Sissela Bok

Mayhem – Violence as Public Entertainment, Part II

VTR Date: March 4, 1998

Guest: Bok, Sissela


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sissela Bok, Part 2
Title: Mayhem: “Violence as Public Entertainment”
VTR: 3/4/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Dr. Sissela Bok, whose new Addison Wesley book, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, is absolutely must reading for anyone concerned with our children, and our grandchildren, our nation’s future.

Dr. Bok, I want to go back to some of the things we were talking about in our first program. And I just barely mentioned something in passing last time. You have a chapter in a section called “Opportunities,” in which you raise the question of what we can do about the mayhem to which our children are exposed, that you have clearly delineated here. And this chapter is called “Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware.” Is this a reflection of your approval of the emphasis that is being placed now upon ratings on television and the V-chip that the president has said will finally, miraculously put control over their children’s lives back in the hands of their parents?

BOK: Caveat emptor and buyer beware to me is just sort of the first level of protection. If people want to protect themselves, they can’t necessarily expect everybody else to do it right away, the first thing they can think, in their own lives, what can they do. And I do think, I don’t at all think of the V-chip as a kind of saving mechanism for everybody; I think the V-chip is just one among many technological innovations that are going to come into the armamentarium, so to speak, that people can use at home, parents can use for their children.

I do think it’s important, and I totally disagree with people who argue that it’s a form of censorship to allow parents to make decisions in their own home. I remember, you know, when my son was little and I didn’t like swearing at home, and he tried to say it was his First Amendment right to swear. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

BOK: Didn’t get very far. I do think that one has the right to, when children are small, to make certain decisions. Later on it’s very important for them to be part of the decision making. I talk in the book about a group of third-graders who were on a program for Peter Jennings, and they were deciding in their own third grade how to deal with violence, and they proposed something that they called a Declaration of Independence from Violence. So I want very much to say that, as children get a little older, yes, they should be part of thinking what it’s doing to them and how they might want to protect themselves.

HEFFNER: Yet I was so impressed with the section in the book at the beginning, the quotation that I began the last program with, in which you said, “We’re doing this, exposing these children, in a sense, to an acceptance of violence before they have developed the capacity to choose for themselves.” Now, taking the Peter Jennings instance, which is very touching, a group of young children who indicate that they want not to be exposed to this material. By and large, our children are exposed to it, as you suggest, before they’ve reached the stage at which they can make that decision.

But, when you spoke a moment ago about your son and his First Amendment rights to use the language he wanted to use, I’m sure that you will find in Hollywood where most of both the television product and the film product, and there rest of the new media product come the same kind of childish, or, at worse, maybe worst, adolescent mouthing of First Amendment rights. Everyone’s talking about the First Amendment and their rights to produce this mayhem.

BOK: Yes. Yes. The First Amendment, I think, has become a kind of cannon for some people that is wheeled out to shoot down anybody, in fact, who wants to raise any questions at all. And so they’re using the First Amendment to shut down debate, not to allow it to go on. I think that’s one thing I very much wanted to argue against in the book. I do think it’s important to beware of censorship. Having written, on the one hand, a book called Lying, and on another a book called Secrets, I couldn’t remain, you know, more opposed to censorship. In this book I looked at countries like China and Vietnam and others that do exercise tremendous amounts of censorship over what comes over the screen and over the Internet. And that’s clearly not the way to go. And I do believe it’s true that once we begin to censor media violence, the next thing could very well be something else. It could be political, it could be religious. It’s not a way to go. And America, I think, has every reason to protect the First Amendment. But that said, there are so many other things that people can do. Caveat emptor, what people can do as consumers, that’s only the first step. Then I do think, because of what you say about children, so many other children being exposed to all of this, that we have to do much more in our communities and in our society. And there I was looking at both Canada, where there has been a much more coherent debate involving teachers, producers, and the entertainment industry, people in the churches, children, young people. They’ve had a longer debate, I think, than we have. And then I looked at Norway also. They, of course, suffered during the Nazi period from censorship and so are very wary of that also. And they have a campaign against violence in society more generally, including entertainment violence.

HEFFNER: But am I mistaken in my recollection at the conferences I used to attend that in Scandinavia there is a much more, to my likes, a much more civilized approach to this matter? Because when you talk about censorship, you singled out the nations that we condemn as censorious.

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: And the thought that was going through my mind was: Why doesn’t Dr. Bok mention the Scandinavian countries that are much more rigid than we are, but who would not be identified as totalitarian by any means. They are much more concerned about violence in the media.

