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Changing the habits of the heart

In 1835, when Alexis de Tocqueville penned "Democracy in America," his comprehensive study of the values and mores of the fledgling American republic, he spoke of the "habits of the heart" that defined us as a nation. He described such habits as the "sum of moral and intellectual dispositions" and expressed confidence that America's integrity would spare the country from despotism and tyranny.

It goes without saying that Alexis de Tocqueville never sat through a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Defenders of Tarantino's singular brand of blood-soaked cinema recoil at any linkage between of graphic on-screen mayhem and all-too-real massacres like the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary. Tarantino himself said, "Obviously, I don't think one has to do with the other" and grouses that he is "annoyed" by the "disrespectful" suggestion of a connection between fake violence and the real thing. In Hollywood, it seems anyone who questions the value of such gore-filled fantasies is largely dismissed as backward and prudish.

But what does a growing national appetite for ultraviolent entertainment say about America's contemporary habits of the heart?

There was a time when some spoke of their personal interests in nihilistic or prurient entertainment as "guilty pleasures." That phrase is an implicit acknowledgment that such indulgences are, on some level, inherently shameful. One might thrill to watching on-screen mayhem, for instance, but it would be pushing things too far to pretend that jarring images had a positive impact on society.

But today, where is the shame? "Django Unchained," Tarantino's latest over-the-top exercise in blood-and-guts excess, has already raked in more than $110 million dollars and is considered a formidable contender to win a number of Academy Awards. Not only is such material considered acceptable to a mainstream audience, it is praised as high art. Some opinion-makers tell us there is no reason to be wary of movies where the body count rivals the box-office numbers. Indeed, for many, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the reprehensible and the respectable.

Our collective character has suffered as a result.

This is not a subjective assessment. As discussed in an article by Jamshid Ghazi Askar in today's Deseret News, a number of studies demonstrate a significant correlation between graphic depictions of violence and aggressive and antisocial behavior, particularly with regard to children. Movie ratings designed to shield underage viewers from inappropriate content were created more than four decades ago, and they have remained largely unchanged even as the digital age has fundamentally transformed the communications landscape. As a safety mechanism to prevent exposure to disturbing material, the ratings system has proved woefully inadequate.

It is not enough, however, simply to express outrage against entertainment that debases and degrades. Tocqueville linked America's decency to its adherence to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which includes the admonition of the apostle Paul to the Phillipians:

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

The solution, then, isn't censorship or boycotts. The answer lies in seeking out that which is lovely and praiseworthy. There is much that is positive out there, and it deserves our full support. And if there aren't enough such messages in the marketplace, people of good will have a responsibility to produce them in order to provide as many alternatives to the moral pollution that too many in Hollywood see fit to inflict on us.

The best response to darkness is light. If we're to improve our habits of the heart, we need a lot more of it.