Imagebusters

Guns don't kill people, picture tubes do. Or at least that seems to be the message behind the clangor of current alarms about television violence. Don't misunderstand: I have denounced movie violence for more than two decades, all the way back to The Wild Bunch and The Godfather. I consider Hollywood's slashes, splatters, chainsaws, and car crashes a disgrace, a degradation of culture, and a wound to the souls of producers and consumers alike.

But I also think liberals are making a serious mistake by pursuing their vigorous campaign against violence in the media. However morally and aesthetically reprehensible today's screen violence, the crusades of Senator Paul Simon and Attorney General Janet Reno against television violence, as well as Catharine MacKinnon's war against pornography, are cheap shots. There are indeed reasons to attribute violence to the media, but the links are weaker than recent headlines would have one believe. The attempt to demonize the media distracts attention from the real causes of--and the serious remedies for--the epidemic of violence.

The sheer volume of alarm can't be explained by the actual violence generated by the media's awful images. Rather, Simon, Reno, and MacKinnon--not to mention Dan Quayle and the Reverend Donald Wildmon--have signed up for a traditional American pastime. The campaign against the devil's images threads through the history of middle-class reform movements. For a nation that styles itself practical, at least in technical pursuits, we have always been a playground of moral prohibitions and symbolic crusades.

Even before the technology of movies made savagery so vivid, middle-class uplifters in America and England have been variously enthralled and disgusted by media violence and blamed it for inciting working-class youth. In his study of the 1888 Jack the Ripper phenomenon, cultural historian Christopher Frayling notes that London's penny comic weekly Illustrated Police News regaled readers with detailed accounts and artists' renditions of the Ripper crime scenes, compiling 184 cover pictures during the four years after the last murder. The high-minded were quick to link the Ripper crimes to the excesses of popular culture. Punch magazine asked rhetorically:

Is it not within the bounds of probability that to the highly-coloured pictorial advertisements to be seen on almost all the hoardings [billboards] in London, vividly representing sensational scenes of murder exhibited as "the great attractions" of certain dramas, the public may be to a certain extent indebted for the horrible crimes in Whitechapel? We say it most seriously--imagine the effect of gigantic pictures of violence and assassination by knife and pistol on the morbid imagination of an unbalanced mind.

In his excellent new history of American entertainment, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements, David Nasaw tells us that comparable fears about the impact of moving pictures on children's impressionable minds cropped up in the movies' first decade. Of the 250 films it screened in 1910, the Ohio Humane Society found 40 percent to be "unfit for children's eyes," identifying working-class and immigrant children as particularly vulnerable to the message that crime paid. "In 1907," Nasaw writes, "Chicago passed a censorship ordinance requiring police permits for films shown in nickel and dime theaters." When Jane Addams' Hull House opened a theater to show wholesome alternatives--Cinderella and travelogues--very few children showed up, and one of them, a 12-year-old, explained to the reformers: "Things has got ter have some hustle. I don't say it's right, but people likes to see fights, 'n' fellows getting hurt, 'n' love makin', 'n' robbers, and all that stuff."


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In the 1930s, the Payne Foundation funded studies attributing juvenile crime to movie violence, complete with testimonials of youthful offenders that they had gotten larcenous ideas from the silver screen. Legions of censors from the Hays Office monitored Hollywood output to make sure that, at the least, crime didn't pay. In the 1950s, Dr. Fredric Wertham made a name for himself by attributing all manner of delinquencies to the mayhem depicted in comic books. Congressmen unable to find sufficient domestic threat in Communism were able to find it in comic books.

If today's censorious forces smell smoke, it is not in the absence of fire. In recent years, market forces have driven screen violence to an amazing pitch. As the movies lost much of their audience-- especially adults--to television, the studios learned that the way to make their killing, so to speak, was to offer on big screens what the networks would not permit on the small. This meant, among other things, grisly violence--aimed to attract the teenagers who were the demographic category most eager to flee the family room. At the same time, the technologies of special effects steadily advanced to permit more graphic representations. We have witnessed the burgeoning of a genre unknown two decades ago: the "action movie," a euphemism for the debased choreography that budding auteurs throughout the world aspire to imitate. Aiming to recoup losses and better compete with cable, television programmers struck back: the networks lowered their censorship standards and pruned their "standards and practices" staffs; the deregulatory Federal Communications Commission clammed up; and local news fell all over itself cramming snippets of gore between commercials.