BOK: Yes. You know, that brings up another interesting aspect. The Scandinavian countries have had censorship only with respect to violence, really. You know, Sweden, for instance, has a very, very clear law with respect to the freedom to express yourself and everything else, but violence was one thing where the state did exercise censorship. The interesting fact is it doesn’t work anymore. It isn’t going to work in China and Vietnam either, but it certainly doesn’t work now, for instance, in Europe, or for Canada, where programs can come floating across your boundaries from America and elsewhere. So that the Swedes have more or less given up on their censorship. It’s still on the laws, but it doesn’t work anymore. So they have to use other methods.

HEFFNER: But, here, just between the two of us, if we were not living in the age of the Internet, if we were not living in the age of satellite communications, what would your response be to me if I said, “Well, what about the Swedes? What about their approach?” You say they single out, they haven’t gone down a slippery slope in which, because they single out violence, then political speech is next subject to censorship. Would you not embrace what the Swedes did about violence in the media?

BOK: The reason I wouldn’t, I think, is that even in Sweden there is danger to political speech, there is danger of conformity of all kinds, and that certainly has been the case in Sweden and possibly is getting to be more so now. I don’t think any society can regard itself as safe. Once it institutes censorship, it probably will reach into political and religious arenas. But that’s one reason why I wouldn’t want to go that way. The other reason is where we are now with respect to technology. And this, you would agree, it wouldn’t work anyway. And so we have to think of other methods, I think, to protect ourselves and to help children develop what’s called “media literacy” so that they can also protect themselves.

But the sad thing is — and this comes back to what you were saying earlier — yes, there are children who are exposed not only to this, but to much worse things in their home. So much, you know, violence, drug-taking, etcetera. And there, how are we going to, as a society, protect them? Censorship, you know, won’t do it, I think.

HEFFNER: If we were to abandon the word “censorship,” which is the dirtiest word an intellectual can use, for obvious reasons, let’s talk about regulation.

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: This was a nation, ours was a nation that, until two, three presidencies ago was essentially a regulatory nation. And we began, at the turn of this century — not the one coming up in two years, but at the turn of this century — we began to think in terms of caveat vendor with our Pure Food and Drug Acts, which, with the variety of means by which our government regulated industry so that shoddy, whether in terms of pharmaceuticals or in other areas, could not be pushed upon an innocent, unknowing public. What’s happened to that notion? Have we succumbed so thoroughly to the deregulatory mantra of the past 15, 20 years that we can’t think in terms of regulating media any longer?

BOK: Well, you know, regulating speech is a little different from regulating food and everything else, as we know. We have to be especially careful with respect to speech. I would say that the way to go, to me, seems to be, for instance, what was done in Canada: as a result of this debate, to put pressure on the industry to self-regulate. And that is being done, I think, to some extent. There are always questions of how long it’s going to last. The same many European countries. Self-regulation on the part of the industry with a lot of pressure indeed from the public, I would think would be a very good way to go.

So, for instance, many countries have what they call the watershed hour, nine o’clock sometimes, in some countries it’s eight o’clock, before which there are certain kinds of violent programming that cannot be shown. And that it can be an industry decision. Sometimes it’s also, indeed, a state decision. In America, I think it would be much preferable if it were an industry decision.

HEFFNER: You do know what happened, oh, let’s see, it must be 25 years ago, when the industry, at the urging of the Federal Communications Commission, I grant, but the industry voluntarily created the Family Viewing Hour.

BOK: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: And a federal court in California — naturally it would be California — threw out the agreement as it was in violation of antitrust, and it violated the First Amendment because the chairman of the FCC had been somewhat involved. So we had the opportunity, and we threw it away. Haven’t you demonstrated in this book and in your studies that the situation that we face is so serious that we can no longer adhere to the traditions of the past that immediately put up that wall of “Don’t touch me, my First Amendment rights.” You describe a situation that is horrendous.

BOK: I do think the situation is serious. I also think, however, that again it just wouldn’t work now to try to say to the networks, if that’s what you want to do, that, you know, “You can’t do any certain things before eight or nine o’clock,” because there are so many other channels. And, moreover, people can now tape things at any hour of night and day and then play them whenever they want. So that’s why, on the one hand, the situation is much riskier really than it has ever been. I agree with you, it’s very serious. On the other hand, the traditional regulatory remedies are not going to function. So we have to have again a kind of change of culture, I think, as we’ve seen with respect to drunk driving in America, as we’ve seen with respect to tobacco. So that kind of change of culture, that if enough people work in their own little corner and to have an influence beyond their corner, I do think it’s possible to do a lot more.

