Movies, TV & Violence
We wonder what effect TV and movies have on our young people. We are told that young children's impressionable minds witness thousands of murders in their early years. Some say it is all fiction and meaningless, others suggest that it might have some influence on their development.
Jefferson, surprisingly enough, addressed this question. Of course, he lived in an age that was not subjected to the pervasive influence of the many forms of media that are so much a part of our lives today, but the underlying principle of entertainment and its effect upon our sensibilities existed then just as it does now, and his words are relevant and insightful for us today.
"The entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant... Everything is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any singular act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak, the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously." --Thomas Jefferson to R. Skipworth, 1771.
As Jefferson explains, entertainment--books, plays and story-telling in his day; TV and movies in ours--affects us by its example. If it portrays wholesome acts, we are impressed with their beauty and influenced by a desire to perform similar acts. If, on the other hand, it portrays heinous acts, we abhor what we see, are revulsed and moved to disgust by such acts. Every experience of this sort is an exercise of our moral character even if what we are experiencing is pure fiction, because it is our judgment and sensibilities that are called into play. It is a valid reflection of our innermost feelings and the workings of our mind and spirit, whether the situation be real or imaginary. Moreover, this exercise tends to fix in our habits of thought the sentiments we experience, and each exercise tends to reinforce and strengthen those sentiments. The result is, those sentiments become ingrained in our thinking by habit and tend to function as automatic reactions in the situations we encounter in our ordinary lives.
Although Jefferson warned of moral degeneracy and its effect on government, he probably would not have conceived of the level of degeneracy to which our entertainment industries have sunk. The thought probably never crossed his mind that entertainments would be produced that glorified acts of violence and that, rather than instilling the beauty of wholesome acts and the disgust with heinous acts, reversed those lessons and portrayed ordinary people as weak, colorless and ineffectual, and ruthless, violent people as strong and admirable.
Though Jefferson may not have conceived this reversal, the process he outlined is without doubt still effective, though now the fruits of those kinds of "entertainment" are destructive instead of useful. This new entertainment tends to fix in us the principles and practice of violence instead of virtue. It dulls our appreciation of the beauty of virtue and instead of implanting through exercise those sentiments that encourage us to imitate virtue, it desensitizes us to violence and make us more accepting of violence as a solution in our own lives.
In fact, much of the violence we see in today's entertainment is of an especially pernicious variety. It appeals vicariously to our sense of vengeance. It engages the observer in the act of violence being portrayed by making him feel a kind of pleasure in destroying an antagonist who has done some wrong to the character with which the observer identifies. Thus, each observer has practice and develops habits of "justified" revenge and is able to satisfy those feelings AND TO RECEIVE PRACTICE IN SATISFYING THEM through this nefarious entertainment. He is conditioned to react to similar situations in his own life and to respond in such revenge-seeking ways.
When we indulge ourselves in such entertainments, we permit ourselves to be seduced, as it were, by them, accepting the pleasures that all fiction provides, and dismissing for the moment this invasion of our sensibilities. But as Jefferson noted,
"A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sin and suffering." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.
If we permit these habits of insensitivity and violence to intrude, we fail to develop more constructive habits of virtue and gradually allow insensitivity to become a part of our makeup. We might kid ourselves into thinking that we can watch this kind of garbage that passes as entertainment without it affecting us, but that is erroneous thinking. As Jefferson pointed out, it is not just those things we positively embrace that reveals our sentiments:
"The sentiments of men are known not only by what they receive, but what they reject also." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.
Is it any wonder that we live in a society of unprecedented violence? Should we be surprised that our civilization seems to be crumbling under an unprecedented wave of crime? When we see mothers and fathers killing their whole families and themselves, we should realize that some terrible influence is loose in our society. When we see six and ten year old children killing little babies, it would be foolish to place the blame for such behavior on those children themselves. That blame belongs on ourselves and the society that we have created along with the entertainment industry that we have fostered, that literally and deliberately TEACHES those children to do those heinous deeds, that makes murder a casual act.
The fact that this kind of entertainment, deleterious to morals, is considered protected by our First Amendment guarantees of free speech is an absurd perversion of a Constitutional provision intended to protect our other rights. The problem is that the danger is not fully comprehended. These pernicious entertainments have sneaked up on us, and we remain mostly unaware of their harmful effect. If someone were to stand up and incite people to kill the President or to do violence against some minority group, they would be whisked away immediately. But if persons lacking in moral sensitivities teach our children and ourselves the ways of vice and violence and through a process of emotional osmosis implant these behaviors into our souls, thereby destroying the moral foundations of our society, we are powerless to disarm this Trojan horse. Ideally, of course, parents and other adults should reject these kinds of entertainment and not permit their children to view them. But part of our moral degeneracy is our inability to control ourselves, much less our children.
In view of this, we should only applaud the steps in Congress that will give parents some control over what their children watch on TV. Those opposed note that children can find ways around these controls, can go to houses of friends where there are no controls. These are the libertines who are against any restrictions just because it is possible to violate them. But if the efforts to end instructions in vice and violence have no other effect than to show our opposition thereto and our firm determination to do something about it, surely those efforts will have done some good.
"If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cabell, 1818.
Can we measure the cost if our children are not only untaught, but are also desensitized to violence and instructed in its use?
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