Since accusing Hollywood of playing a role in accelerating the moral decay of the United States, Senate majority leader Bob Dole has come under heavy fire from the national media elite. He has been called a cultural ignoramus, a vote-hungry opportunist, a hypocrite and even a racist. The motives behind his critique have been called into serious question. According to his critics, Dole criticizes Hollywood not out of genuine concern over a serious societal problem, but in order to improve his chances of securing the Republican Party's presidential nomination.
Senator Dole does have his shortcomings, and he may not be the best candidate for president. But his argument about the entertainment industry merits careful examination. At the very least, it deserves something far better than the smug, self-satisfied dismissal it has received thus far from the media. If we as a nation care about our youth, we should give serious consideration to any argument concerning their welfare.
Interestingly enough, the points Dole makes are similar in many ways to contentions made by leaders from the left, but they have not enjoyed the same warm reception. When figures like Tipper Gore or Senator Paul Simon crusade against television violence, they are praised as defenders of America's children. When Dole brings a similar message to the American public, he is criticized sharply. While bias in the media should no longer surprise us, it should still upset us.
The most common response to Dole's argument is to view the debased content of American entertainment as a symptom, rather than a cause, of the nation's moral decay. As Frank Rich wrote in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, "I'm no fan of dr. Dre...but I disagree with Mr. Dole's theory that ugly words are the causes, rather than the effects, of American pathologies."
Such an argument sounds quite convincing. In a culture that has always believed in the power of action and the impotence of words, it is compelling to aruge that words have little or no effect on behavior. Words can only tell us what's going on in a world of external reality that lies beyond words.
Looking at the profanity in contemporary movies and the violent lyrics of rap songs can tell us something about the state of our culture, but language itself has no power to influence the conditions that it informs us of. To people who advance this argument, words are as powerless as thermometers or pressure gauges. Like thermometers, they can tell us about what's going on in the world outside, but they have absolutely no power to affect what they describe.
This model is appealing because of its intuitiveness and simplicity. It tells us that culture is merely a reflection of our norms and values; it does not have any ability to shape those values. But the problem with this argument is that it offers us a gross oversimplification of the relationship between culture and human behavior. I would submit that the issue is not as simple as Frank Rich and others like him would have us believe. The world of action and the world of words are inextricably linked. Neatly separating these two worlds from each other and then determining which exerts more influence over the other is not only a fruitless task, but ultimately an impossible one.
Senator Dole spoke about how the "casual violence and even more casual sex" found in popular culture have undermined our nation. Those who disagree with Dole argue that art is merely reflecting life in this instance. They maintain that the artifacts of our cultural production are laced with violence and sex because modern life in the United states is laced with violence and sex. they conclude from this observation that Dole's argument cannot stand.
The problem with this hastilydrawn conclusion is that the choice between these tow explanations is not an either/or proposition. The two possibilities are by no means mutually exclusive. Certainly the content of American entertainment reflects the moral decline of our nation. All of us, Senator Dole included, can agree on that. But the absence of solid values in movies and popular music also accelerates the very debasement of our society that it testifies to. Just because our culture reflects what we think and do doesn't mean it can't simultaneously affect our beliefs and our actions as well.
I disagree with the feminist movement on almost every issue out there. But I must admit that if feminists are right about anything, they are correct in recognizing that the images we see and the words we hear can have a very real impact on how we treat others. Because the television shows, movies and music that we are exposed to overflow with violence and sex, it is remarkably easy for us to become desensitized to such acts. After seeing violence again and again, it no longer has the power to shock or anger or sadden.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect about desensitization is its sheer insidiousness. It's all too easy to overlook, dismiss or parody this essential characteristic of the whole process. When the New York Times interviewed Pittsburgh moviegoers about Dole's speech, several of them argued against desensitization by maintaining that people can tell the difference between fiction and reality. The remarks of Kristy Larsen, a 17-year-old high school junior, were typical. "People can make up their own minds," she said. "I saw `Natural Born Killers' seven times. I really liked it. But I didn't go out and shoot someone after seeing it."
