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Should another's pain be our fun? Violence: An author/philosopher explores its impact as a tool in entertainment.


Sissela Bok, a Distinguished Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, has just published her fourth book: "Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment." Bok, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, talked with reporter Arthur Hirsch about the book during a recent visit to Washington.

You devote quite a bit of attention in the book to the way Americans talk about media violence. Why is that?

So often in discussing the subject of entertainment violence I ran into very much the same questions over and over. Why should we be talking about the media? Why don't we talk about guns instead? That was one of them.

I felt, like many people who study the subject, of course we have to talk all about the factors: media, weapons, family breakdown, drugs, alcohol -- all kinds of influences on violence in our society. But in addition I also felt it's not just a matter of violence in the society. It's also a matter of what else happens to people who see a lot of entertainment violence.

So the reason I pay so much attention to the debate is that I want to get over, or get past, the immediate effort to stop the conversation.

I was very struck by how journalists in particular often wished you hadn't brought the subject up and thought of all kinds of reasons not to discuss it, including the First Amendment.

You're saying that the terms in which we are casting this conversation are part of the problem?

Yes, it is a problem. Very often in our country in particular, we bring up the question of the First Amendment and of free speech. And people argue, including people in the entertainment industry, that any sort of criticism at all is an assault on free speech. And that contributes to the powerlessness that many in the public feel.

Some would be all in favor of censorship. The many who are not worry that anything they do might constitute censorship. I think very strongly there are so many things that we as citizens can do about entertainment violence quite apart from imposing government censorship, which I very much would disapprove of and think would be wrong for our country.

What can people do?

That would start first of all with what individuals can do in their own lives, because they can't wait for cultural conditions to change in the society. They really have to, out of self-protection, decide how to deal with violence on the screen and in the media more generally.

Two things are happening. First of all, more technological innovations are coming in to allow people to screen out what they don't want in their home and what they don't want for their children. The V-chip is only one of those. There are going to be many others.

But then also we have so many other forms of entertainment. If we're thinking of small children, there are so many quite wonderful videos for them to see. There is a lot of good TV entertainment, too, though you really have to look carefully.

In addition, however, I argued in the book that it isn't possible always for families to carry out all the protection that they would ,, want. In many families both parents are working. Many children come home to a house without adults. So more is needed. That's where I think a number of organizations, community activities and forms of consumer pressure [can help]. There's a Swedish expression which means viewer power; there is such a thing as viewer power.

I wanted to argue in my book also that Americans can do a lot once they decide that a problem is important enough to join together. I use the example of drunken driving, where, for sure, there's more to be done. But we have cut back on deaths from drunken driving quite sharply. That shows that we can take action once we begin to think that there's a problem.

L What do we know about the effects of entertainment violence?

Kids are heavily exposed to media violence and a number of those, indeed, do go on to be more aggressive either immediately or later in life. And there are other effects. I talk about the great fear that so many people have from seeing so much that's frightening on television. And the callousness that comes quite naturally with being exposed to so much that's frightening. So we do know about that. We've studied that.

It seems to me that we can all, as grown-ups, decide what we want to do about this. But children haven't decided. Small children, they are being more or less acculturated to this, or indoctrinated, really, long before they can make that choice.

To me this seems almost the opposite of what we need in a democracy: namely, to give people the choice of how they want to live. Children are being denied that choice, and, in turn, are often being rendered less caring, less feeling, more callous, long before they consent to that.

Now, as with all risks, including risks from tobacco, it's not clear that everybody is going to get, for instance, lung cancer or heart disease from tobacco. But there's a serious enough risk so it's something that individuals and families should be concerned about. And I'm not only thinking at all only of children. I am thinking about all of us -- what kinds of people we really want to be.

Much of great literature is violent. How do we make distinctions between this material and what you call "entertainment violence"?

I don't think we can deal with violence at all, I don't think we can understand it at all, unless we have the great resources of works of art, films, plays. Worse than having too much violence is having none at all in our civilization.

For instance, Shakespeare's "King Lear" or "Macbeth" or Homer's "Iliad" -- the "Iliad" is about as violent as you can get, but it teaches us about violence. It makes us understand its role in our own lives for victims and for perpetrators.

That is the distinction, I think. Programs now literally assault viewers and are intended to excite viewers and to make them buy what's being advertised on the program. To make people thrilled about violence, to make them find it very exciting, that's entirely different from literary works which deal with violence.

When violence is divorced from meaning and when it's divorced from feeling, it becomes just something enjoyable for its own sake. I think that is what I mean by entertainment violence, which is so different from the violence that's dealt with in great works of art and films and plays.

What does a philosopher have to contribute to this discussion?

From my point of view, moral philosophy, I think the question of how we want to live, how we want to deal with other human beings, is at the bottom of the question of the role of violence in our lives and whether we're going to learn to enjoy it or not. What is the attitude that we want to take with respect to human suffering?

The very most basic ethical rule, namely, the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- asks of us to understand something about those others. And to the extent that we shut ourselves off from understanding other people, caring about their troubles, feeling for them in their suffering, I think we're really damaged.

The word "mayhem" actually comes from a medieval French word meaning "to maim." From the point of view of a moral philosopher again, what I'm interested in is the question of whether heavy exposure to entertainment violence in particular somehow injures us or maims us.

To me that really is one of the most basic moral issues, because at the very bottom of being able to be a human being making moral choices is the capacity to feel empathy for other people. If we allow ourselves to be stifled in that, that is a risk I don't think we should want to take.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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