Taming the Media-Violence Hysteria

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We continue living in fear of exposing children to written or depicted violence even though our panic has been largely intuitive rather than the result of study, analysis, and informed discussion. A 1993 report in The Public Interest, however, by University of Washington epidemiologist Brandon S. Centerwall, statistically links aggressive behavior specifically to television violence. His article offers many numbers, but it expresses typical feelings: "[By] the age of 18, the average American young person has witnessed 200,000 acts of violence on television, including 40,000 murders. ... [If], hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults. Violent crime would be half what it is."

Even if the somewhat apocalyptic tone of these summations didn't give us pause, the failure of the cited studies to distinguish between television fact and television fiction should. Official bodies and prestigious persons react almost reflexively, without rumination or a request for hard evidence, to every charge that depictions and reports of violence are intrinsically pernicious. Under pressure from Congress, especially from Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., the television networks recently promised, once again, to police themselves. The film industry already has instituted warnings about excessively violent works, although complaints continue to be made about such popular films among the young as "Batman" and "Jurassic Park."

Four decades ago, horror comics provoked the great national fear. Dr. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist and the author of Seduction of the Innocent, agitatedly testified before a congressional committee that horror comics incited children to horrible acts, including suicide. At the time, Congress immediately considered legislation but finally did nothing.

How far should we go not to let television, movies, books, comic strips, rap lyrics, classical paintings about the martyrdoms of saints, anything at all, trouble children? The conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly has suggested that Greek and Elizabethan tragedy depresses them and should be edited or suppressed. Should we have our elementary and high schools ban "Oedipus Rex" and "Romeo and Juliet"? Do we outlaw Charles Dickens' A Child's History of England, a compendium of grisly maimings and tortures? Do we rewrite "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hansel and Gretel," and other such grim tales from the Brothers Grimm, as some school districts already have done? Do we delete "nasty" words from school dictionaries? Should we white-out parts of the Bible?

Suppose we sanitize, without dispute, every offensive fictional work we identified, would we also censor reports or depictions of starvation in Somalia, genocide in Bosnia, serial rapes, our own Civil War prisons, Jeffrey Dahmer's cannibalism, the O.J. Simpson trial, public executions in China, lynchings, sharks and lions tearing apart their prey, mass deaths of cultists? Most of these have appeared on television news broadcasts, and some, like nature films, on what we commonly regard as educational channels.

The world was outraged when Japanese textbooks rewrote history to expunge reference to Japanese atrocities in World War II. Should we join Japan in acts of censorship?

The depredations of Medea, Lady Macbeth, J.R. Ewing, Bugs Bunny, the characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Susan Lucci, and Arnold Schwarzenegger hardly equal the gamut of evil offered by reality. If mankind had never invented printing or photography, there'd still be horror in the world that children have always been well aware of.

Children are normally more resilient, armored, judicious, even more aesthetically discriminating than we allow ourselves to believe. Roaring lions fascinate them as much as purring kittens. Veteran students of children's psyches, like Drs. Bruno Bettelheim and Robert Coles, have shown how much reality children comfortably absorb and how they defend themselves. Yet we seem reluctant to credit the young with psychological strength or moral instinct.

We learn as adults to accommodate to the most outrageous inevitabilities of life, like earthquakes and epidemics. We do not make hysteria a habitual reaction to realities we may confront for the first time.

Consider some of the messages youthful filmmakers keep sending out. "E.T." showed children defeating adult authorities who couldn't recognize plain goodness. The "Home Alone" movies depicted the ingenious extremes of self-defense and self-assertion a child can summon against adult thoughtlessness and meanness. The decoded sense is that youth can hold its own when forced to.

So called "children's classics," like Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, are filled with "disturbing" events. Adult literary classics, like High Wind in Jamaica by Robert Hughes and the play "The Children's Hour" by Lillian Hellman, depict the havoc that children can deliberately create, defensively or maliciously, among adults. Children's playtime rhymes linger over details that adults regard as disgusting.

As children and as adults, we have always allowed ourselves to get lost in imagined worlds without inevitable catastrophe. Responding to art seriously does not mean responding to it literally. Although few of us may have tried to fly like Peter Pan when we saw the musical adaptation of James Barrie's classic, we did join in the applause to revive Tinker Bell. Only to the degree that we can be deeply moved can we share in the catharsis of tragedy.

In his Public Interest overview of media violence's impact on children, Dr. Centerwall reported that "an Indiana school board had to issue an advisory to young children that ... there is no such thing as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Children had been crawling down storm drains looking for them." I find it hard to accept that such "advice" could extinguish a child's fascination with these engaging fauna. Dr. Centerwall did not say whether any child actually came to harm looking for the turtles' habitat.

Nevertheless, it remains the family's and society's responsibility to ensure that the imaginative lives of our young remain wholesomely related to reality, that we all learn, beginning as children, to sort out our responses to art from those to life, and not let ourselves be mindlessly affected by uncivilized behavior and outlandish inventions. Those unfortunately disturbed young persons who cite a created work as the source of their violent acts hardly needed artistic inspiration to lose their balance.

Teachers and parents should properly filter art and history at certain times for certain groups. We must candidly recognize that some words and situations do call for sensitive and wise orientation. Not every fabricated work can claim aesthetic justification: A range of critics have not found Oliver Stone's film exercises in contrived nastiness acceptable on any grounds.

We lose little, and arguably gain a good deal, by preparing students sensibly to approach complex works, to read "The Merchant of Venice," Huckleberry Finn, or The Catcher in the Rye, or stories about the early days of slavery, gay couples, or the travails of adolescence, or to see disturbing films, like the "The Color Purple" or "Holocaust." Viewing the gruesome exhibits in the old medical museum of the U.S. Army on the Mall in Washington used to be a favorite pastime of adolescents until the museum was moved. Young persons, like myself, who happened to wander alone through the museum had to deal with their responses privately. By contrast, the newly opened U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, not far from the old medical one, erected barriers to prevent children from seeing gruesome documentary films about the concentration camps inadvertently or without the presence of elders.

In the end, what Dr. Centerwall's data may prove is only that, as a society, we have coarsened our adult capacity to differentiate art from actuality. We may be so overcome by the genuine violence television brings us so vividly and so regularly that we blur and blend what mankind has imagined with what it has done.

Nor should we fail to acknowledge our own adult reluctance or squeamishness to expose ourselves to works that, however intellectually rationalized, may disturb us too deeply. Although I have twice visited Dachau, I have not seen the television mini-series, now on video, "Holocaust," nor do I intend to see it: Reviews and articles have persuaded me that while it does not and perhaps could not do justice to the facts, it distorts them in the very act of intensifying them. I do not need the movie to know about the Holocaust. We should scrupulously avoid burdening our children in ways that we cringe to burden ourselves.

We can hardly diminish our guilt, however, about obscuring the existence of evil, or minimize any real effects of violence in fiction or the news, by automatically attacking or canceling out powerful literature and painting, or television, or all of Hollywood, or by mistrusting the normal reactions of our own children.

Recognizing that violence exists and is part of human history, and that reports of it in any form can affect us profoundly, may not be one of the prettier functions of education but it is as essential to full learning as teaching the nature of beauty, of good, of civilization.

Vol. 15, Issue 37, Pages 44, 47

Published in Print: June 5, 1996, as Taming the Media-Violence Hysteria
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