Thanks, Kristy. The Only problem is that desensitization doesn't always work in such a dramatic (or obvious), way. We aren't always aware of how it is affecting us, for a variety of reasons, Desensitization functions in a gradual, incrementalist way, making it difficult to monitor how we're being affected. More fundamentally, none of us are capable of fully escaping from our own subject position. In other words, we can't step outside of ourselves and say, "Ah ha! I see that I have been negatively affected by watching `Pulp Fiction.' I must now watch two hours of public television to reverse any negative effects." If only things were that simple. Not everyone can draw such a neat, clean line between what they watch on the movie screen and what takes place in their everyday life.
Some people are capable--or think themselves Capable--of preventing the unsavory behavior they see in movies or hear about in songs from tainting their interactions with others. But for every enlightened citizen capable of making such careful distinctions, there are ten less enlightened citizens who cannot. Jennifer Jablonski, a 14-yearold from Pittsburgh, told the Times interviewer about her older brother, who behaves very differently towards her since he started listening to rap music and watching R-rated movies. "He changed," she said. "Just from listening to rap, he is starting to use bad words. He calls me bad names all the time like 'ho' and `whore.' He never swore like that before."
The effects our culture has on our conduct may not always be so obvious, but they are real nonetheless. And what should also frighten us is that almost all of us have enjoyed films and television shows that have drawn on casual violence, casual sex or both. No one group in American society has a monopoly on the enjoyment of such "entertainment;" no one group can proclaim its innocence. Similarly, the moral decline of our nation also recognizes none of the established boundaries that divide our society in almost every other area imaginable.
Another popular response to Dole's attack on Hollywood involves using a time-honored liberal strategy: Cry racial oppression, and let slip the dogs of war! Frank Rich, in one of two pieces he wrote against Dole, criticizes the senator for mentioning rap groups but not focusing on white bands "that trade in equally grotesque sex and violence [and] reach a far larger audience than their black counterparts.
Such criticism is patently unfair. It is ridiculous to blame Dole for not listing every artist, every song and every film that contributes to the problem that he speaks of. To do so would take days; Dole only had time for one speech. Please forgive him if he did not have the chance to write a 300-page book on the collapse of our culture. Furthermore, Senator Dole's mention of raplyrics should not be seen as motivated by racism. It's just that when it comes to drawing on sex and violence in music, rap groups have received much more media coverage than other equally deplorable musicians.
After insinuating that the honorable Senator is a racist, Rich hauls in the charge of anti-Semitism. Rich asks himself why Dole decided to focus on the gangsta rap of Time Warner, and generously volunteers an answer: "Does the fact that its chief executive is named Levin play particularly well in some farright G.O.P. quarters?" Now, I enjoy a good ad hominem attack as much as the next guy, but these are the cheapest of cheap shots.
It gets better. Rich writes, "There isn't a single entertainment executive I've spoken to since Mr. Dole's speech who hasn't echoed Billy Crystal's comment during Dan Quayle's fling with 'Murphy Brown:' 'Every time they say the phrase 'Hollywood elite' you can hear the unspoken word 'Jew.'" Rather than refuting the substance of Quayle's critique, Crystal reaches for the security blanket of the anti-Semitism charge.
Entertainment industry executives, in applying this statement to Dole, employ the same strategy. Their message: "Attack us now if you dare, Senator Dole! If you so much as try to point out entertainment industry shortcomings, we'll stick you with the charge of anti-Semitism so fast it will make your head spin."
Such name-calling, while perhaps enjoyable and certainly expedient, does nothing to advance rational discourse on an issue of such importance. The children of this nation deserve better than this. Senator Dole has given us the opportunity to address a pressing issue that affects us all of us. If we waste this opportunity, we will certainly regret it.