Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Killing field of American popular culture

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Movies, television programmes and popular music do not always spur viewers to spontaneous immediate action, but their delayed, cumulative effects are immense. Television commercials, for instance, impact viewers and keep the market economy thriving.

If commercials make people buy, buy and buy, repeated violent programmes too could incite some viewers, especially those who are mentally disturbed, to kill people. A few years ago, Queen Latifa, the rap star, featured in Set It Off, an R-rated movie about four desperately seeking women who go on a binge, shooting and robbing banks. The movie was linked with several copycat fatal shootings, including that of an eight-year old girl, Tynisha Gathers of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who watched a bootlegged copy of the movie along with three other girls.

And later while replaying a scene from the movie, Tynisha was shot in the head, as it was shown on the tape, with a .380 caliber semiautomatic handgun lying in the house. Imitation and role-playing, no doubt, excite all children. Tynisha’s 10-year old sister was held in custody and charged with manslaughter, while gun-dealers and movie-makers hid behind their constitutional rights to bear arms and exercise unfettered free expression, of course, only to make money in the free marketplace.

Unlike constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, there are no fundamental obligations, except to pay taxes.The courts have been very reluctant to award damages in cases of personal injuries caused by the media, unless there is a definitive showing of “clear and present danger,” amounting to direct incitement of violence. Punishing the media for mere negligence, the courts have said in several media related personal injury cases, would chill free expression and lead to self-censorship, thus negating the purpose of the First Amendment.

Gun industry lobbyists repeat ad nauseam: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But this has not been a comforting thought to parents of children brought up in an environment of toy-guns (which look indistinguishable from the real ones) and senseless media violence. Every year hundreds of children either become victims of gun violence through media imitation or cause injuries to others.

The 1981 case of Olivia N v National Broadcasting Company, concerning the broadcast of the film Born Innocent, which dramatised effects of an orphanage on an adolescent girl, was a crying tale of horror. As recounted in the court records: a young girl is shown in a community bathroom peeling off her clothes and taking a shower. The water suddenly stops and she faces four other girls, who wrestle her to the ground, force her legs apart, and one of the assailants plunges a plumber’s helper into the girl, with a to-and-fro sex-act thrusting motion.

Four days after the film was broadcast, a nine-year old girl was attacked by some adolescents on a beach and “artificially” raped with a bottle. The attackers had done this after they had seen the movie Born Innocent and discussed the bathroom scene. The lawsuit alleged that NBC was negligent, in spite of several authoritative studies concerning media violence and its effect upon children. The California Court of Appeals ruled that if the television networks were subjected to “negligence liability,” the effect would be “self-censorship which would dampen the vigor and limit the variety of public debate.”

To win damages, the court ruled, the plaintiff would have to show that the movie incited rape. In another case, a 13-year old boy, who had watched and tried to imitate a stunt performed on the Tonight Show by the late comedian Johnny Carson, was found dead, hanging from a noose, facing a TV set which was still on. But when action was brought against the network, the court held that NBC was not liable because the plaintiff had failed to show “advocacy of violence” or “incitement to violence” leading to immediate action.

Ozzy Osbourne, notorious for lyrics such as Suicide Solution, that conveyed the message that “suicide is not only acceptable, but desirable” as a method of avoiding pain and despair, was not held liable by courts for death by suicide of several disturbed youths in 1980s.But what kind of enlightened public debate is generated by destructive free expressions such as in Born Innocent, Set It Off, or rap lyrics? Has the quality of life for orphans and women improved? Has artistic expression been enriched?

There has been growing concern about the coarsening of life in America, and many people blame the media, especially television, for widespread depredations of civic virtues.

Is it possible that the abuses of Abu Ghraib prison in which Iraqi prisoners were physically and sexually humiliated by patriotic US soldiers might have been the consequences of long exposure to senseless violence in popular culture?

How could such normal, decent people behave in this inhumane sadomasochistic way? Their subconscious minds must have been fed by brutal images, while growing up.

How ironic, to paraphrase an old fart, that as civilisation advances, civility declines. I believe it is the culture of self-restraint, not of advertisement and market-driven self-indulgence, which creates civility, social refinement.

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