Sissela Bok on Violence Entertainment and the Nations Youth

Is the American entertainment industry allergic to ethical reflection about its use of violent images? If so, what might the effects be on the nation’s youth? Such questions have become more pressing in recent decades, as television, movies, and video games have become more prevalent–and more violent. A number of school shootings captured the nation’s attention last year at about the time Perseus Books published Sissela Bok’s study Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. Last spring, shortly after the paperback edition was released, two boys in Columbine High School in Colorado killed 12 students, one teacher, and themselves, in one of the most horrific examples of deadly adolescent rage. The debate about who and what is to blame–guns? the media? bad parents? bad schools?–has intensified, although its treatment in the mass media has often been simplistic.

In Mayhem, Bok makes a nuanced yet clear-headed case against “entertainment violence.” The author sweeps aside in the earliest pages objections to examining the roles of the media and the entertainment industry. One doesn’t have to believe that Hollywood or television are the only factors–or even the most important ones–to take up questions of what moral responsibility the industries, and the public, might have “to guard against the flow of media violence,” she argues.

Nor does she pin her case entirely on establishing a link between violent images and outright aggression. Psychological studies suggest other ill effects: increased fear of victimization; a decrease in sensitivity toward the suffering of others; and the stoking of some viewers’ appetite for violence.

Mayhem is the third in a series of probing works that Bok has written about everyday ethical concerns. She is the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), and Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1983). Born in Sweden and educated in Switzerland, France, and the United States, she has degrees in psychology and a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard. She is the daughter of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, both of whom were awarded Nobel Prizes (her father for economics in 1974; her mother won the peace prize in 1982). She had just returned from two months of study (along with her husband, former president of Harvard University Derek Bok) at the Bellagio Center in Italy when CommonWealth magazine caught up with her in September. She reports that she is now finishing work on a new book, On Practical Ethics, that examines ways current science and technology raise ethical questions, especially concerning such issues as bio-engineering and euthanasia. We met at her office at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, where she is a Distinguished Fellow. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: Your book came out before the student killings in Littleton, Colorado…. I was wondering what your reaction was. Do you remember hearing the news about Colorado and how you reacted to that?

Bok: I was shocked, as everybody else was, of course. One has to ask oneself about these particular young people and their families. But as with all the other school shootings, it was a fact also that the young people who got involved in them almost all seemed to have a fascination for media violence. They also had access to guns. They obviously were troubled human beings, and this could be seen from the beginning.

What I noticed that interested me so much in the media was that for awhile it became possible for people to entertain the idea that there could be several factors involved. Whereas, when I was writing the book, very often people said, “Why are you working on the media? Why aren’t you just talking about guns?” Or people in the arms industry would say, “Why talk about guns? Why don’t you talk about broken families, or the media?” This seemed to me to be so crazy–that with respect to this particular problem it’s very hard for people to entertain the idea that there are several factors coming together. Even though, when we think about an illness, such as heart disease, we know very well that it’s not just heredity, or exercise, or cholesterol, or diet, or smoking. It’s really a number of things working together. So what happened with the debate about the school shootings that I thought was good afterward [was] it really brought home to Americans the kind of atmosphere many young people grow up in, and that this is not necessary, and it is unprecedented in many ways. Not that people haven’t heard fairy tales or read comics in the past, but I don’t think most Americans realized the kind of media environment that young people grow up in now.

CommonWealth: In the aftermath of this shooting, there was attention in the mass media to the effect, supposedly, of the movie The Basketball Diaries, and that [the movie] might have played some role.

Bok: There are a number of films that kids see and know about very well where there is shooting in a school, or shooting of teachers, shooting by young people. There are video games involving that–video games where you can target your teachers, your parents, whoever you want, and be a so-called “first-person shooter.” When people who are somewhat older ask, “Well, what’s the matter? Haven’t we always had violence in the media?” they don’t understand what’s happened in the last decade or so with respect to the graphic nature of the so-called interactive games. That is something very new.

CommonWealth: I thought it was evocative that your book began by talking about entertainment violence in the Roman Empire. That’s so common that we hear warnings that our society could some day begin to go into decline the way the Romans’ did. That’s not the specific point that you made in the book, but I wonder if in the back of your mind it was meant to hint at that. Do you think that this sort of violence in the media is a sign that the society is in serious decline?

