Sissela Bok opens a controversial can of worms in MAYHEM: VIOLENCE AS PUBLIC ENTERTAINMENT, which explores the effect of the increasing barrage of violence both in fiction and in real life. Not only do films, television dramas, and video games evidence an escalating level of graphic violence, but daily doses of war and other human brutality are readily available on the evening news. As the time spent on these activities increases, particularly by children, there is growing concern about a causal link between such content and actual behavior. Bok paints a balanced picture, citing possible benefits from dramatized violence: the sublimation of human aggression and the confrontation of fears in an environment safe and separated from real life. In graphic fiction people can experience troubling emotions without the negative consequences.

While it is important to be concerned about the connections between violence and action, American democracy resists censorship. Bok’s account of contemporary governmental attempts to censor the media raises the righteous reader’s hackles. She recommends vigorous discussion in the private sector to discover where appropriate lines should be drawn.

Among Bok’s strengths are her graphic examples: the violence of ancient Roman games and censorship in Geneva during the Enlightenment. Critical commentary by thinkers from those periods serves as a corrective to the view that these issues belong solely to modern life. A longer historical view reveals that the belief that society is corrupt and children are contaminated by their environment has already passed through the recycle bin. Attempts at censorship of everything from pornography to communism dot the historical landscape. Society has banned liquor and crime continues; they have addressed the undressed in movies and children still play doctor. Will MAYHEM cause enough excitement to generate change? If so, let the games begin. A good and gory fight is always exciting.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, April 15, 1998, p. 1398.

The Christian Century. CXV, October 14, 1998, p. 942.

Editor and Publisher. CXXXI, June 20, 1998, p. 102.

Insight on the News. XIV, May 25, 1998, p. 36.

Library Journal. CXXIII, April 15, 1998, p. 90.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 26, 1998, p. 28.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 23, 1998, p. 88.

The Washington Monthly. XXX, June, 1998, p. 52.


Sissela Bok, a Harvard University-educated philosopher whose work is quoted frequently in academic literature, opens a controversial can of worms in her latest work. Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment explores the effect on American society of the increasing barrage of violence both in fiction and in real life. Not only do motion pictures, television dramas, and video games evidence an escalating level of graphic violence, but daily doses of war and other human brutality are also available at the click of a switch on the evening news. As the proportion of time spent watching television and playing video games increases, particularly for children, there is growing concern that there may be a causal link between the content absorbed and the behavior that ensues.

Do people act out what they see in the media? If they are constantly exposed to images of violence and mayhem, will not these images become fleshed out in life? Or, alternately, do real violence and its fictional clone constitute merely an accident of society’s experience, having no real impact on people’s lives? Perhaps rather than producing a negative or neutral effect, dramatized depravity serves as an effective safety valve for unresolved aggressive tendencies. Is the beast in the belly put to rest by externalizing and sublimating the human need for violence in entertainment? These are the questions that Bok explores.

As a background for discussion, Bok underscores the persistence and effect of seven hundred years of Roman games, which, some have suggested, functioned as a catharsis for humanity’s natural thirst for violence. An adjunct to public gatherings and private banquets alike, contests to the death provided “feasts of violence” for the people of the empire. Bok notes that the modern literary scholar René Girard suggests that such drama acted “as means to protect the entire community against its own internal violence.” This is an intriguing idea, well explored by the author.

The “culture of violence” that characterized Rome was pleasurable to its spectators; it did not evoke a sense of revulsion and disgust, as one assumes it does today. Even in Roman times, however, judgment of these events was not unmixed. Such notable commentators as Seneca and Tertullian decried their existence. By the fourth century, popular distaste toward the games grew sufficiently to result in their abolition in 438. The twentieth century has only the scant records of the ancient commentators to work with. These records may not be sufficient to generate accurate conclusions about the effects of such activity on the populace.

The echo of gory gladiators is heard in such modern enterprises as bullfights, cockfights, and—one might argue—in the popular contemporary religion known as Monday Night Football. Is there something inherent in human beings that not only permits and participates in violence but also actually enjoys it? Bok cites such films as Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) as examples of the depths of depravity humankind not only tolerates but even endorses. Must we agree with Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who saw cruelty as “central, liberating, and exhilarating in human culture”?

Although Bok presents this as a possibility, it is not altogether clear that violence is conserved in contemporary entertainment precisely because it allows human beings to experience vicarious pleasure in the terrifying and the terrible. In dramatization, human fears can be confronted and played out in a context safe and separated from real life. People can experience deep and troubling emotions without the negative consequences that might occur if the encounter were more than merely graphic fiction. Is that all that is evoked in these experiences, however? The answer is not altogether clear. Some form of correlation appears to exist between what is viewed as entertainment and what is acted out in real-world behavior. Bok notes that to ignore this possible linkage, especially with its implications for children and for adolescents, is to gamble in a game with high stakes. The reader is not overwhelmingly convinced, however, since Bok offers suggestion rather than science.

The second portion of the book is more successful, dealing with research that demonstrates correlatives...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)