HEFFNER: I hope you’re not reflecting quite so sanguine a notion about what’s happened with tobacco. What’s happened with tobacco is a function of tremendous pressure from government, and we haven’t won that war as yet by any means.

But let me go back to this question that you touch upon that I think is so important. George Gerbner, when I was commuting to Hollywood as chairman of the film-rating board, George Gerbner, much to my annoyance, because I was such a strong believer in voluntarism at that time, until I saw how it worked, used to say about ratings, that “They’re an upper-middle-class conceit.” And what he meant was what we were talking about before: that upper-middle-class persons, educated persons, persons with the wealth to have the time to spend at home to regulate what their children see, for them it’s a bonanza. But that’s not America. That’s not the totality or maybe even the majority of America.

BOK: I disagree very much with that view, actually. I think that’s a very class-based view. As if there were not a lot of people who are not upper-middle-class who care about their children.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

BOK: And as far as I’m concerned… Yeah.

HEFFNER: No, no. You mean people who are not upper-middle-class who care about their children.

BOK: Yes. There are people in every walk of life doing things also about their children.

HEFFNER: Even in an increasingly latchkey-children society?

BOK: Well, the hardest situation is for parents who cannot be home when their children come home from school. And that’s made so much the worse by the fact that our communities and our states and our government sometimes do so little to make it possible for the children to have after-school programs, to have music, theater, sports, all the things that most middle-class Americans grew up with in their own public schools. In many schools they’re now gone. So those parents who do not have that to rely on, and who have to be at work, it’s absolutely hardest for them, I would argue.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t care somehow. Or that, also doesn’t mean that there are not a lot of parents who would have the time if they cared to spend with their children…

HEFFNER: And don’t.

BOK: …to see what they were watching, and don’t. Yeah.

So I wouldn’t want to say that this is anything elitist or class-based. I think at every level in society there are people who care, people who don’t care, and people who would care but don’t have the means to make a change.

HEFFNER: But mustn’t our concern, our greatest concern, be with the children of parents who do not have the resources, either emotional or educational or financial…

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: …who are pressed for two incomes, where there are two parents, or for the one income where there’s just one? Which leads me back to, I guess, what you feel is an unanswerable question: Is there anything to do that would be effective in this world of international communications which respects no borders in terms of the well-being of our children? You’re saying awareness is the first step.

BOK: That’s the first step. The first step really is almost what you used to call “consciousness raising,” namely: Let’s look around and see what’s happening here. Let’s see what’s happening in our lives. Let’s notice, if we hadn’t before, that no generation of children has ever been brought up the way the last few generations have been brought up, with this amount, not only of violence on the screen, but of violence that they are supposed to enjoy and like. And now, on top of everything else also, violent interactive videos, so that they are supposed to enjoy inflicting violence. That is something entirely new. So the first step is to just notice that, and then ask, “What can we do?”

HEFFNER: Of course, I would like to be as hopeful as you are. But when you say “the last couple of generations,” I’m aware that we’re not just talking about children now; we’re talking about parents, we’re talking about middle-aged persons who grew up with almost the same level of violence in their lives. We’re growing up, grown up with a, these children today are growing up in a society that is itself desensitized.

BOK: Yes. I think that’s true. But I would also argue that in the last ten years or so something new has come in: the violent videos. We now see videos being sold that are what’s been censored off the most violent cable programs. You can find those videos in supermarkets. Violent interactive games didn’t exist before; do not. So the children that are now growing up are in a totally new situation.

HEFFNER: Oh, look, I’m very much aware, when I look back at the annual reports of the Motion Picture Ratings Board, I see that a huge percentage, way, way, way more than a majority of films, are today rated R. Which means that the theory is, and there are box-office intermediaries in the movie theaters to keep out, when they do, younger children, the theory is that these materials are so strong that they will not be seen by younger children unless their parents make the decision to take them with them, accompany them. Yet you know that most of these are going to be seen in homes…

BOK: Right.

HEFFNER: …very shortly, whether on television, traditional television, on cable, or in the videos, the home videos, or in some form of the interactive videos that you’re addressing yourself to. I guess which leads me to say we’ve got to do more than stir up consciousness. But you still feel, shall I say in a good traditionalist way, that you’re going to put your faith there in the caveat emptor?