Bok: No, and I’m glad you said that wasn’t the point of my book. Definitely, there are lots of people saying we’re on the way to decline. I feel very differently. I feel strongly that there are forces going in opposite directions. There are indeed people who profiteer from violence. Obviously, there are industries selling weapons all over the world and violent entertainment, but there also are quite a few people working in the opposite direction, working to curtail this, working as peacekeepers and as peacemakers. So I didn’t at all want to say that America is in decline.

“The Romans would have been fascinated by our kind of entertainment violence.”
The reason I used the Romans was, they’re a model example of entertainment violence more than almost any other society. They loved it. It was encouraged by the state. It was a way of making people not think about matters of citizenship, for instance. It interested me also because there was so much evidence of the kind of brutalization that took place. In the beginning when people would go to gladiatorial games, they would be horrified, disgusted. But after a while, they could tolerate it quite well. And it did brutalize society. It was also used there to see if people couldn’t be trained to tolerate the kind of violence that the Roman military empire was perpetrating, especially with respect to distant peoples. I also began to think, as I was working on the book, that the Romans would have been fascinated by our kind of entertainment violence. Because, as we know, they loved, for instance, to pipe water to all kinds of places, into houses–how amazed they would have been to see the piping of entertainment violence into homes so that children and others could watch!

CommonWealth: You mentioned that the argument is often made that there are other things to criticize and direct your attention to, and I know you’ve heard many times people say that the roots of violence in this society are elsewhere, and that if you’re concentrating, as your book does, on media violence, you’re looking at just one small part of it–and maybe not the most important part.

Bok: I think that’s perfectly legitimate to say. Again, if we use the comparison, for instance, with heart disease, I don’t think there’s a problem with people writing about the role of exercise, or the role of smoking, or the role of something else. But I did mention other factors as well. I would say that the easy availability of guns in America is the largest factor, definitely. But it plays in with the media because media violence glamorizes weapons and guns. These things act together.

But the linkage between exposure to media violence and aggression–that’s only one of the factors that I was studying. It’s so clear that most Americans are never going to go out and perpetrate a school shooting or anything else. But they can be damaged in other ways. They can be desensitized [or] become more fearful. We have huge rates of depression among young people, and also adults. We have forms of desensitization that allow us to live with problems such as that of the homeless that would otherwise be very difficult. I think the fact that people see so much suffering and injury on television may make it easier for them to tolerate suffering out there in the society.

CommonWealth: The argument you made about desensitization made me wonder if there was a little bit of a leap in logic there. You conclude that seeing too much violence from movies and television can make us not feel anything toward the suffering of other people. I was wondering if perhaps it could be put differently–if that sort of desensitization could in fact mean only that we don’t feel anything toward the fake suffering of these fictitious characters that we understand are just part of a movie.

Bok: That’s a good point when it comes to adults, especially adults who are not disturbed in some particular way. Normal adults can learn to make that distinction. It’s not a distinction that young children can make. They cannot say, “Oh, those are only actors.” Indeed, the more realistic the program, the more graphic the photography, the harder it is for anybody to make that distinction. But in particular for young kids–that’s been shown. They may see violence on the street, and they may see it on the screen, or they may see it happening in their family and on the screen, and it’s just impossible for them to disentangle.

CommonWealth: I know that one can cite reams of studies by child psychologists, but I was thinking that by now, with generations of people who have grown up with television, and children understanding what TV is–I mean, children come to a point where it’s very easy for them to understand at an early age what it means to pretend. Why should we not assume that it’s fairly easy for a child to get to that understanding that what they see on television is “just pretend”?

Bok: I think at some point that can definitely happen–at some age. Obviously it can’t happen from the beginning.

CommonWealth: Not a three-year-old or a four-year-old, but maybe a five-, or an eight-, or a 10-year-old.

Bok: That’s right. That can begin to happen, but you have to realize that two-year-olds sit in front of the television a lot. Three-year-olds and four-year-olds do, too. So therefore we do want to help them figure out what’s pretend and what is not. But then you also have to take into account the news programs and the endless focus, for instance, on the school shootings. And we know that so-called copycat crimes are crimes where people have become obsessed by seeing a particular kind of violence on the news–not pretend at all–and have felt that they wanted to engage in that same kind of violence.

CommonWealth: What do you mean when you talk about “media literacy”?

