The Hebrew word the prophet Habakkuk used to describe the unbridled violence of his culture was hammas. It literally meant a senseless obcession with brutality, cruelty, and barbarism. Mayhem as entertainment.
Thus, hammas is a term that could just as easily apply to modern American youth culture as to ancient Judean pop culture. After all, American teens take their hammas-like prowess at the video console quite seriously. Indeed, one recent survey found that the average teenage boy in this nation spends as much as 28 hours a week killing, maiming, and destroying--as well as punching, shooting, and stabbing; flying, driving, and navigating; climbing, plumbing, and slogging--through their beloved video games. The games bear thrilling titles like Grand Theft Auto, Murder One, and Homicide Row. How nice.
When they're not playing their gory video games, American teens are watching murder and mayhem on television, or they're tramping off to see more of the same in the movies, or they're listening to loud, obscene music about destruction, devastation, and despair, or they're surfing the internet's virtual village of violence, sex, and perversion.
American households with teenage children watch an average of 59 hours of cable and network programming a week. Teens now see an average of 67 full length feature films per year--either in theaters or on video--more than one each week. They own an average of 42 musical compact disks, 16 game cartridges, and 7 computer games. More than 35 percent of all teens have their own television sets; more than 80 percent own radios; almost 76 percent possess cassette or compact disk players; and while only 39 percent own personal computers, more than 68 percent have access to the internet.
There can be little doubt: electronic mass media have become the dominating means of conveying and purveying modern culture among young people.
Is that a good thing? Are we satisfied with the way this revolution in culture has transpired in our lifetimes?
Most of us would likely answer “no” in both cases. Indeed, more than 81 percent of all Americans in a recent poll admitted that they were “seriously concerned” or “uncomfortable” with the direction that modern entertainment has taken of late. Only 2 percent believe that media “should have the greatest influence on children's values.” But 67 percent believe that it does-wielding even “greater influence than parents, teachers, coaches, or religious leaders.” The pioneering media analyst, Marshall McLuhan may not have been very far off the mark when he quipped, “Satan is a great electrical engineer.”
According to Neil Postman in his must-read manifesto, Amusing Ourselves to Death, there are two means by which the spirit of a great culture may be undermined-one, portrayed in George Orwell's horrifying novel of oppression, 1984, the other in Aldous Huxley's equally horrifying novel of debauchery, Brave New World, “In the first--the Orwellian--culture becomes a prison. In the second--the Huxleyan--culture becomes a burlesque.... In America, Orwell's prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley's are well underway toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world's most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now...reached a perverse maturity in America's consuming love affair with mass media. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to the media sovereignty over all their institutions. By ushering in the age of television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.”
He continued saying, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the altert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. We must face the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Indeed, we must. It is not simply a clever slogan, we have actually begun the process of “amusing ourselves to death." And that is quintessentially hammas.