Selling all the stories

The culture of violence and what you can do about it, according to George Gerbner

By Ross Wilcock; Shirley Farlinger

A new colonization is affecting the world which is different from anything in previous history. The major influences on children are no longer parents, school, church and community. The permanent television environment is causing a major transformation in the socialization of the species. A handful of global conglomerates with something to sell and no media experience are in control, according to Dr. Gerbner.

Born in Hungary, Dr. George Gerbner is Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania. He has been doing research on the culture of violence and has come to some disturbing conclusions. He says that one-third of the population whose lives are less affluent are represented by only 1.2% of TV characters and they are twice as likely to be described in the context of drugs and violence. This makes it almost irresistable for politicians to trade on the sense of vulnerability, fear, and apprehension of viewers by offering the solution of more jails, longer sentences, and more executions. However, crime has already decreased and oppressive methods do not reduce crime.

Violence is not a simple act," Dr. Gerbner says, "it is a social scenario." Violence is essentially a demonstration of power with victims and perpetrators. In the first six years of children's lives they get fully integrated into a system of power, believing that their place in the system depends on who they are. There is an inverse correlation between social status and rate of victimization. If you grow up as a white male you feel that you can come out of any kind of hostile or violent encounter on top. If you're a woman, or person of color, or both, you consider yourself a minority, or a victim, and begin to act like one.

So violence becomes a social training exercise which affects viewers differently, depending on their color and status. If you watch TV more than two or three hours a day, Dr. Gerbner has found, there is no way to escape the consequences. Even the news confirms this view of the world with its dictum, 'If it bleeds, it leads.'

The long range consequences are threefold:

(1) acceptance that violence is normal and the way to solve problems; violence is seen as swift, painless, thrilling, always with a happy ending.

(2) a growing desensitization--we lose the ability to empathise with those who are hurt or to be troubled by one of the most inhuman and uncivilized manifestations of our culture.

(3) a sense of insecurity, the "mean world" syndrome which leads people to be dependent on authority.

The idea that violence is what the public wants is a myth; 75-80% don't approve of the present levels of violence. Neilson ratings show a preference for nonviolent programs in the United States. It is being produced, Dr. Gerbner has concluded, because it is cheaper to produce, and travels well on the global market, which brings in half of the network's income. When the question is, "What can I produce that requires no translation, is cheap to produce and market in many countries, is image driven, speaks 'action' in any other language and fits into any culture?" then the answer is violence. One hour's worth of this kind of program can sell for less than it costs to produce one minute of original TV. Power Rangers plays to 300 million children in 80 countries. The source of evil in this program, as in many children's stories, is an old woman, Rita Repulsa.

We're facing a convergence of communications technologies with homogenized content. Democracies have never before faced this kind of predicament. Gerbner says, "There has never been an era when images of violence with their cultivation of a sense of power and/or powerlessness, a sense of meanness, a loss of ability to empathize, protest, or resist have inundated every home." Will this betray the hopes at the end of the Cold War because of an upsurge in neo-fascism in very entertaining and amusing disguises?

There is a liberating alternative, Dr. Gerbner asserts, and that is independent citizen action, such as found in C-CAVE (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment). We require a broad international coalition of independent groups. Such a coalition, the Cultural Environment Movement, is in the process of formation. The objectives which are being formulated include

the liberation of creative people from the TV formulas imposed on them, and the

creation of a better cultural climate for our children.

The founding convention of the Cultural Environment Movement will take place March 15-17, 1996. Actions and agenda are to be decided and will depend on the participants. For C-CAVE information call Rose Dyson at 961-0853.

Dr. Gerbner asks us to consider the problems and join in creating a better cultural environment for our children.

Ross Wilcock is a physician in Woostock and Shirley Farlinger is a Toronto writer and activist.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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