Bok: Media literacy is a movement that has been going on in Canada, and New Zealand, and Australia, and that some schools in America are also engaging in. What that means is to recognize, first of all, that the media play a huge role in our society and for our children, and that they need to learn to examine critically what comes across on the media, just as they need to learn to become literate with respect to the printed word. I talk in the book about school classes where children are asked to look at the amount of violence in programs that they see at home. And often those kids are quite amazed. Many of them don’t even know what the word violence really means. And then they begin to step back and say, “What is being done here? What is it the advertisers want me to buy? What is it that programmers want me to keep looking at, and why, and what is my role in this? Is this good for me? Do I like it? Does it scare me? Does it desensitize me?” All of those questions are questions that are very important for kids to ask. And here we’re not only talking about violence. It could be, for instance, a question of how you respond to advertising, or more generally, how you respond to salesmanship.

CommonWealth: It’s a suggestive idea because it’s almost as if you’re saying, and others are saying, that there’s a cultural lag here. We’ve had 50 years of television, and a whole explosion of movies and video games more recently, and yet we haven’t put something in place in a systemic way to counteract the effects of that.

Bok: I think that’s true. However, I would also say that there are a number of people who want to live quite differently. There are a number of people who do, for instance, limit what their kids see. And who spend much more time with them reading, for instance. To me, that’s very important. Regardless of how good the television programming may be, it’s not good for children, pediatricians have shown, for them to sit in front of the TV set for hour upon hour. I saw a figure somewhere that 50 percent of American kids have television in their own rooms. Now, this is really crazy from the point of [considering their] interaction with other human beings. I noticed that the American Academy of Pediatricians came out and said if there is going to be television, it should be somewhere where the entire family can be aware of what’s going on.

CommonWealth: Television can be, if you let it be, mesmerizing.

Bok: Yes, and it is very much so for small kids. As psychologists and other teachers point out, when small children are frightened by a program, they are too frightened even to turn it off. They’re too frightened to get up and leave the room. They just sit there mesmerized.

CommonWealth: Have you experienced that in the earlier part of your life? Did you go through a period in your life where you were hooked on a particular show, or felt the pull of the television the way many people do?

Bok: When I was about 12, or maybe 14, I had a period when I liked horror movies. But in those days, you’d go to the movies once a month, if you had the money. So it wasn’t something that I could engage in all the time. And that’s another thing that is very important. It’s not just that kids now have more money to go to the movies, and that they can turn violent programming on in their homes–they can also videotape it and then play it over and over and over. That’s what some of the young people who are most morbidly fascinated–I think that’s what they do.

CommonWealth: How do you account for the way that boys seem to be affected by this differently than girls? Because there are some who suggest that the largest part of this violence problem in America may well be with what The New York Times Magazine recently called “the troubled life of boys.”

Bok: It’s true that the world over there is a huge difference between the amount of violence men engage in and the amount of violence women engage in. Men and boys, women and girls. But the fact is that our society has so much more of it than any other industrialized democracy…. I was told by one expert on violent crime that in America we’re now beginning to experience a third wave of violence. The first wave was that of inner-city violence and had a lot to do with crack cocaine and everything like that. The second wave is moving out into the suburbs and the rural areas, and that’s where many of these school shootings took place. The third wave has to do with young girls being arrested for violent crime, and that’s gone up a lot recently. Very often those young girls have been abused at home and are lashing out at other people. And of course it’s also true that many of the young boys who engage in violence have been abused. Almost all serial killers have, too.

CommonWealth: So far all the school shootings have been conducted by boys. It just seems to me that there is something about–and there are a number of books that are out about this recently–about the way we’re bringing up boys and the kinds of male role models they have. But also that the media violence that you talk about has more of an effect on them, is more frequently consumed by boys than girls. Even with the rise in some violence by young girls, is it not still primarily in your mind a boy problem?

Bok: Well, there again I’d like to draw the distinction between the one factor of aggression and the others–fear, desensitization, and appetite for more violence. Now, I think girls are more often affected through fear, and to some extent, in response to fear, desensitization affects them as well. It’s definitely true so far that boys are affected by media violence in the direction of aggression and to some extent also, appetite. The same is the case when it comes to sexual violence. When young men and women are exposed to films about sexual violence, the young women on the whole, and rather naturally, will feel increased fear; and the young men may feel increased sexual aggression.

CommonWealth: You have addressed the tendency of a certain segment of our population to avert our eyes, not to see all these violent images around us. And I think that’s what a lot, and maybe a growing number, of people do. Maybe I’m not really the best person to do this interview because I’m one of these persons who is so put off by violent shows and violent movies…I haven’t even seen Saving Private Ryan.

Bok: I haven’t either, actually.

CommonWealth: You haven’t either? Let’s use Schindler’s List–I haven’t seen that either. Can one go so far in the other direction to miss out on important movies if we were to avoid all films that had violent content?