The financiers, executives, directors, writers, make-up artists, distributors, and others responsible should be covered with shame. But leave aside, for the moment, the aesthetic and moral cost and consider the arguments about the practical consequences of violent images. There is as much evidence as social science is capable of compiling that violence on the screen inspires and expedites some aggression in some children. After watching violent programs, many children become hostile, push each other around, stop cooperating, become more fearful, and become desensitized.

All these conclusions are contained in a recently published report, Violence and Youth, by the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth--a report that Attorney General Reno has recommended. "Depictions of violence in the mass media . . . may reinforce the tendency toward aggression in a young child who is already exhibiting aggressive behavior," says this report. "There is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior." Absolutely no doubt: strong words coming from a professional association. The report continues: "Aggressive children who have trouble in school and in relating to peers tend to watch more television; the violence they see there, in turn, reinforces their tendency toward aggression, compounding their academic and social failure. These effects are both short-term and long-lasting." If this were not strong enough, the report goes on to say: "In explicit depictions of sexual violence, it is the message about violence, more than the sexual nature of the materials, that appears to affect the attitudes of adolescents about rape and violence toward women." The report also notes that "children from low-income families are the heaviest viewers of television." That is, the children who have the least stable families, the fewest life prospects, the most violent environments, and the greatest potential for race and class resentment are the ones most exposed not only to images of violence but to the glaring contrast between the things available in their own lives and the things available in the programs and commercials of television.

And once in a while--meaning far too often--some grotesque image inspires emulation. Both big and small screens have taught impressionable people--or at least reinforced their propensity to practice--thrilling new ways to lacerate flesh. In 1982, after the cable television broadcast of The Deer Hunter, several people killed themselves playing Russian roulette, which was featured in the movie. American youths recently were killed and maimed when they lay down on the center strip of a highway, imitating a scene from Disney's movie The Program. A few months ago, a 17-year-old French youth blew himself up after learning from an episode of MacGyver how to build a bomb in a bicycle handle, at least according to his mother, who is suing the head of the channel for manslaughter.

But correlation is not necessarily cause. The notorious five-year-old Beavis and Butthead fan who started a fire and killed his two-year-old sister may have been starting fires long before these loathsome characters were smudges in their creator's eye. In the end, it is not possible to know with precision whether these victims would have found some other way to commit mayhem in the absence of the images.

The question the liberal crusaders fail to address is not whether these images are wholesome but just how much real-world violence can be blamed on the media. Assume, for the sake of argument, that every copycat crime reported in the media can be plausibly traced to television and movies. Let us make an exceedingly high estimate that the resulting carnage results in 100 deaths per year that would not otherwise have taken place. These would amount to 0.28 percent of the total of 36,000 murders, accidents, and suicides committed by gunshot in the United States in 1992.

That media violence contributes to a climate in which violence is legitimate--and there can be no doubt of this--does not make it an urgent social problem. Violence on the screens, however loathsome, does not make a significant contribution to violence on the streets. Images don't spill blood. Rage, equipped with guns, does. Desperation does. Revenge does. As liberals say, the drug trade does; poverty does; unemployment does. It seems likely that a given percent increase in decently paying jobs will save thousands of times more lives than the same percent decrease in media bang-bang.

Now I also give conservative arguments about the sources of violence their due. A culture that despises and disrespects authority is disposed to aggression, so people look to violence to resolve conflict. The absence of legitimate parental authority also feeds a culture of aggression. But aggression per se, however unpleasant, is not the decisive murderous element. A child who shoves another child after watching a fist fight on TV is not committing a drive-by shooting. Violence plays on big screens around the world without generating epidemics of carnage. The necessary condition permitting a culture of aggression to flare into a culture of violence is access to lethal weapons.

Thus when Senator Simon and Attorney General Reno denounce TV violence, I am reminded of the story of the fool who is found on his hands and knees searching the sidewalk under a streetlight.

"What are you looking for?" asks a passerby.

"My watch."

"Where did you lose it?"

