrary, culturally fostered, it is clear that children are made, not born, to be consumers of entertainment violence on today’s scale.”

And about our children’s all important personal growth and maturation, Dr. Bok writes with profound insight and enormous feeling. “Today the sights and sounds of violence on the screen affect this learning process from infancy on. The television screen is the lens through which most children learn about violence. Through the magnifying power of this lens, their everyday life becomes populated with guns, drugs, family violence, gang warfare, kidnappings, and everything else that contributes to violence in our society. It shapes their experiences long before they have had the opportunity consent to such shaping or develop the ability to cope adequately with this knowledge. The basic nurturing and protection to prevent the impairment of this ability ought to be the birthright of every child.”

And so I would begin today by asking my guest just how we can go about nurturing that birthright and our children.

BOK: I think the most important thing that I wanted to do with the book was really to make people stop to think about this, whether it is about their children or, indeed, about themselves, as recipients of all this media violence. And then, once they begin to think and begin to think that there is a birthright of every child to be nurtured and protected, then to ask themselves, “What are we doing ourselves?”

Here I do think that modern media can, in fact, help us so much also. I disagree very much with all the people who say, you know, “Let’s throw the television into the river, and let’s just close our eyes and never see any more of it.” I feel that children are going to live with contemporary media, but more and more we can use the media to screen out what we don’t want to see, to learn to turn off what we don’t want to have around, but also to communicate with other people who are themselves searching for ways.

One thing that was so interesting to me just the last year or so was to find that an international clearinghouse has been set up for children and media violence on the Internet. And what that means is that, for the first time, all kinds of different groups and individuals in so many countries can actually tap in and see what other people are doing. So there’s a whole world now of information that we didn’t have even five years ago, I think, available to parents and individuals looking at their own lives.

HEFFNER: Dr. Bok, that interests me, because, if I may disagree with you, and I hate to because I’m so…

BOK: Not at all. No, no.

HEFFNER: …intrigued with Mayhem. I worked in commercial television many, many decades ago. And I remember back in the 1950s that there were equivalent protests against the content of American television. And there were equivalent answers on the part of the broadcasters: “We’re not teachers. We’re not nannies. Don’t ask us to do what parents should be doing. It is in their hands that the determination can be made as to what their children watch.” So the optimism that you express about this new, about our capacity to communicate internationally with the computer puzzles me.

BOK: I didn’t mean to express, necessarily, optimism. I’m not at all sure how we are going to deal with this in the end. I am sure that the opportunities are different now. It’s true that in the ’50s there were people who expressed concerns, in the ’60s and ’70s, but not at all with the same support from a number of different groups, you know, the National Academy of Pediatricians, so many others. There weren’t the same forms of organization that now exist, I think, and certainly the Internet wasn’t there. So, what I mean is that, for instance, let’s say somebody in England or in an Asian country or, you know, in America, lots of different people in many, many different countries can now compare what’s being done in their communities and their societies, and abroad. I don’t think that was possible before. In the ’50s, of course, America was almost unique in having television, on the one hand; on the other hand, television was much less violent at that time. So the people who were then speaking out about the fears of television had all kinds of other things in mind as well: fear of technology, much else. That, things are changing in that regard, I think.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s true. Luddites such as myself protested generally. But I think we got over that. Is there an impression on your part, or am I mistaken, that, in a sense, other nations are more accepting now than they had been of the kind of violence that you protest against in American media?

BOK: It’s hard to know whether I would use the word “accepting.” But the fact is certainly that we are exporting more and more and more of it to a number of societies and a number of nations. Some of them would much prefer to have their own indigenous television and to have programs of their own, but they can’t necessarily afford to produce programs. If they’re going to buy American programs, very often they’re told, “You can buy this package. It has these films, it has these programs for children. Take it or leave it.” So that’s one way in which we are, indeed, spreading entertainment violence around the world.

It’s also true, however, that there are more and more other sources of this kind of violence. It’s now produced in places as different as Hong Kong and Bombay, many others. We’re not alone. There are also now international conglomerates, very hard to say that they’re only American at this point.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, one of the excuses — and I think that’s, perhaps “rationalization” is a better word — offered, is that there is a demand overseas for violence, and that the one thing you can be certain about if you’re planning a movie, for instance, and I’m sure it’s true of television too, that there are no language barriers with…

BOK: That’s true.

HEFFNER: …action violence. And George Gerbner maintains that we are producing violence because it sells so well overseas.

BOK: I think he’s right in saying that. In fact, there are a lot of the most violent movies that do not do particularly well in America, the ones that are produced in Hollywood, but it’s known that they can be sold in a number of other societies. And part of it is it’s cheaper to buy them if they need very little translation. So, if there’s a lot of punching and hitting, you don’t need much translation for that. So there, when the companies abroad buy these films, it’s partly to save money, and to make money. That too, I think, there are people in those societies who object very much to that, people in those societies that would much prefer to see greater variety of American programming. And again, we are becoming more able to collaborate on those stores.

