Kirkus Reviews QR Code
MAYHEM by Sissela Bok

MAYHEM

Violence as Public Entertainment

By Sissela Bok

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-201-48979-1
Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Like her eloquent moral explorations Lying (1978) and Secrets (1983), Bok’s latest ethical treatise addresses the dangers of media violence and the temptations of censorship. Although debates over media violence are almost as pervasive as violence in the media itself, Bok’s objective and erudite argument does not fall into superficial extremes—either banning everything down to The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or championing Natural Born Killers as free speech. Bok (Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies) first examines the historical functions of violent spectacles, epitomized by the Roman circuses, which were first put on by noble families in honor of their dead. The classical models of Aristotle’s idea of catharsis, Plato’s banishment of poetry from his Republic, and St. Augustine’s description of the “stabbing of the soul” by viewing bloodshed likewise inform Mayhem’s modern analysis. Media violence, in entertainment or news, Bok shows in study after study, is no less a factor in America’s top ranking in homicides than tobacco smoke is in lung cancer. The American Psychiatric Association’s conclusion in 1993 that media violence can promote not only fear and desensitization, but also aggression and appetite does not, however, lead Bok to side with John Grisham’s proposition of a product liability lawsuit over Natural Born Killers or Robert Bork’s uncompromising advocacy of institutionalized censorship. Disregarding Singapore’s stringent but hopeless censoring of the Internet (paralleled with 18th-century Geneva’s ban on theater), Bok looks toward Canada’s national initiative at minimizing media violence, in which the V-chip was used in addition to media literacy education, ratings systems, and quality programming for children. Perhaps the only thing missing from Bok’s wide-ranging and objective book is a specific analysis of violence’s distinct roles in our entertainment culture, instead of statistically associating Martin Scorsese with Mortal Kombat. A deep disquisition on a distressingly fraught issue. (Author tour)