"Over there," says the fool, pointing to the other side of the street.

"Then why are you looking over here?" asks the passerby.

"Because it's dark over there."

It's dark over there in the world of real violence, hopelessness, drugs, and guns. There is little political will for a war on poverty, guns, or family breakdown. Here, under the light, we are offered instead a crusade against media violence. This is largely a feel-good exercise, a moral panic substituting for practicality. But in the language of media consultants, the panic "resonates." The obsession offers frissons of horror while denying that the moralist is also attracted. It appeals to an American propensity that sociologist Philip Slater called the Toilet Assumption: once the appearance of a social problem is swept out of sight, so is the problem. And the crusade costs nothing.

There is, for some liberals, an additional attraction. By campaigning against media violence, they hope to seize "family values" from conservatives. Indeed, there is an ideological tilt in today's cultural-cleansing campaigns. For the most part, Republicans are offended by sexual images, Democrats by violence. Republican candidates like former President George Bush who would have thought twice about appearing on platforms with Madonna or Warren Beatty apparently have no compunction against sharing the stage with that bulging jewel in the crown of family values, Arnold Schwarzenegger. By raging against TV violence, liberals aspire to prove themselves red-blooded defenders of flesh-and-blood families, to stand apart from Hollywood, and to take the crusade against Sin City away from the likes of Dan Quayle. But the mantle of anti-violence they wrap themselves in is threadbare, and they are showing off new clothes that will not stop bullets.

The symbolic crusade against media violence is a confession of despair. Those who embrace it are saying, in effect, that they either do not know how to, or do not dare, do anything serious about American violence. They are tilting at images. If Janet Reno cites the APA report, she also should take note of the following statements within it: "Many social science disciplines, in addition to psychology, have firmly established that poverty and its contextual life circumstances are major determinants of violence. . . . It is very likely that socioeconomic inequality--not race-- facilitates higher rates of violence among ethnic minority groups. . . . There is considerable evidence that the alarming rise in youth homicides is related to the availability of firearms." The phrase "major determinant" does not appear whenever the report turns to the subject of media violence.

The question for reformers, then, is one of proportion and focus. If there were nothing else to do about deadly violence in America, then the passionate crusade against TV violence might be more justifiable, even though First Amendment absolutists would still have strong counterarguments. But the imagebusting campaign permits politicians to fulminate photogenically without having to take on the National Rifle Association, or for that matter, the drug epidemic, the crisis of the family, or the shortage of serious jobs. To the astonishment of the rest of the known world, we inhabit a political culture in which advocates of gun control must congratulate themselves for imposing restrictions on the purchase of certain semi-automatic weapons, or a five-day waiting period before the purchase of a handgun.

In this never-never land, imagebusting is also the refuge of the hapless liberal. When I called Simon's office to find out his views on gun control, his press official told me that the senator had no position papers on the subject. (Subsequently, he voted for the Brady Bill--itself more a symbolic gesture against firearm violence than a measure likely to reduce violent crime, though it does set some limits to NRA influence.) Senator Ernest Hollings, who has co-sponsored the Children's Protection from Violence Programming Act and on November 23 published a stirring New York Times op-ed piece defending it, voted against the Brady Bill.

To their credit, pandering is not the stance associated with President and Mrs. Clinton, who have been outspoken about guns as a menace to public health. But it remains to be seen what the president and his attorney general will do about the principal immediate cause of the mounting body count--guns.

Imagebusters may claim that the causes of violence in America are so intractable that an outraged, frightened public has no better expedient than to cleanse the media. This counsel of desperation not only promises very little practical good but also presumes that the First Amendment can and should be swept away cavalierly. This is always a dangerous course. Censorship is a blunderbuss, not a scalpel. Just which violence is supposed to be cleansed anyway? The number of drops of blood spilled is scarcely the test of an image's vileness or perniciousness. Context is, by definition, unmeasurable. Moreover, Hollywood's history of self-regulation is hardly impressive. The self-imposed movie ratings system that replaced the old Hays office production code in 1966 has steadily ratcheted up the mayhem it permits in the PG-13 and R categories. Even modest advisory notices backfire, often attracting precisely those they are meant to warn off. The only television program that warns viewers to watch with care before each episode, N.Y.P.D. Blue, has actually depicted the pain and fear that devastate friends and coworkers after the shooter does his shooting.