HEFFNER: What did you find when you talk with Hollywood people, for the most part? A real understanding? Or perhaps even just a lip service to your concerns about children and mayhem?

BOK: Among Hollywood people, I think there is greater and greater concern also. There are a lot of people there, actors, producers, others, who are troubled by what they are engaged in. I’ve been told — I don’t know this myself, but I have been told — that because there are more and more women now in the entertainment industry, a number of them are beginning to think they want to take a different approach. They don’t particularly want to be involved in producing the run-of-the-mill kind of program.

Another thing, I think, that’s happening is that when men and women have children in the industry, then they begin, some of them, at least, begin to think, “Do I really want my children to watch what I am doing? Or is my profession such, and my kind of engagement in my profession such that I have to keep my own children from seeing that?” And that troubles them.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, Dr. Bok, you know, I’ve heard again and again from some of the most successful producers, “I don’t let my children watch what I do. It’s your responsibility not to let your children watch what I do.” Basically the attitude is, “We’re not in the business of educating or acculturating; we’re not in the business of socializing children. We’re in the business of entertaining.” And you subtitle your book Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, and you take us through the long history of violence as public entertainment. What you didn’t add here is “Public Entertainment for Profit.” And I wonder whether these people who maintain, the men who produce, the same as other men who are concerned about this material, the women who produce as mothers are concerned. I was a little disturbed by what I thought of as the spin-control that goes on in Hollywood has gotten to Sissela Bok, because she doesn’t know precisely what it is they do. I wouldn’t take what they say as gospel.

BOK: No, I would quite agree. I don’t take what they say for gospel. I do think that a first step for not at all everybody in the industry, probably only a minority, is to begin to ask, “How do I square this work that I’m doing with myself as a human being? Is this something I’m impressed with, or not impressed with?” I do think you’re right, but for a lot of people the counterargument almost immediately is, “Well, this is my way of making money.” In the same way, in the tobacco industry, a lot of people might say, “Well, it’s true that we try to entice other adolescents into, younger, preadolescents into smoking. That doesn’t mean I want my own children to smoke. It doesn’t mean I should even tell them that we’re doing this.” And they might also say it’s up to parents to keep their children from smoking. So that kind of argumentation, once we get it out on the table, is something, I think, we see it now in the tobacco industry, I think we’re beginning to see it also in the entertainment industry, that’s the kind of argumentation that has to go on. And what I wanted to do more than anything was to make people think about their own role, whether it is as consumer or producer of entertainment violence.

HEFFNER: You think that perhaps they haven’t thought of their role or what they’re doing, what they have been doing over the past decades?

BOK: I think that thoughts like that may often have been occurring, and then it’s so easy to shield them off. And we know that in so many other professions, we know it in our own lives, how easy it is to stop thoughts from coming in that might trouble us about how we lead our lives. So, the more debate there is, and the more discussion, and the more we see of people in many different walks of life speaking out, the harder it’s going to be, I think, to just shut off debate. Again, we see that, I think, in the tobacco industry. It was easier five years than it is now to act as if it didn’t touch you personally.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, you touch upon the key here. It is again for profit, the basic answer is it’s what is profitable. If it were profitable not to produce mayhem, mayhem would not be produced.

BOK: Well, you know, I might disagree a little with that. I think many people also say that they do it for artistic purposes. They do it to press the boundaries, you know, to push farther. They’ve already done so and so much murder and killing and torture and rape, now they’re going to go a little farther and see what the public can possibly take. So they’re testing, and they do feel, I know, a lot of people feel this is artistically satisfying to them. And I would say, “Let it be satisfying, so long as other people also have the choice about whether or not to be part of the public for this.”

HEFFNER: What do you mean? What do you mean by this last point, “Let them do what they would do.”

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: Give them the freedom, let them maintain the freedom to do it, as long as what?

BOK: As long as the profit motive is, to some extent, taken away from them so that if they want to be experimenters, and if the climate has changed in the society so that more and more people say, “We’re not particularly interested to be part of your experiment here, you know. You can go and do it somewhere if you want, see where you can sell it, but we’re not obliged to buy it and to consume it,” I think that would make a difference.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that you have in your mind’s eye a picture of what we could do to make it not profitable?

BOK: Yes, I do. And there, you know, I take great interest in, as many others have, in what happened in America with respect to drunk driving, and with respect to smoking. We are almost unique, I think, in the world, in how far we’ve gone on changes with respect to smoking. And we’ve had a tremendous success also when it came to drunk driving and to just changing the culture and changing the notion of what’s cool, what isn’t, what’s exciting, what isn’t. And there, it’s interesting to me, that the television industry itself has been pressured to cut back on glamorizing drunk driving, glamorizing being drunk, glamorizing taking drugs, and, to some extent, smoking. So, that kind of cultural shift seems much more important to me really than whether we’re going to try to force people — which I don’t think we should — to stop making certain kinds of entertainment.