Bok: That is a good question. I think that we have to work at keeping ourselves open to the violence in the world and the reality of that violence–which is why I think Schindler’s List is extremely important to see. I don’t think we have to see every violent film that comes down the road, and I think there’s a big difference [with] a film like Schindler’s List, which is not at all what I call entertainment violence. That’s the last thing that Spielberg wanted to do; he did not want to entertain with that film. And there are other films: There was a Dutch film called Character, for instance, that was quite violent and an extraordinarily powerful film that helps us understand violence better. So I would not say that one should shy away from all of it. To the extent that you don’t want to be exploited by people who try to make you think that violence is fun and entertaining, to that extent, yes, you do want to shield yourself from those. But it would be wrong to say, okay, therefore I’m not going to read the Iliad. I’m not going to watch Schindler’s List. I’m not going to think about war or anything else that’s happened in the world. There are some people who shield themselves that way.

CommonWealth: Was it hard for you in writing this book to wade into that world and to watch some of this stuff?

Bok: Well it was, and yet I felt that I shouldn’t mention films, or programs, or video games that I didn’t know anything about, that I hadn’t seen. So I did have to see the ones that I mentioned. And I felt that this was not how I wanted to spend a large period of my life, but I did it for that purpose.

CommonWealth: Did you reach your fill, and that’s why you didn’t go off to see Saving Private Ryan?

Bok: Well, Saving Private Ryan; again, I don’t think that was an entertainment violence film. But I guess there I felt that I know what I need to know about the violence of war. I don’t think I need to see another film about that.

CommonWealth: This summer Professor David Lowenthal of Boston College made the case for censorship in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, and at least one syndicated conservative columnist joined in, arguing that “the question of censorship cannot be off the table.”

Bok: I’ve heard those people, too. In my view, censorship is absolutely the wrong way to go for several reasons. First of all, it does go against something very important in our society, freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Secondly, when societies engage in censorship they censor a lot more than something having to do with violence; [there can be] political censorship, every other form. But third, and in some ways the most important: It isn’t going to work in the long run. It’s very interesting that China right now is trying hard to continue with media censorship. It’s not working very well. Countries like Iran are having a lot of trouble keeping people from accessing material that the government doesn’t want them to access. I just saw an article saying Singapore is having to recognize that censorship is not going to work as it has been working for some time. So the argument that we must move toward censorship at the very time when even the most oppressive governments can’t make it work seems erroneous to me. I just don’t think it’s right. However, some people use the word censorship very broadly to mean what families do in their homes and what individuals do in their own lives, and I don’t call that censorship. When you talk about censorship, you really have to talk about government censorship. Individuals have every right to shut out anything they want from their own lives, and parents also have a responsibility to see to it that their children are not overwhelmed by what they see.

“Censorship is the wrong way to go. It isn’t going to work.”

CommonWealth: Well in one respect we do have a successful example of censorship in our media now. On network television right now you cannot, for example, show blatant nudity. We have a pretty effective censorship policy when it comes to sex. If we’ve come to accept that, why would you not support the same policy for network TV about allowing censorship of blatant maiming and killing?

Bok: First of all, there are now so many channels–many, many families have cable and, of course, the Internet–so that what the networks do isn’t going to change that much what people see. Secondly, it’s been fascinating to me throughout that in the old days the discussion did center so much on sexuality rather than on violence. Now from what I know, the American public thinks that the question of violence is much more important. It’s much more important to see if the networks, and the cable channels, and everybody else who purveys violent material [will] exercise judgment in what they do and exercise responsibility with respect to violence. Why sexuality should have been selected as the one area where responsibility matters is very strange for me. Now, I’m not sure that I would call what networks do “censorship,” necessarily. I think for them it is a matter of exercising editorial judgment and responsibility.

CommonWealth: Well there are network censors in that, for example, [when] Madonna comes on David Letterman and says certain words, they do get bleeped out.

Bok: That’s internally. I don’t think that’s the government saying you have to do that, but this would be something I’d need to look into.

CommonWealth: Whatever the reasons are, it has been fairly–especially up to maybe 10 years ago or 15 years ago–it was fairly well policed what images about sex were allowed to come through, while [violent content] was not policed at all from the earliest days of westerns and [action] movies.

Bok: Yes, although even those movies, if you look back at them–I saw one about gladiators some months ago. There was almost no blood, and there was the mildest kind of hitting, really. Even now in newscasting and everything else, the dwelling of the camera on bleeding bodies on sidewalks, for instance, in an emergency or a crisis–that’s something that is just increasing all the time.

