Posted by Janice H. Kasten on 11/23/2003
In the 1960's, one of the things requested by the leaders of the Black Movement was the more frequent appearance on television of Black performers. Specifically, these performers were to be in programs where they portrayed competent, contributing people. Such programs as Amos n' Andy, under pressure from Black leaders and Civil Rights advocates, were removed from television. Their demands were guided by the belief that the way in which Black people were portrayed on television would have a marked effect upon society's evaluation of the Black race.
In the Sep 2003 U.S. News and World Report magazine article regarding the 100 documents which affected our country's history, it is stated that the words we use to communicate our ideas to one another have the power to provoke images and emotions which can revolutionize our society.
The ability of literature, whether written or performed, to transform people's values and thus society is not a radical or new notion. It is the principle upon which our American education system is based. We do not believe that human beings are locked into a set of values which they either inherited or which were formed strictly from association with close relatives. We believe that education and environment can alter our principles.
I agree with all the previously stated ideas, so it always amazes me how so many of the people who are proponents of the power of education, proponents of the power of literature to shape our values, are often the most vehement in denying that television, music and movies have had a profound effect upon our society's values. The only way that I can reconcile these blatantly contradictory notions is that perhaps what these people are meaning to say is that, books, television, movies, and music do have the power to modify our ethics, to modify our stereotypical perceptions of a race or a gender, and do have the power to affect our notions of equity, but with regards to the sex and violence that saturate these mediums, these are just things that temporarily excite us and have little affect upon our values.
This belief is not supported by either logic or experience. The reason that our entertainment is saturated with sex and violence is because there are few things which have a greater capacity to affect us, to arouse us, to absorb our attention. For better, for worse we are chained to one another for our most intense emotions. The egocentric sweetness of self-fulfillment pales in comparison to the emotions generated by the adulation or domination of our fellow human being. Logically, you do not repeatedly arouse human beings' most intense emotions without creating an even greater appetite for more stimulation. However, although we might have a longing for this stimulation, most people will subordinate these desires to society's expectations of socially acceptable behavior. Thus few of us become sexual addicts or sadists or serial killers. Hence, the assertion by the media and others that this steady dose of sex and violence has little affect upon us. But it has. We have allowed ourselves to enjoy the reduction of a human being to a sexual object. We have allowed ourselves to enjoy seeing another human being physically harmed. This enjoyment reduces our aversion to these emotions and when a significant percentage of society finds pleasure in these emotions, its eventuates in the altering of socially acceptable behavior. And we are seeing the results of these changes, children killing children, a drug-infested youths, schools patrolled like prisons, babies having babies, a plethora of families without fathers.
However, many people feel that even if this type of entertainment does have deleterious effects, our freedom is more endangered by censorship than it is by these aforementioned negative consequences. First, let me state that we already have censorship. We do not allow nudity or acts of fornication in public or on commercial broadcast stations. We do not allow cigarette or alcohol advertisements in elementary or high schools. We do not allow teachers in these schools to teach hatred of a religion or race or gender. We do not allow the advertisement or sale or consumption of narcotics. In most states, prostitution is illegal. Censorship already exists. Second, the notion that censorship of literature or entertainment is a threat to the freedom of being able to criticize the policies of our government is a relatively new concept in the United States. Up until the 1960's censorship of entertainment was considered a given in the United States. The fact that this country, the most free society that the world has ever known, was able to not only survive but thrive for over 150 years while at the same time having a censorship of entertainment policy negates the notion that freedom is threatened by such a situation. England is another example where freedom to criticize the government was considered to be very different from the freedom to make one's living by appealing to the prurient interests of the public. Victorian England allowed Karl Marx to promote his ideas whereas libidinous France banished him from their country. There are a multitude of other examples where the government was a dictatorship but there existed no censorship of entertainment. It is to a dictator's advantage for the populace to be a slave to their passions, rather than a people working together to determine what literature and entertainment will promote within their children respect for the dignity of people.
I am very thankful for such books as "Abandoned in the Wasteland". Mr. Minow recognizes and is trying to combat the crisis which this steady dose of sex and violence and consumerism is breeding in our youth.