Self-restraint is certainly desirable. Public shaming of those who produce grisly images is defensible (though it may prove paradoxically self-defeating). But even in the short run there is far better public policy to be made. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, has proposed an efficient and ingenious means: prohibitive taxes on bullets, with the most damaging bullets taxed the most. His point is that the guns already loosed into a desperate world (200 million, by some estimates) are out there and hard to recall. But bullets may well be the weak link in the violence chain. If we cut off the manufacture of bullets, except those used for hunting, or tax them prohibitively, then the bullets already out in the world will be harder to replace.

With the NRA losing steam, this is the time to generate a serious debate about guns and bullets. The NRA would make a bully enemy. A country choked with the fear of crime might well rally to Moynihan's proposal against the gun lobby if the stakes were explained to them. Ballots Against Bullets would be a dandy organization.

Instead, we are awash in iconophobia and moral panic. Behind many a present-day campaign to cleanse the screen stands a common tone of censoriousness. Behind this censoriousness stands not only a forceful and perhaps forgivable moral impulse but the same inflated belief in the power of images over behavior. Senator Simon and Reverend Wildmon meet Dan Quayle and law professor Catharine MacKinnon on the ground of a common terror. Right, left, and otherwise, advocates of differing stripes agree on a uniform structure of argument: that acts of communication are (often or always) binding; that once transferred to innocent hearts and minds, they flow into action (or, as MacKinnon argues, constitute action in themselves); and that a certain type of message is so widespread as to amalgamate into a one-dimensional culture.

In the view of the recent vice president and his conspicuous co-believers on the Republican platform at Houston in 1992, the TV character Murphy Brown was a bad--effectively bad--role model, said to confer legitimacy on unmarried mothers, presumably either by discouraging pregnant women from marrying or encouraging women to dispense with birth control in the first place. We were given to believe not simply that Murphy Brown was guilty of immoral acts, but that she was an effective cause of them--because she was a mouthpiece for a "cultural elite."

Without question, a certain elite makes key television decisions. It is an elite in the sociological, not the artistic sense; it supports producers whose popular styles and prior success persuade network executives to invest in them. The investors respond to market conditions; but they do have a certain latitude in how to respond. (Murphy didn't have to get pregnant, although pregnancy was one way to build a story line and maintain suspense; and her decision to have the baby alone was credible enough to the show's core audience, which would not have been true, say, in 1962.)

The industry has considerable discretion about what to depict and how to depict it. But from this business truth it does not follow that the captains of entertainment have strong ideological motives. In general, they are shallow capitalists who speak the language of demographics. Neither does it follow that they are the operative cause of the cultural shifts, which they further but do not invent. The ability to further trends is no mean power, and here lies the truth of Quayle's overstated claim. The producers of television are partisans and inhabitants of the Hollywood version of slick and easy image making. Executives and producers derive their topics and outlooks from their milieux and then, selectively, amplify them. But the Quayle flail amounts to a confession of conservative helplessness in the face of a business society. Not willing to recognize that their beloved consumer economy is predicated on the arousal and satisfaction of desire, Quayle chastises the sellers.

To Catharine MacKinnon, "hate speech," in particular pornography, is an--or perhaps the--important instrument of social inequality. Denigration is more than a sign of oppression; it is oppression. In her new book, Only Words, she writes "There is a relation . . . between the use of the epithet 'nigger' and the fact that a disproportionate number of children who go to bed hungry every night in this country are African-American; or the use of the word 'cunt' and the fact that most prostitutes are women." We are to infer that the relation is causal, and significantly so.

MacKinnon does not trouble herself with evidence of the effective damage done by pornography; nor does she distinguish between pornography that is violent and pornography that is not; or between pornography whose actresses consent and pornography whose actresses do not. She tosses off references to court decisions instead of approximating reasoned argument about the causes of rape or, in general, the enshrinement of gender inequality. She does not address a quarter-century of voluminous arguments to the effect that pornography is not associated with rape. When she alludes to a few instances where rapists used pornography before committing rape, one is reminded of the anti-pornography crusaders who brandish serial killer Ted Bundy's death row proclamation that pornography made him do it; the murderer has suddenly been elevated to the expert witness on causality, with no ironic notice paid to the fact that, in his last days on earth, by pinning the blame on dirty pictures, he was taking himself off the hook.