HEFFNER: Couple of things. I want to get back to the question of your saying you don’t think we should force people, and that, of course, is when you get to the point which you say, “Buyer beware,” I wonder why Sissela Bok hasn’t included the other portion of that, “Seller beware.” But this question of what it is we know and recognize, it’s so fascinating to me that you talk about drunk driving, and you talk about smoking. The end of both of them is death. Do you think we have come, as a people, anywhere close enough for action in our knowledge about what you point about what mayhem does to us as a people, does to our children? Do you think we, aside from the people you’d expect, the American Psychiatric Association, the PTAs, and the other groups concerned with children directly, do you think we’ve really begun to have a sense of what this mayhem is doing?

BOK: It’s interesting. I think that we may, to some extent, have a skewed sense. Many in the public believe that the main problem with entertainment violence has to do with people, children, adolescents, adults, becoming more violent themselves, becoming more aggressive. And I think research shows that that does happen to some, definitely. But it’s not the major danger. To me, the major danger really has to do with something else, which is that people can become desensitized to violence. They see so much of it on the screen, the passage you read shows that children grow up with it from the very beginning. So how do we shield ourselves against that? Well, we shield ourselves by developing a kind of callus almost, to be able to take violence. Interestingly, a lot of adolescents go to violent films to try to learn to take it more. This is one proof, perhaps, of their manhood or something like that. That’s the great danger, one of the great dangers, to me, that we become less able to respond to violence when we see it, either on the screen or in real life. And that may be something that Americans should be very worried about.

And there I come back to this word “mayhem.” “Mayhem” comes from a French Medieval word for “maiming.” Now, the question is whether there’s a part of our spirit that can become maimed if we expose ourselves a lot to violence, if there’s something that is stifled or maimed, and that might just be our capacity for empathy for other human beings.

Now, that’s one thing for all of us as adults. We have to make our choices, and we have to learn to deal with that. But it seems to me to be very unfair to make the choices for children before they are old enough at all to decide what they want to do about it. And, as a philosopher I would also say that that capacity for empathy underlies everything else about our moral development. If we can’t even feel as much as we should for other human beings, then we can’t really understand the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We can’t really understand that because we’re not thinking enough about other people. And then we can’t even make choices that are sufficiently rigorous with respect to, for instance, doing violence to them or hurting them in some way.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that there is any indication other than what you and I and some others feel as sentient human beings, that we are doing this to our children, that this is precisely, this desensitization is precisely what’s happening?

BOK: Yes. There, from all the social science studies that have been conducted, and there have been a great many studies now, and a lot of meta-studies, so-called, that means studies of the studies. And it does seem to be the case that entertainment violence and media violence generally can have four effects, really. One, perhaps the most common, is to make people more frightened, more fearful. They see so much violence on the screen, they wrongly conclude that is all around them sometimes. People are afraid of doing things in their communities. Children are more afraid of being kidnapped than of anything else. You know, the greatest fear of children is of being kidnapped, amazingly enough. So that’s one fear.

Second is the desensitization we had been talking about.

The third is a kind of growing appetite that can come. The more desensitized you become, the more your appetite can develop for more and more violence on the screen.

And the fourth is greater aggression.

Now, all of those have been studied. And, of course, they hit different people differently. Some people may only, for instance, experience the fear, not the other things. Some may say, they may experience the fear and say, “I have nothing more to do with this kind of programming.” Others experience the fear and then want to stick with it and are drawn to staying with it because of all the advertising, become more desensitized. Some develop the appetite, and some are more aggressive as a result. But it’s pretty clear from the research that’s been done that these effects are in play.

Now, then, you might say, “Well, it’s not necessarily going to bother my children.” And that could be true. And I think, actually, that in the supportive, loving family, those children are more likely to be all right, however much TV they see, than other children. It’s the children who are most left to themselves, whose parents care least about them, whose parents have least time for them, sometimes because of tremendous demands at the workplace, those are the children most at risk.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that mean, then, that organized society must do something for those children whose parents are not prepared, are not equipped to do something for them?

BOK: It certainly seems to me that society must take much more of an interest. And here I would argue that this is not only a matter having to do with television or the media at all. Our society, America’s society does less with respect to the general support of children and the general attention to how they should be nurtured than any other industrialized democracy. And this is very peculiar since we talk all the time about how much we love children. We do less. And there are more children in poverty, more children exposed to violence in the home and on the street, than in any other society.

HEFFNER: It is so interesting. When David Hamburg was head of the Carnegie Corporation, and focused on children, and we would talk at this table about this myth that we are the country that’s most concerned, we’re so child-oriented, when, in fact, we seem not to be.

BOK: It’s very peculiar. And there I would argue that even though television may play, and the media may play a small role, nevertheless, the fact that we have become accustomed to taking pleasure in violence done to other people on the screen may have something to do with this kind of callousness that we sometimes express as a society. It’s hard for me otherwise to understand how grown men, for instance, can engage in so much child abuse and so much domestic violence, as if it had never occurred to them to be educated in a different way.

HEFFNER: Dr. Bok, there are many, many points to be made on this subject. If you will, stay where you are, and when we end this program we’ll do another for next week. Thank you for joining me today, Dr. Sissela Bok.

BOK: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.