President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced the formation of an interagency gun-violence task force commissioned to find solutions to curb “the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country.” The unspeakable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has spawned much talk about the need to steer America away from a culture of violence – including taking a hard look at entertainment-related influences, in addition to gun rights and mental health concerns.
The president said the task force will include members of his Cabinet and will be headed by Vice President Joe Biden whose voting record as a US Senator earned him an “F” grade from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The working group is being asked to come up with recommendations and “concrete proposals not later than January, which I intend to push…for real reforms,” said the president.
President Obama added that America has to make “access to mental healthcare as easy as access to a gun,” an obvious allusion to the Newtown, CT and other mass murders.
Aberrations such as what happened at Sandy Hook are not appearing out of thin air. Our culture romanticizes violence, as evidenced by the ample commerce generated by violent movies, television shows and video games which influence our children and confirm our uniquely American predilection for macabre forms of entertainment.
A 15-year-long University of Michigan longitudinal study published in the March 2003 issue of Developmental Psychology says children’s “perceptions [are] that TV violence is realistic” and the viewing of violence is “linked to later aggression as young adults, for both males and females.”
The study re-surveyed 329 of the 557 boys and girls who were the subjects of a 1977 study, when they were between the ages 6 and10. In the 2003 study, the subjects were in their early 20’s.
A report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania: The Effectiveness of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Rating System in Screening Explicit Violence and Sex in Top-ranked Movies from 1950 to 2006, indicates “the explicitness of violence and sex in popular movies rose following the 1968 replacement of the Production [or Hays] Code with the MPAA [Classification and Rating Administration (CARA)] rating system.”
“Violence increased steadily in both R and PG-13 films over time…which suggests that CARA has systematically changed its criteria over time for assigning R to violent films, since it increasingly takes more violence to receive an R rating,” reads the Annenberg report.
“Especially concerning is the finding that proportions of PG-13 films escalated drastically over time to the point where they accounted for about half of top-grossing films. PG-13 has contained increasingly violent content over time…,” the Annenberg report continues.
Youth aged 12 to 24 buy more movie tickets than any other age group. It is therefore in the MPAA’s financial interest to limit the number of R-rated films, as PG-13 films generate far more revenue.
The Motion Picture Association says US/Canadian box office revenues totaled $10.2 billion in 2011.
We passionately patronize movie-industry interests who, under First Amendment protections, produce and traffic in violent content intended for our children. We allow for the emotional adoption by our young people of screen (and video game) heroes and antiheroes with whom they interactively or imaginatively commit the most heinous acts of gratuitous violence. We label it entertainment and countenance its consumption by their developing and/or innocently developmentally arrested minds.
News flash: we also blissfully buy Happy Meals for our early learners that frequently are a primary point of aftermarket distribution for the violent characters and weaponry depicted in commercial motion pictures – quietly grooming our babies to takeover the cinema seats of their aging big brothers and sisters.
In his 2009 book, “The Moment of ‘Psycho’: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder,” British film critic David Thomson argues that the 1960 film Psycho allowed for increasing levels of violence to enter into motion pictures.
“In terms of cruelties we no longer notice…we are another species,” wrote Thomson.
The acculturation of violence in our children begins almost as soon as they start watching cartoons like Roadrunner (which I loved), or can be babysat by a violent video game, or phoneticize the word ‘McDonalds’ – whose marketing to children is iconic – as is their legendary philanthropy through the Ronald McDonald House, to be fair.
Post Sandy Hook, a growing number of conservatives on Capitol Hill are now seemingly ambivalent about – and more gun-rights progressives are aggressively challenging – the NRA assertion of Second Amendment protections for the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines to the general public; seen by many as solely a campaign to drive the profits of gun manufacturers. This is simply deemed capitalism 101 and/or lobbying 101 until the moral vacuum is filled with the bodies of 20 babies.
There does seem to be a paradigm shift on Capitol Hill – or at least a rhetorical shift within many spheres of influence, with the Sandy Hook shootings being the tipping point – perhaps even on gun rights for the average gun owner.
Is there a 21st century cultural renaissance or spiritual awakening afoot? Can we generationally devolve from the Thomson model of insensitivity to violence, if one accepts the premise?
One can only hope that a growing and continuing chorus of grassroots voices, calling for national and/or states’ actions on violence, mental-health issues, school safety and reasonable gun restrictions will provide enough political cover, if not backbone reinforcement, to lawmakers to take meaningful action, now, and not allow the Sandy Hook victims to die in vain.
President Obama stepped up on Wednesday, saying he expects “compromise and common sense” to prevail.
“We have a deep obligation, all of us, to try,” said the president.
Note: It should be noted that the referenced Annenberg study was a content-analysis study, not a measure of audience impact.