Bread and Circuses
MEDIA, 16 April 2012
by John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service
The predicament of humanity today has been called “a race between education and catastrophe”. Modern science has, for the first time in history, offered humankind the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of death through infectious disease. At the same time, science has given humans the power to obliterate their civilization with nuclear weapons, or to make the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation and pollution. The question of which of these paths we choose is literally a matter of life or death for ourselves and our children. It would be enormously important to have some public discussion in the mass media of the serious challenges that face the world today.
How do the media fulfill this life-or-death responsibility? Do they give us insight? No, they give us pop music. Do they give us an understanding of the sweep of evolution and history? No, they give us sport. Do they give us an understanding of need for strengthening the United Nations, and the ways that it could be strengthened? No, they give us sit-coms and soap operas. Do they give us unbiased news? No, they give us news that has been edited to conform with the interests of the military-industrial complex and other powerful lobbies. Do they present us with the need for a just system of international law that acts on individuals? On the whole, the subject is neglected. Do they tell of of the essentially genocidal nature of nuclear weapons, and the need for their complete abolition? No, they give us programs about gardening and making food.
A consumer who subscribes to the “package” of broadcasts sold by a cable company can often search through all 35 or 45 channels without finding a single program that offers insight into the various problems that are facing the world today. What the viewer finds instead is a mixture of pro-establishment propaganda and entertainment. Meanwhile the neglected global problems are becoming progressively more severe.
In general, the mass media behave as though their role is to prevent the peoples of the world from joining hands and working to change the world and to save it from thermonuclear and environmental catastrophes. The television viewer sits slumped in a chair, passive, isolated, disempowered and stupefied. The future of the world hangs in the balance, the fate of children and grandchildren hang in the balance, but the television viewer feels no impulse to work actively to change the world or to save it. The Roman emperors gave their people bread and circuses to numb them into political inactivity. The modern mass media seem to be playing a similar role.
One is faced with a dilemma, because on the one hand artistic freedom is desirable and censorship undesirable, but on the other hand some degree of responsibility ought to be exercised by the mass media because of their enormous influence in creating norms and values.
To do justice to the mass media, one also has to say that in recent years they have made efforts to educate the public about global warming and other environmental problems. Furthermore, today’s heroes and heroines are not shown with cigarettes hanging from their lips. In fact we are a little shocked to see old Humphrey Bogart films where scenes of smoking are constantly on the screen. If the mass media can accept the degree of responsibility needed to delegitimize racism, to delegitimize unnecessary CO2 emissions, and to delegitimize smoking, can they not also delegitimize nuclear weapons? One can hope for future restraint in the depiction of violence and war, and in the depiction of international conflicts. One can hope for future support for cross-cultural understanding.
It would be enormously helpful if every film or broadcast or computer game could be evaluated not only for its popularity and artistic merit, but also in terms of the good or harm that it does in the task of building a stable and peaceful future world. Of course, there must be entertainment and escapism – but there should also be insight. This must be made available for people who care about the fate of the world. At present it is not available.
Why doesn’t the United Nations have its own global television network? Such a network could produce an unbiased version of the news. It could broadcast documentary programs on global problems. It could produce programs showing viewers the music, art and literature of other cultures than their own. It could broadcast programs on the history of ideas, in which the contributions of many societies were adequately recognized. At New Year, when people are in the mood to think of the past and the future, the Secretary General of the United Nations could broadcast a “State of the World” message, summarizing the events of the past year and looking forward to the new year, with its problems, and with his recommendations for their solution. A United Nations television network would at least give viewers a choice between programs supporting militarism and consumerism, and programs supporting a global culture of peace and sustainability. At present they have little choice.
Whose responsibility is it to save the world by changing it? Whose responsibility is it to replace our anachronistic social, political and economic institutions by new institutions that will harmonize with the realities of the new world that modern science has created? If you ask politicians they say it is not their responsibility. They cannot act without popular support if they want to be re-elected. If you ask ordinary people they say it is not their responsibility. What can one person do? If you ask journalists, they say that if they ever reported the news in a way that did not please their employers, they would immediately lose their jobs. But in reality, perhaps all three actors – politicians, ordinary people, and journalists – have a responsibility to be more courageous and far-sighted, and to act together. No one acting alone can achieve the changes that we so desperately need; but all of us together, joining hands, can do it.
Suggestions for Further Reading
1. O.N. Larsen, ed., “Violence and the Mass Media”, Harper and Row, (1968).
2. R.M.. Liebert et al., “The Early Window: The Effects of Television on Children and Youth”, Pergamon, Elmsford, NY, (1982).
3. G. Noble, “Children in Front of the Small Screen”, Constable, London, (1975).
4. J.L. Singer and D.G. Singer, “Television, Imagination and Aggression: A Study of Preschoolers”, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NY, (1981).
5. H.J. Skornia, “Television and Society”, McGraw-Hill, New York, (1965).
John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 3.0 United States License.