The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The mean world…or why we should all tone it down.

January 12, 2011

The conversation on last week’s tragedy in Tucson has gone from the absurd to the absurd to the absurd. The late George Gerbner who was the long-time Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at UPenn and who later finished his career at Temple University was a pioneer in the study of media influences on society and violence.

He frequently warned against assuming or inferring a direct relationship from a specific media event or elite cue to a specific personal or political behavior. His research suggested a more diffuse, but real, effect of the constant media bombardment of images and messages on individual and collective perceptions. He is featured in a recent documentary from the Media Education Foundation in which he outlines cultivation analysis and the methodological complexities of media influences on public attitudes and behavior. MEF has a new post on its website with an excellent video clip from the documentary (sorry, but I’m not able to embed the code directly to this post). MEF’s post above the clip captures the gist of Gerbner’s views:

Setting aside whether or not this individual (Tucson shooting) case turns out to be linked to any one political philosophy – and given the shooter’s apparent mental illness, it seems unlikely to be – the fact is that over the past two years security officials have reported that threats to American politicians have increased by upwards of 300 percent….

…Gerbner, who urged us to think about violence in more nuanced ways, found in study after study that heavy exposure to media cultivates what he called “the mean world syndrome” – a heightened state of paranoia, fear, and mistrust that often leads to a dangerously reactionary worldview. From this perspective, the point isn’t whether the Arizona tragedy can be linked to a single outside influence, but whether or not our increasingly paranoid political culture makes it more and more likely that violence like this will occur in the future.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.