The tragedy at Columbine High, the White House summit on media violence and the plethora of studies that link entertainment violence to real-life violence have occasioned a crisis of conscience in Hollywood.
One segment of the entertainment industry admits there is a problem. It knows that
polluted airwaves are just as serious a national problem as polluted skies, oceans and forests, and it acknowledges its own role in that pollution. Another
segment denies any connection and says it is simply reflecting the violence of our society. Like a whale that has been hit with a harpoon, it thrashes about wildly, seeking someone else to blame--parents for their irresponsibility; the viewing public for supporting violent shows; the networks and cable companies for catering to viewers' baser instincts; Congress for its cowardice on gun control and its threat to limit 1st Amendment rights.
After working in this industry for 39 years as both priest and producer, I have the feeling the harpoon carries too much truth, is too well aimed and has penetrated too deeply to be shaken off. The problem is going to have to be faced and dealt with. And eventually, I believe, the industry will responsibly rise to the challenge.
No one would maintain that television and motion pictures are the sole, or even the primary source of violence in our society. Nor does any responsible person want to bridge the 1st Amendment, impose government censorship or categorically ban all TV or movie violence. The problem is not with media violence as such but with the superficial, distorted and exploitative way that violence is so often presented. Such a portrayal desensitizes its viewers to the horrors of real-life violence, arouses the aggressive and violent impulses that lie dormant in every human heart and conveys the impression that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. Worse, it implies that human life is arbitrary, hostile and cruel, that other people are the enemy, that life is warfare and only the violent survive.
For years, films and TV shows reinforced racial and gender stereotypes. But then the industry was made aware of what it was doing and responded responsibly, with the result that Hollywood is now a major force in demolishing stereotypes and promoting racial and sexual equality.
For decades, American television and motion pictures promoted cigarette smoking. But then came the surgeon general's report, and the industry again responded responsibly. As a result, anyone who now smokes in public feels like a pariah.
If, as the studies contend and a subsequent surgeon general's report states, American movies and television are a significant cause of violence in our society, I think, in the future, they could become just the opposite: a significant contributor to the decline of violence in our homes and on our streets.
I am convinced they can do this in three ways.
First, they can take us into the psyches of the initiators of violence and help us experience the fear, isolation, self-hatred, despair and cowardice that most often characterize these people. Despite the characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, there is nothing heroic, healthy or happy about the perpetrators of violence. They are sick. Who would want to be like them?
Second, what the news clips do for the carnage in Kosovo, television and movies can do for the carnage here: show us the horrendous effects of real-life violence on its victims, their families and on its perpetrators. Of those who engage in unjustified violence, only the most dehumanized do not feel intense revulsion at what they have done. And many of those who engage in justified violence suffer a degree of emotional havoc. No wonder police departments need resident psychologists.
Third, television and movies can illumine the necessity--and the rigors--of nonviolent conflict resolution. Confronting our adversaries. Being honest about our complaints. Listening. Trying to see the problem through their eyes. Affirming them--their intelligence and goodwill--despite the pain they may have caused. Appealing to the best in our adversary. Seeking the truth through honest dialogue, even if that should demand we change our position. Seeking justice for them as well as for ourselves, even if that should require we cut back on our demands. Resisting the temptation to manipulate, deceive or punish them.
Does nonviolence work? Of course. Look at the civil rights movement, Solidarity in Poland, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, People's Power in the Philippines. And we have all seen the kind word, the loving gesture transform the potentially hostile person into a friendly one.