Media violence has public pushing the panic button


THE SEDUCTIVE appeal of violent role models was recently underscored in an essay by Harold Jackson in The Sun's Perspective section. Mr. Jackson, an Evening Sun editorial writer, wrote: "Young black men who want to be accepted as gang members try so hard to fit the mold that they don't see the strangulating limits of the stereotype they have decided to accept."

Of course, violent stereotypes are hardly limited to black men, as the popularity of such superstars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone readily attests.

But what is so troubling today is the way the mass media stimulate the need for violent personas, with models so vicious and sexually explicit that they make the X-rated products of even a few years ago seem tame by comparison. And the ante just keeps going up.

Media defenders insist they don't create these stereotypes; they merely add spice to what they find in reality. They call it "creative license." Besides, we've always survived their occasional excesses, so what's the big deal now?

The big deal now, of course, is that the mass media have a virtual lock on our collective consciousness, and providing the "materials and suggestions of personality" has become very big business.

To imply -- as some do -- that there is little difference between the impact of some 19th century gazette which touted the six-gun violence of Billy the Kid, and the high-tech barrage of "Terminators," Die Hards" and "gangstas" being pumped into our psyches today, is not only disingenuous but ludicrous.

When Sen. Bob Dole recently attacked the entertainment industry for all its wrong-headedness and hypocrisy, it resonated with many Americans because they believe the media have lost all sense of restraint in their single-minded pursuit of profit. And even if they aren't directly responsible for all the violence and sexual mayhem that mark the contemporary landscape, they worsen these problems by exploiting them and by desensitizing us to their corrosive effects.

Even a film like "Natural Born Killers," which contained a powerful anti-violence, anti-media message, cannot be absolved. For its graphic depictions of bloody gore were no different than any found in lesser films, which made no pretense at all to social statement.

Perhaps it's unfair to isolate a film's offensive images from their larger context, but that is exactly what moviegoers do while munching their popcorn. If Harold Jackson is right, some of them are trying so hard to fit a violent mold that they are focused solely on those "suggestions of personality," which address their single-minded need, remaining oblivious to any larger context, even if one exists.

This little psychological fact is one that media representatives avoid like the plague, for they know that they are providing some very negative suggestions to some very impressionable moviegoers.

Thus our dilemma: On the one hand, violent stereotypes, like all stereotypes, do influence behavior. On the other hand, we can't just start placing limits on the freedom of expression because some violence-prone individuals are getting nasty ideas from what they see and hear.

Or can't we?

Up to now, the dilemma has worked to the advantage of media moguls, who reap huge profits from their debased products, all the while issuing high-minded pronouncements about the sanctity of the First Amendment.

Some of us may be offended, they admit, but that's the price we have to pay for a free and open society.

It is their most compelling argument. But their failure of social responsibility is undermining the very freedom and openness they claim to stand for, because more and more of us are beginning to think the price has become too high.

And just as we've come to accept random police sweeps to rid our streets of guns and drugs, so are we becoming more open to censorship of the media. We want to rid ourselves of the images we perceive to be contributing to moral decline.

We hardly blink anymore when Michael Jackson grabs his crotch on MTV. But when 7-year-olds do it in class -- and get huffy because their teacher calls them on it -- you know something is wrong.

Howard Bluth writes from Baltimore.

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