This piece by NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin appeared in the February 24, 2014 CQ Researcher as part of a "point-counterpoint" section on media violence.
Violence has always been a fact of life and remains a reality for many people. It also has occupied a central place in art and literature, including children’s stories (“Hansel and Gretel”), classic texts (“The Odyssey”) and religious art (Gustave Doré’s illustrations in Dante’s “Inferno”). If violence is an accepted subject of timeless art and literature, why question it in contemporary modes of expression?
New forms of expression have always aroused anxiety and calls for restrictions, often accompanied by pseudo-scientific claims of harm. For example, in the 1950s psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s now-discredited claims of harm nearly wiped out comic books in America.
Recently, the Supreme Court considered similar claims about video games and found that studies on the effects of violent games “show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects [which] are both small and indistinguishable from the effect [of watching] cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner.” Official reports from Sweden, Norway, Australia and Great Britain have reached similar conclusions.
A federal appeals court rejected such arguments about media violence even more emphatically, holding that shielding children “from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming,” leaving them “unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.” That doesn’t mean individuals have to like media violence or watch it or allow their children to do so. They’re free to make their own choices. However, they’re not entitled to impose their view on others, or to expect the government or anyone else to do it for them.
If the question is whether the government should require the media and communications industries to reduce children’s exposure to media violence, the answer is clearly “no.” As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the 2000 majority opinion in United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, the First Amendment “exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature, can be formed, tested and expressed. . . . [T]hese judgments are for the individual to make, not for the government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”
If not the government, who else? The idea of a private watchdog or industry group acting as culture czar to dictate taste is both implausible and chilling. There are all kinds of ratings and reviews for anyone who wants to use them. Isn’t that good enough?