Images of Violence Warp Young Minds

by the Rev. John P. Jackman

This editorial originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal on April 28, 1999, the week of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

The events in Littleton, Colorado this week strike at the heart of every parent in the nation. We are shaken by images of teenagers covered with blood and weeping in fear; we are confused as to how even the most maladjusted teens could perpetrate such a bloody disaster. Why didn't the teachers pick up on the warning signs? Where were the parents? Unconscious of the self-contradiction, the network news mavens play the most violent clips from The Basketball Diaries again and again and then pontificate about the evils of violence in the movies. We are forced to think for a moment about the amount of violence in films, television, and video games -- and to wonder how much of a role that gratuitous mayhem plays in tragedies like Littleton.

Well, it's a good thing that Leonardo DiCaprio has moved on to being a teenage heartthrob instead of blowing away classmates and teachers with a shotgun. But the issue of violence in the media is a very real one here, and it is not enough to point a blaming finger at Hollywood. We have ourselves to blame as well. Every parent I know can get pretty warmed up about violence on TV and in the movies, but very few do anything about it. Have you ever written a letter to a television network telling them what you like or don't like? And most of the kids I know end up watching the same stuff their parents complain about. It is as if we are sheep, passively allowing ourselves to be led around bleating objections but not bothering to resist. I am amazed by the passivity and foolishness of otherwise intelligent parents when it comes to entertainment. A couple of years ago, I was horrified when my fourth grade son returned from a birthday party and informed me that they had all watched Mortal Kombat, an "R" rated movie I had told him he could not see. The parents who threw the party were intelligent, educated, churchgoing folks who were otherwise responsible parents. They apparently saw no harm in allowing their children -- and the other ten year old kids, as well -- watch a gory and violent film rated for 17+ as birthday entertainment.

Every time the violence issue raises its ugly head, Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, will hold a news conference to deny that movies had anything to do with the tragedy of the week. "These were disturbed kids," he will say, "the entire motion picture industry can hardly be held responsible for what a few unbalanced kids do." Right, and Nixon was not a crook and cigarettes are not adddictive and Clinton did not . . . well, you get the idea. Television executives like to beg that television doesn't influence behavior -- while at the same time their advertising departments are explaining to corporate advertisers just how well advertising on their network will influence the behavior of the buying public!

The fact is that disturbing visual images of graphic violence do have an impact, a huge impact. The psychologists that have looked at this issue suggest that it works very much like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The overwhelming image sets off all the primitive defense mechanisms of our bodies, it overwhelms the defenses we normally use to keep ourselves safe from horror and mayhem, and plants itself firmly in the mind like a little snapshot, an image of terror which will return unbidden to the mind. I can testify to this myself, because I can recall with photographic clarity violent scenes from movies I have saw ten and fifteen years ago. How much more does this happen to children who have not yet developed adequate coping mechanisms or a clear understanding of what is real and what is not? If you take a maladjusted kid from a dysfunctional family, and let him soak up images like this, you push him closer and closer to that edge; now put him in a culture where he can get ahold of a gun and ammo without much effort, and you have a disaster like Littleton. Instead of having a poorly adjusted misfit who might get into a fight or vandalize cars, you have dead and wounded teens. Big difference.

So who's responsible? We all are. Television and films push the "edge" out a little further every season, substituting raw offensiveness for creativity and storytelling -- and we watch it! It's a little like kuzdu, it takes over a bit at a time and it's hard to kill. But pretty soon, it will take over your yard and your house and eat up your car if you don't drive it often. What used to be called the "family hour" is now filled with constant references to penises, raw humor that used to be limited to bars and men's clubs, and portrayals of casual sex without consequences. I suppose I should be thankful that it's only sex and not the far worse violence that's on at 8:00 pm. But I'm not; and I notice that in many households, otherwise intelligent parents seem to have forgotten that their television has an "OFF" switch -- or even that they can change channels.

Now don't get me wrong; I'm not an anti-television zealot. In fact, I work as an independent television producer. And I know for a fact that these excesses -- the supreme example of the word "gratuitous -- are entirely unnecessary to creating a fine, entertaining show. The alternative does not have to be yawning sitcoms, stalking televangelists, or simpering mawkishness. Shakespeare did just fine without graphic portrayal of folks getting cut in half or having their hearts pulled out of their chests. The human condition itself provides plenty of drama and tension for great storytelling without these cheap props. The television production company I work for has as its explicit goal producing compelling positive television. We've got a list of projects in development longer than an orangutan's arm and not one of them has anyone's brains getting blown out.

The heartfelt sympathy of the nation goes out to those grieving parents in Littleton, Colorado this week as they face their own senseless Kosovo, a small-scale holocaust which rips their lives and loves asunder. But our sympathy is short-lived, and soon we'll be back in front of the flickering tube being enchanted by the next lascivious tabloid news report or watching one-eyed transsexual janitors fight with skinhead classical musicians on Springer.

It's high time that parents took responsibility not only for the viewing habits of their kids, but also for letting Hollywood and the networks know what is over the line. It's time to turn shows OFF, change the channel, write the network. Did you know that every letter received by networks is read and tallied -- and that generally, a real letter is weighted as being the equivalent of ten phone calls or e-mails? It's true. And it's true that the networks listen; but most of what they hear is a thunderous silence, and good ratings for terrible shows. As long as you and your kids watch it, they'll keep running it. Turn it off, then write a letter to tell the network why!

The Rev. John Jackman is Executive Director of Comenius Foundation, an independent nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics and values through the media.