CommonWealth: The whole question of violence on television news is something that I think a lot of us in the media have mixed feelings about. Because on the one hand, if journalists perceive that we have a societal crisis on our hands, and that more kids have weapons, and more kids are violent, and there are violent outbreaks in the city, you feel an obligation to ring the alarm and get that news out there. It’s what journalists do. And at the same time, I can’t stand to watch local news.

Bok: Yes, it’s interesting you can’t, because partly it is meant to entertain people. It’s meant to excite them. It’s meant to excite them so much in fact that they would be more disposed to buy whatever it is being advertised, and that has been shown to be the case. And so if you say you can’t stand to see it, I think you’re just holding out from being a part of that. There’s something called “the Mayhem Index.” I quote in my book the Rocky Mountain Media Watch where twice a year, all kinds of volunteers all over the country count the amount of violence on local news stations. And some have a lot more than others. Some have about 75 or 80 percent of their news being violent news, and sometimes when they can’t think of anything in their own community, they go somewhere else to talk about violent crime, wars, terrorism, and disasters. What that’s really doing, when there’s such a large proportion of news in that category, that’s really falsifying reality. Because obviously there’s so much more that goes on of a different nature as well.

CommonWealth: But if we also believe that it desensitizes the viewer, it seems to raise the possibility that we’re going to be so tired of seeing it after awhile, that it’s going to become boring. We’ll turn the channel.

Bok: That does happen. Sometimes it’s called “compassion fatigue.” Even though terrible things are being shown, a lot of people just click past. They don’t want to see that.

CommonWealth: Do you have any sense that the important people in the entertainment industry picked up Mayhem, and read it and were affected by it?

Bok: I have had a number of letters. There are statements [against violence] being made by some people in the movie industry, in the television industry. I don’t know whether they’re picking up on my book in particular but they are picking up on a general more critical mood. People asking much more, “Why are you doing this?” Sometimes people say, “Well, we’re doing it to make money.” But, in fact, the most violent movies do not make all that much money in this country. They make more because they are sold abroad. However, very often, the way they’re sold abroad is as part of a package. The industry will say, “Well you can have this news program if you also take this violent film”–sometimes forcing those onto a number of other societies.

CommonWealth: What about conservative activists out there? Most prominent, I guess, is [former Secretary of Education] Bill Bennett. Do you feel some common cause with what he and others have been trying to do to protest against Hollywood?

Bok: I signed a statement with conservative and liberal critics, and I think Bill Bennett was one. I think there can be common cause with respect to some of the most irresponsible activities on the part of the media industry. However, the statement that I signed specifically said there should be no censorship. And really that the parents should exercise more responsibility, and the media should exercise more responsibility. I think that’s where I would come down, and if there are conservative thinkers and critics who agree with that, that’s fine with me. There are some others, as I say, who also said, “Let’s have censorship,” and that’s where I would absolutely draw the line.

CommonWealth: Well you’ve talked about what parents should do. You talked about what responsibility people in the media have. What about public-policy approaches? Suppose Sissela Bok ran for governor and won in the state of Massachusetts. Could you tell us one or two political changes that you would push for to address specifically the problems of media violence?

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Bok: One larger issue that I would press for strongly would be having to do with the family, with child care, with allowing parents to be home more so that it wouldn’t be the case that so many children come home alone. I think we’re a very unusual society in the sense that we say we care about children a lot, and yet we abandon them in many ways. Very often our public policies force parents sometimes to be away from home, and therefore when people argue that parents should exercise more control over what their children see, the fact is that a lot of parents can’t do that because they’re not at home. Now sometimes they’re out playing bridge or something else when in fact they could be home. But at other times, our society needs to do a lot more.

“We say we care about children and yet we abandon them in many ways.”

Then to cycle back to media violence, I think leadership works there. I do think President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton have spoken up when it comes to media violence, and what children deserve and what young people deserve. That could also be done much more, I think, on the state level. I mentioned this program, “Flashpoint” [a media literacy program developed by Essex County District Attorney Kevin Burke’s office], to you to show that in Massachusetts there is also work [underway] on these questions. I would also say another arena where work needs to be done is in the schools. When I’ve spoken about this book [Mayhem] in various school settings, I’ve been very impressed with how many teachers and parents and others stand up and contribute information about particular efforts they’re making and programs they’re involved with. So it really has to go on at many different levels.