The Media's Role in a Culture of Health and Security
There's a written code here in Canada. If you live by it, chances are you see beer commercials where nobody drinks. You see ads where a twelve pack is enough for a huge party. And you've probably never really noticed.
My country has a law which bans the consumption of alcohol in ads for alcoholic beverages and regulates how much alcohol can appear in the ad. Upon learning this for the first time, many look baffled, completely bemused. It seems absurd that we would have a law in place restricting advertisers to such an extent, especially in a nation where drinking is such a common practice, where it is so integrated into our culture. That very point which creates confusion, however, is also a justification for having that law. Last year, the World Health Organisation published its Global status report on alcohol and health in which it outlined the negative effects of harmful alcohol use on health, calling it "not only a causal factor in many diseases, but also a precursor to injury and violence" and stating that "in middle-income countries, it is the greatest risk [factor for disease and disability]."
Canada places approximately in the middle of most rankings within the document, which isn't all that favourable. For example, Canadians 15 and older consume 7.50 to 9.99 litres of pure alcohol per capita annually, placing us in the third sixth from the very highest amount of consumption (which is 12.50 or more litres per capita). Thankfully, we rank rather low on deaths due to alcohol consumption, which account of between 2% to 4.9% of our total deaths, but a few pages later Canada is ranked quite high in disability-adjusted life years, or the amount of one's lifetime lost due to alcohol consumption, with between 5% to 9.9% of all disability-adjusted life years in the country attributed to alcohol consumption. Needless to say, this suggests Canada (along with the rest of the world) has a rather complex problem to solve.
This is where the ad regulations receive their justification. Although harmful alcohol consumption is a health problem and a problem of inadequate education concerning the risks involved with alcoholic beverages, the issue stretches further than that. It is also a cultural problem. The content of the television and computer screens of the nation has a profound cultural impact. As most Canadians would have spotted, the opening lines of this article are a reference to Molson Canadian's "I am Canadian" ads, which are now very much a part of Canadian culture. If alcohol consumption is portrayed directly with a more realistic (larger) amount of alcohol rather than implicitly with a meager amount, the active minds of younger children will later perpetuate the behaviour presented to them through them childhood as part of a normal life with as much or more wanton disregard of the risks as the generation before them. Thus the Canadian government, concerned for the great costs which harmful alcohol consumption inflicts upon the health care system and the toll which it takes on lives and the standard of living, has reason to censor ads for alcoholic beverages as part of a series of preventative actions.
Of course, commercial advertising isn't the only aspect of media which influences culture, and sometimes the justification for censorship is much weaker in spite of the consequences. I recently watched a cheesy American action film remake from 2004 called The Punisher. The viewer follows Frank Castle, whose entire extended family is killed by a bunch of thugs at a family reunion. Castle, depressed and enraged, decides to kill the entire gang of criminals who did this, because, "in certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue... natural justice." At the end of the film, Castle states, "Those who do evil to others - the killers, the rapists, psychos, sadists - you will come to know me well. Frank Castle is dead. Call me... The Punisher." This echoes and disperses beliefs held fairly commonly throughout North America: that the rule of law is ineffective and that some crimes must be punished by death. Needless to say, these beliefs advocate a culture of violence and disorder through vigilantism, capital punishment and the violations of due process and the right to life. Censoring media which encourage this, unfortunately, is not so simple.
Enacting laws which allow the government to censor such expressions to that extent is a danger to the freedom of conscience and all related rights, including the freedoms of association, speech and the press; such sweeping powers could potentially do more harm than leaving such media uncensored. Societies must therefore devise other ways in which a culture of violence and disorder can be avoided in favour of a culture of security, humanity and equality. One such way, I believe, is through education. I think that the prevalence of support for vigilantism, capital punishment and other forms of extralegal or systemic violence would diminish if schools included more about the importance of due process, human rights and research-based crime prevention methods in their humanities curriculum. A generation educated in such a way would by consequence not produce as many works which disseminate such negative beliefs about the role of the rule of law, because although the media have a large influence on culture, education is just as powerful if not more.
Many of the problems facing the world today have some of their many roots in culture. Disparity between genders is often the product of social constructs which dictate the place of women and men in the household. Homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, etc. are targeted for discrimination because their behaviour is seen as immoral. Violence is often tacitly accepted because it was justified in a socially acceptable way or because decrying the acts of violence would bring shame to the victim and their family. Some unhealthy behaviours, such the harmful consumption of substances, continue because societies see such riskful behaviour as normal and relatively safe. Many of these aspects of culture are perpetuated through media, such as television, the internet and cinemas. Now, here's the good news: culture isn't stagnate. It will not always be this way. Culture lives and breathes. It evolves. Each one of us can work today to change our own culture simply by changing the way we behave and creating new content which promotes a shift from such worrisome values and constructs. Each one of us has an influence on the future of our culture and all others in our increasingly globalised civilisation. We can steer the world's cultures in a direction of humanity, order, health and security, especially as youth, the emerging generation. So let's get to work.