Does our acceptance of violence stem from pop culture?

Posted at 11:26 AM, Dec 04, 2014

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was perhaps the most learned and original mind to stalk the modern Senate.  We could use him now to weigh in on a topic that resists detached thinking: rape.

Moynihan was an important sociologist long before he was a politician.  He had a rare ability to frame issues and ideas in clear, new ways.  I suspect Moynihan long ago would have recognized that rapes in the military and on college campuses are not isolated institutional failings but part of a broad social dysfunction.

One of Moynihan’s most famous ideas was that when societies are in trouble, they tend to “define deviancy down.” Ideas of what is acceptable or palatable change and come to include behaviors once considered impermissible, unhealthy or deviant.

An example Moynihan used was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago where four mobsters rubbed out seven rivals. This happened in 1929 and was considered a grotesque national atrocity. If it had happened in the 1960’s when Moynihan was writing, it would have been a fleeting story. Today, the murder of seven gang-bangers may or may not make the local evening news.  We’re also almost numb to mass shootings of innocents.

Part of how society makes what was once deviant feel normal is through culture and entertainment.

One reason we can tolerate so much violence and so many weapons in this country is because we soothe ourselves with constant violent entertainment. The most violent movies of the 1950s and 1960s look like Winnie-the-Pooh compared to an hour of primetime TV today.

The most popular shows on television are about the grisly details of autopsies and forensic science. The violence in Hollywood movies is over the top but perhaps tame compared to many video games.

We like to pretend this stuff doesn’t matter. We believe in concrete fixes -- better policing, more metal detectors, more prisons, fewer guns or even more guns.

There is a parallel for sexual violence and degradation. Popular culture normalizes attitudes and behavior just recently shunned. This is sometimes referred to as rape culture.

The poster child for cultural misogyny is pop music, particularly hip-hop and rap.Lyrics teeny-boppers imitate today wouldn’t have been considered deviant 30 years ago, they would have been disgusting. 

The depiction of women in movies, TV, advertising and fashion is a case of defining deviance down. And the depiction of how men treat men women, from beer commercials to reality TV to moronic Bro movies is almost as bad.  Women are meat and men are meatballs. I won’t even bring up the issue of pornography.

This cultural regression is the opposite of the political and social progress in women’s rights. That is depicted in pop culture, too, but the good doesn’t balance the bad.

Moynihan was suspicious of the ability of institutions and governments to curb unhealthy, diseased behavior without the company cultural change.

We want the Army to solve its rape problem and it should. We want colleges to solve their rape problem -- and they should.

But we don’t want to change the channel on our own TVs – and we should.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Calling president insulting names nothing new]

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