Moreover, MacKinnon does not trouble herself to note that Japanese men gobble up pornography that is far more sado-masochistic than the American brand and there is almost no (reported, at least) rape in Japan. The reader is left in the dark as to whether she would want to argue the weaker case that the prevalence of S&M is an effective cause of male dominance and female subservience in Japan. (The argument would have to be made historically and would have to address the experience of countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Holland, which are lax toward pornography but rank low on anyone's male supremacy scale; but MacKinnon's book has no time for such considerations.) Nor does MacKinnon show the slightest interest in the fact that the nations with the most stringent laws against pornography, like Saudi Arabia, are scarcely paradises of women's freedom. Finally, MacKinnon does not know what to do with the fact that the pornography boom of the last 25 years has accompanied, rather than prevented, the greatest leap forward in social equality for women in American history. She prefers the rapture of victimization.

Of course images matter. They don't only amuse; they cultivate coarseness and stupidity and bad ideas. Virtually everyone in America gives over thousands of hours annually to the delectation of mass-manufactured icons, helping convert vast reaches of social life into entertainment, qualifying and disqualifying politicians, making Larry King a port of political entry, Rush Limbaugh a public voice, and the network news a judge of who among the world's insulted and injured deserve help. Over years of unrelenting exposure, a cavalcade of stereotypes manufactured for profit helps reinforce bad as well as good ideas of how certain people are supposed to look, talk, and think. They reinforce popular ideas about women, blacks, gays, Iraqis, Somalis. They degrade our public space and popularize idiocies of a thousand kinds. They set agendas. As great quantities of research have demonstrated, they may not tell people what to think, but most of the time they do succeed in telling most people what to think about. And these days, one thing they are telling people to think about is media violence.

In our time, the preoccupation with images, a necessary component of politics, has swollen into a surrogate for serious politics. This is particularly so on the left, helplessly self-fragmented these days into clans obsessed with their singular rectitude and victimization. But whatever the Left is, one thing is certain: it cannot dispense with a democratic faith. To assume that the main obstacles to equality and justice and domestic tranquillity are irresistible media is to paint oneself into a corner. The people to whom one wants to appeal are seen as nothing but marionettes. Rancor and futility sprout in that corner, but nothing else.

There is no space here to address properly the plague of real-world violence. But let that discussion proceed with proper respect for the gravity of the situation. As for media violence, let it be criticized for the right reasons and in the right spirit. To be loathsome, popular culture doesn't have to be murderous. To disapprove of media violence, we don't need a threat of government action to rectify morals by fiat. The proper disapproval would have recourse to categories of judgment that make Americans nervous: aesthetic and moral standards and the intersection of the two. The democracy of taste has not been hospitable to judgments of this order. We aren't content to condemn trash on the grounds that it is stupid, wasteful, morally bankrupt; that it coarsens taste; that it shrivels the capacity to feel and know the whole of human experience.

Let a thousand criticisms bloom. Let reformers flood the networks and cable companies and, yes, advertisers, with protests against the gross overabundance of the stupid, the tawdry, and the ugly. Let them demand of local TV stations that the news cameras find something else to photograph besides corpses. To the Hollywood defense that Shakespeare also piled the stage with bodies, let reformers reply that Timon of Athens was not piped into the living room several times nightly, that revenge plays were not filling the seats of the Globe Theatre during the rest of the day-- not to mention every other theater as well--and that close-ups of Elizabethan sword thrusts and resultant gore were not available in living color. If it be objected that Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther may have prompted more than one suicide by a spurned lover, as did Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song, or that more than one nineteenth century Russian youth (not to mention Ted Bundy, or so he claimed) learned murderous technique from Crime and Punishment, let reformers ask whether the questioner seriously asks us to rank the makers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Goethe, Neruda, or Dostoevski, and if the answer is yes, let that serve as the cinching of the case as to what television has done to popular culture.

Not least, let the reformers not only turn off the set, but criticize the form of life that has led so many to turn, and keep, it on.

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