BOK: That’s only the first step, I would argue. And it’s the first step in that chapter also.

HEFFNER: I grant that.

BOK: So I absolutely agree with you. We have to do more.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying “caveat emptor,” and we can create a more concerned buying public by a variety of means, by, through the associations that today are raising consciousness, as you put it. But in the final analysis, do you think that this can all overcome what is perhaps even more pervasive in our society, and that is the dollar, the marketplace concept, and the notion that anything is fair game if it makes a buck?

BOK: Yeah. There I must say I’ve been impressed to see the studies that show that even if, let’s say, ten percent of the parents of children watching a particular program begin to say that “This is too much; we don’t want you to watch that,” even if all the other children still watch it, this has an effect on the advertisers who, in turn, have an effect on the programs. So I do believe that even working through the means of the almighty dollar, you know, one can bring about change that way too.

HEFFNER: Well, I remember hearing Al Gore talking about the V-chip, setting forth what I laughingly called the “Five Percent Solution.” He used the figure five percent. And he was saying that if the ratings go down by just five percent, programs that get five percent less in this competitive marketplace will not say on the air; they will be taken off. So that if there are just five percent of parents who make these decisions for their children, who will not permit their children to watch the most violent material, that the most violent materials will go off the air.

BOK: Yes. I’m not sure, you know, I’m not sure I’m as optimistic at all as all of that. It’ possible that sometimes that can have an effect. I do think we need to do all the other things as well. But certainly the commercial approach is one, yes. And also if parents could just say, you know, “We’re not going to buy all the paraphernalia that seem to go along with these programs.” I’m amazed when I read in the newspaper that parents take sleeping bags at Christmas time and sleep outside toy stores so they can buy the latest, tremendously violent paraphernalia.

HEFFNER: But when you refer to that, certainly you’ve got to do even less than say, “I’m not totally optimistic about that,” because that is what they do.

BOK: Yes. That can change. If they begin to think that this is actually not doing the best thing for your child, you know, a number of those parents will, I think, once they start to think, at least have the opportunity to ask themselves, “What am I doing here for my child, or against my child?”

HEFFNER: Dr. Bok, what evidence is there? You can’t use the drunk driving, and I don’t think, because death is a consequence. I don’t think that you can use the cigarettes. What evidence is there that in as — I was going to say “emphemeral” an area, and I don’t mean that — in as large an area as this question of where my children are, what evidence is there that parents are going to respond to the kind of consciousness-raising that you talk about?

BOK: Well, you know, if you take child-rearing in general… And, by the way, I think this problem has to do also very much with us as adults. But if you take child-rearing in general, there are all kinds of shifts over the course of history. Right now, for instance, breastfeeding is something that is regarded as better for children, and that many, many, many more mothers do than did 10, 20, 30 years ago. There are all kind… I think parents are often willing to do more for their children if they have a sense that it matters. So again we come back to this question then of how to raise the consciousness, that it does matter.

HEFFNER: And you think this can be effective?

BOK: I think that, to begin with, certainly parents can do a lot more now than they could even five or ten years ago, partly because of technology, new ways of protecting themselves. But I also think that it’s possible for communities to do much more and for societies to do much more. And that’s why it’s important to think about how other societies have responded, not always just feel stymied and powerless because of our own sense that it isn’t going to work in our country.

HEFFNER: And you see the international communications, the crossing borders, as the most difficult than we have to face today?

BOK: Both the most helpful and the most difficult. The fact that we can look for solutions crossing borders, even though, yes, the problematic aspects of entertainment violence also cross borders. The internationalization, I think, works in both ways, and the sense of hopelessness that so many people have. I’ve talked to either to people who are all in favor of censorship, but they don’t think it’s going to work, so they have a pretty great sense of hopelessness. On the other hand, the people who don’t want censorship also feel despair because they don’t think there’s anything to do. And I guess I just want to alter that discourse a little to say there’s a lot more that we can do than we think.

HEFFNER: Maybe where we have to begin is with raising consciousness on a different level, and that’s the level of the importance of the marketplace and the importance of the almighty dollar.

BOK: That would be one thing. And then also to raise consciousness with respect to the notion of one’s own, the meaning of one’s own life and one’s own moral development, and the moral development of one’s children, that’s just as important, I think, as the physical development.

HEFFNER: Dr. Sissela Bok, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

BOK: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, 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.